Will the U.S. rein in Sharon?

The Bush administration gave a green light to the West Bank escalation, for now, but the Saudi peace plan could still become a blueprint for diplomacy.

By Aluf Benn
Published April 2, 2002 9:32PM (EST)

In Israeli military jargon, it is known as "the hourglass." It means the interval of military action allowed before diplomats intervene to stop the bloodshed and negotiate a political solution. Historically, the hourglass is held by the United States, which time and again has given its Israeli ally the diplomatic leverage to win its wars but stopped it short of "winning too much" and irreversibly changing the political landscape in the region.

The old dynamics of Israeli-Arab wars repeated themselves once again this week, as Israel launched its army into the Palestinian cities of the West Bank, in the largest military operation since the Lebanon invasion of 1982. Then as now, the operation is meant to "uproot the infrastructure of Palestinian terror," and the same Ariel Sharon leads the IDF tanks and troops to besiege his lifelong nemesis, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. On both occasions, Sharon aimed at deciding the conflict by using superior force and counting on having the American "green light" long enough to make a difference, before diplomacy intervened.

In foreign media coverage, Sharon and Arafat are often depicted as two aging gang leaders, locked for decades in a personal life-or-death struggle. This picture is a bit simplistic, but one cannot ignore the strong feeling of dij` vu. Once again, Arafat is held at Israeli gunpoint, and the international community is begging Sharon to spare his life. The images are all too familiar: Israeli officers, showing off piles of captured Palestinian weapons and forged Israeli shekels, found at Arafat's compound. The Palestinian leader, older than in the old pictures, is still recognizable, upbeat under siege and determined to outmaneuver his old rival one more time.

There is one major distinction, however, between the Beirut siege of 1982 and its Ramallah sequel of 2002. This time around, the Palestinians hit back with suicide bombers, who blow themselves up almost daily in Israeli population centers, killing 120 people in the last month and spreading havoc and fear among Israelis, whose Passover holiday has turned into a bloodbath this year. So far, Israel has found no effective response to the human bombs, and its military blows in the Palestinian areas failed to deter the terrorists, who only became more determined and gained stronger support within the Palestinian society.

Right-wing Israeli politicians now call openly for "temporary reoccupation" of the Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza, and some military commanders are encouraging them by hinting that reoccupation is their last resort. Is this Sharon's favored option as well? Does he have an exit strategy at all? These are probably the most asked questions in Israel right now, but nobody seems to know the answers.

Israeli diplomatic sources say that the Bush administration, while supporting Israel so far, has no idea about Sharon's direction, either. But the Americans have decided to let the prime minister have his way for now. President Bush supported "Israel's right for self-defense" in strong words at his ranch appearance last Saturday. American envoy Anthony Zinni was told to remain in Jerusalem's King David hotel and wait for further instructions. With his daily schedule almost empty thanks to the new surge of violence, Zinni met Sharon on Sunday night, but merely echoed the president's message and listened to the prime minister's talking points. Neither did Zinni pressure the Israelis to let him visit the besieged Arafat. American officials say that in a few days, Zinni will be asked to renew his cease-fire efforts, but the time is not ripe for that yet.

At the same time, the United States supported U.N. Security Council resolution 1402 last Friday, calling for a cease-fire and Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas. The American U.N. delegation managed to delete the word "immediate" before "withdrawal," thereby giving Israel a "buffer" to conclude its operation. The message to Sharon is clear: The diplomatic hourglass is running, and the U.N. resolution gives Washington an internationally sponsored mandate to pull the plug on the operation whenever it sees fit.

The Passover escalation overshadowed the other major development in the region last week. On Thursday, the Arab summit in Beirut adopted the Saudi peace initiative, offering Israel a package deal: normal relations with Arab countries, in return for full withdrawal to pre-1967 lines and resolving the Palestinian refugee problem. Israeli officials discarded the Beirut declaration as a "non-starter," saying that its demands for full withdrawal and refugee repatriation are unacceptable.

But this attitude is shortsighted. For the first time, the whole Arab world backed a peace proposal and indicated its readiness to accept the Jewish state in its midst. The move was led by Saudi Arabia, the source of religious legitimacy and oil wealth, while Arafat was pushed to the sidelines. Not only was he forbidden to attend by Sharon, but the host, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, blocked Arafat's video speech. The message was clear: The Arab states would take the lead and would not allow the Palestinian leader to shake their stability. Now, with everybody's attention focused on the Arafat siege and the wave of suicide bombings, the Beirut declaration is all but shelved for future use. But it will clearly serve as the benchmark for any peace process in the time to come.

The trigger for the latest round of escalation was the "Seder massacre," a suicide attack that killed 21 Israelis as they gathered for the annual Passover rite at a hotel in the beach town of Netanya. This bombing was seen as the "strategic attack," a turning point in the 18-month war of attrition between Israelis and Palestinians. And duly, the Israeli government ordered the army into Ramallah, declaring Arafat formally an "enemy" who needs to be "isolated for now."

But while it may appear that Sharon has gotten everything he wants in this latest escalation, in fact he's been thwarted a bit by his coalition partners, as well as by the United States. The prime minister initially wanted to seize the opportunity to expel the Palestinian leader, as well as to name the whole Palestinian Authority Israel's "enemy." But he was rebuffed by a combination of his intelligence chiefs and his coalition partners from the left, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. They managed to convince their fellow ministers that kicking Arafat out would do more harm than leaving him besieged, and Sharon took back his proposal, saving this ultimate weapon for the next stage of escalation. For the time being, he favors keeping Peres at his side, knowing he needs the Nobel Peace laureate to run Israel's international propaganda effort. Sharon also listened carefully to Secretary of State Colin Powell, who called in the midst of a seven-hour meeting last Thursday night and expressed the administration's desire to keep Arafat alive, well and in his place. (In exchange, Powell blamed Palestinian terror for Friday's incursion into Ramallah, and did not call for Israeli troops to withdraw.)

