The Bush administration has let Ariel Sharon off the hook -- for now. Israel this week welcomed the Mitchell Committee recommendations with reservations. It embraced Colin Powell's interpretation -- first a cease-fire, then let's talk settlements -- with relief.
Yet no one in Israel believes this is Washington's last word. So far, Secretary of State Colin Powell is not making a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza a condition for halting the violence, as the Palestinians insist must happen. But the administration still views the settlements as an obstacle to peace. Its new trouble-shooter, William Burns, is enough of a Middle East hand not to kid himself that Yasser Arafat will rein in the gunmen and the bombers without a hefty quid pro quo.
"Colin Powell," political analyst Hemi Shalev quipped in Ma'ariv, "makes diplomatic initiatives the way porcupines make love: very carefully." Presumably, like the porcupine, he gets there in the end. "The question of the settlements, after the Mitchell Report, is like a horse that bolted the stable," Shalev cautioned. "It is too late to bring it back. Sooner or later, Sharon will be asked to decide, one way or the other."
Next to evacuating settlements, freezing settlements is the toughest decision any right-wing Israeli prime minister can face. For Sharon, it would mean changing the mind-set of a lifetime. Under Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, Sharon was the bulldozer who cleared the ground, physical and bureaucratic, for a huge expansion of settlements in the heartland of the West Bank. The settlers are his children.
Domestically as well as diplomatically, Sharon is coming under conflicting pressures. At 73, he is eager to erase the warmonger image that has dogged him since he led reprisal raids into Arab villages nearly half a century ago. He aspires to statesmanship. He won the February election on a platform of security and peace, not sacrifice and steadfastness.
The voters still yearn, in Foreign Minister Shimon Peres' phrase of the month, for a right-wing government with left-wing policies. A poll published in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot on Monday registered 61 percent in favor of freezing all settlement construction in return for a cease-fire. Only 34 percent were opposed.
Critics remind Sharon that Begin, the first Likud prime minister, set a precedent by freezing settlement construction for three months after the Camp David agreement with Egypt in 1978. They add that it can be unfrozen if it doesn't bring the desired results.
At the same time, however, Sharon is determined to meet the challenge of Binyamin Netanyahu and fight the next election as the champion of the "national camp." Leaders of fringe rightist parties such as Rehavam Ze'evy and Avigdor Lieberman are threatening to quit the national unity government if Sharon stops building. Hard-liners in his own Likud, with Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau and Education Minister Limor Livnat to the fore, are warning him not to yield. So is the National Religious Party, from outside the coalition.
As long as most Labor legislators back the unity coalition, the hard right cannot bring down the government. But it can isolate the prime minister and turn again to the ever-ambitious Bibi. Sharon would enter the history books as a half-term premier.
His current formula for squaring the circle is to promise that his government will establish no new settlements but will continue to build to accommodate so-called "natural growth." He can't, he says, stop people from having babies. And, as he told the Foreign Press Association, he can't order them to have abortions.
Yet this is widely seen as no more than a holding operation. The Palestinians don't buy it. They have been there before. The Netanyahu and Barak governments exploited "natural growth" to build hundreds of homes. The Americans share their skepticism. So do the Europeans.
There is no objective need for new apartments in the 145 settler communities. According to government statistics, there are 6,130 housing units currently under construction. According to Peace Now monitors, thousands of homes built over the past six years are standing empty. In the West Bank bedroom suburbs of Ma'aleh Edumim and Givat Ze'ev alone, a total of 2,400 remain unsold. There are no takers for 76 percent of the 2,200 units offered in the new south Jerusalem development of Har Homa, below Bethlehem. It's just too dangerous.
In the 16 microsettlements of the Gaza Strip, families are even pulling out. Daniel Ben Simon, who has toured the settlements extensively since the intifada erupted eight months ago, reported in Ha'aretz on May 15, "Nearly half of the 15 houses in Dugit stand empty. A new neighborhood in Nisanit looks like a ghost town. It's the same in Elei Sinai. The government has built more than 100 cottages in Pe'at Sadeh. Only 15 families live there, and some of them are already planning to leave. In Kfar Darom, where more than 30 families used to live, fewer than 10 remain."
Ben Simon dubbed the natural-growth argument a fraud. In an editorial last Sunday, his paper urged Sharon to impose a freeze. "Rather than giving the impression of surrendering to external pressure," it advised, "Israel must willingly opt for moderation."
Yet even the most dovish peacenik cannot guarantee that Arafat would respond by ordering a cease-fire, or that he would be able to deliver. Perhaps the Palestinian acceptance of the Mitchell Report is all bluff. But they'd like to see it tested.