Is Ariel Sharon on the verge?

U.S. support for the Israeli government is waning and the prime minister's strange bedfellows left-right ruling coalition is agitated. Will Sharon become the war against terrorism's first victim?

Published October 25, 2001 8:15PM (EDT)

Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel, is in trouble. In the eighth month of his rule, he is not keeping his main election promise to bring security to the Israelis, and he cannot demonstrate any tangible achievement. Palestinian terrorism is continuing, the economic situation is getting worse and during recent weeks there has been friction in relations with the U.S., Israel's principal ally.

The assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi last week made Sharon's difficulties even clearer. Sharon took Zeevi's assassination hard; he knew Zeevi from decades of military service. He realized that he had to react strongly, but understands that the effectiveness of his responses is limited. The solution he found was to send tanks to the outskirts of the Palestinian cities in the West Bank, and to operate within the cities, for the first time since they were handed over to Palestinian control in 1996. The operation was meant to arrest Palestinians suspected of terrorism, and to signal to the Palestinian Authority chairman, Yasser Arafat, that if the attacks continue, his regime is in danger.

Sharon inherited the conflict with the Palestinians from his predecessor, Ehud Barak, and since his election has tried almost everything against them: closures, encirclements, assassinations, bombings from helicopters, military incursions into areas under full Palestinian control. On the other hand, he has also agreed to meetings between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat, to an easing of economic sanctions, to the framework for peace laid out by the Mitchell and Tenet plans and to cease-fires. He even announced his willingness to establish a Palestinian state. The result of these steps, both the aggressive and the diplomatic ones, has been virtually nil.

Sharon has no freedom of action. If he could, he would act to replace Arafat. He thinks Arafat is not a likely partner for an agreement, that he is interested only in continuing the conflict. But the U.S. administration is preventing him from landing a military blow that would bring about the collapse of the P.A. and the elimination of Arafat from the political scene. President Bush is not a big fan of Arafat's, and since his election has refused to meet him, but the U.S. believes the collapse of the P.A. would undermine regional stability.

Sharon's other block is Arafat himself. The Palestinian leader does not appear willing to take any step that would make it easier for the prime minister to revive the political negotiations. Arafat is not dismantling the terrorist organizations, and is not arresting their leaders. In the days preceding the murder of Zeevi, Arafat reached an agreement with Hamas that it would cease attacks inside Israel. But that is not enough for Sharon. He demands a complete cessation of shooting and incitement before any negotiations.

Sharon has political problems at home, too. He established a national unity government and brought into it both the leftist Peres and the leaders of the extreme right, such as the murdered Zeevi. Everyone wants to remain in the coalition, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the package together. On the right -- Sharon's home field -- they are demanding that he strengthen the security policy and remove Arafat from the territories. On the left, Peres, who still sees Arafat as a partner for peace, continues to favor rapprochement with the Palestinians and threatens to leave the government if talks are stopped.

The prime minister needs the international standing of Peres, who is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. But Sharon knows that in order to survive in the government, he needs the support of his own right wing, which is threatening to replace him with his greatest rival, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The assassination of Zeevi brought the extreme right, which was on its way out, back into the government at the last moment and thus broadened Sharon's freedom of maneuver but it also increased his dependence on members of the right.

The attacks of Sept. 11 embroiled Sharon in a new problem -- conflict with the U.S. administration. Sharon made a mistake in his reading of the new situation. He had hoped that the U.S., struck by terror and desiring revenge, would back Israel's aggressive moves in the territories. But the Americans have a different order of priorities: They need the support of the Arab and Muslim world in their attack on Afghanistan. Instead of giving Sharon a free hand against Arafat, they are pressuring him to calm the conflict.

During the next few days, the tanks will move out. On Nov. 11, Sharon will meet Bush, and the two will try to straighten things out. But the warmth that characterized the U.S. attitude toward Sharon during the first months of his government has been replaced by mutual suspicion, which will from now on hang over them like a heavy cloud.

Reprinted with permission from The Guardian.

By Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


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