In that Thursday meeting, the cabinet approved an emergency mobilization of 20,000 reserve troops, upping the stakes in this latest military gamble. Israel cannot keep its reservists on duty for too long, since mobilization has dire consequences for the society and for the national economy, which has suffered a major depression since the outbreak of violence in September 2000. By drafting its reserves now, Israel is signaling its intention to bring a quick end to this escalation.

A well-accepted axiom of the Arab-Israeli conflict is that Israel has a "short strategic breath" due to its greater sensitivity for casualties, and therefore it aims for a quick victory, while the Arabs prefer a strategy of attrition. The spring campaign of 2002 follows those old rules. With its citizens scared to leave home for the shopping mall or the neighborhood cafi, fearing suicide attack, Israel would find it hard to conduct a prolonged war.

Operation "wall of defense," as the Israeli attack is named, came as no surprise to anyone who watched the gradual escalation of the conflict in the past weeks. Faced with more and more Israeli terror victims, Sharon made no secret of his desire to bring the war into a forceful conclusion, after giving diplomacy one final shot.

By mid-March, his aides were talking about "Arafat's last chance," as they prepared for the visit of Vice President Dick Cheney and the return of Anthony Zinni. Sharon agreed to help Zinni broker a cease-fire. He made some concessions, avoiding retaliation for terror attacks and accepting the mediator's bridging proposal last Tuesday. At the same time, the Israeli prime minister blocked Arafat's trip to the Arab summit in Beirut, where his fellow leaders discussed and endorsed the Saudi peace initiative. Sharon could ignore American pressure to let Arafat go, because he knew the Palestinian leader had angered the Bush administration by refusing to meet Cheney's conditions for a meeting, and delaying before he accepted the Zinni proposal.

Last Wednesday, on the eve of Passover, both sides were ready for the showdown. Zinni gave Arafat a de facto ultimatum: Take my proposal as a whole, or leave it and be left alone with Sharon. The Palestinians balked, demanding that political steps, like an Israeli settlement freeze, complement Zinni's security measures. Meanwhile, that morning two Israeli newspapers published interviews with Sharon. For the first time, the prime minister admitted to having differences of opinion with the Bush administration. Until that point, Sharon had consistently claimed to be in total agreement with Washington.

This time, however, he said he regretted accepting the American demand to keep Arafat intact and avoid his expulsion. Sharon has been under strong pressure within his own Likud party to do away with Arafat, mostly from his contender, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. But Sharon chose his partnership with Peres and the Americans. Now he appeared to close ranks with Netanyahu and the right wing. Hours later, the suicide attack in Netanya gave him a new pretext for doing so, and triggered the Israeli attack.

The immediate concern, for Israel and foreign governments alike, is where the Israeli operation is going and how long will it take. Sharon told a meeting of news editors that the operation would take "several weeks." Defense sources briefed reporters on a "rolling operation" that would "clean up" terror hideouts in the Palestinian areas, arresting suspected terrorists and collecting weapons. But this estimate sounds too optimistic, for both domestic and diplomatic reasons.

Domestically, Sharon risks the breakup of national consensus over the war, if he overplays the military card. Less than 48 hours into the operation, critical voices already arose from the left wing and the media. Sharon being Sharon, the critics' main worry is the lack of a clear political goal for the operation. The memories of 1982, when the army invaded Lebanon to clear a "40 kilometer strip" from PLO rockets and ended up capturing Beirut, are still quite fresh in Israelis' minds, even 20 years later.

On Sunday, the prime minister gave a televised "address to the nation," but like most of his previous TV appearances, this one backfired, and certainly did not clear the fog. Sharon cursed Arafat as the "initiator and operator of terror" and pledged to "uproot the terror infrastructure" as a precondition for any cease-fire or political settlement. But he gave no idea of how the operation would bring security back to Israel's streets, hours after another human bomb killed 14 people in a Haifa restaurant. Nor has the defense establishment given a clearer indication of the mission's long-term goals. Defense sources say that the current operation has "only military goals, not political ones," so why was Arafat isolated? "In order to disconnect him from terror," they say, unconvincingly.

Diplomatically, Sharon will eventually have to convince the U.S. that he has an endgame. At some point, as always, the U.S. will have to intervene diplomatically to reduce the current violence. When the U.S. reaches that point will depend on the volume of demands by America's Arab allies to stop Sharon (Egypt and Jordan already threatened Israel with diplomatic sanctions), on the Israeli army's performance on the ground and its care in treating civilians, and on the level of terror attacks within Israel.

It still remains to be seen if the Bush administration will try to broker a serious cease-fire and resume peace negotiations, or simply try to defuse the current escalation and "manage the conflict" as it has attempted, and failed, to do time and again over the past 14 months. Former U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk, now in Israel for a lecture tour, told Israeli TV that Bush should be more involved, but the current administration cares more about toppling Iraq's Saddam Hussein and establishing regional stability. Its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian arena depends on its need for Arab support against Iraq -- support that does not appear to be forthcoming -- more than anything else.

Still, history might offer a glimmer of hope. In the past 30 years, peace moves between Arabs and Israelis were preceded by bursts of bloodshed and fighting. The Madrid peace conference of 1991 and the Oslo agreements came only after the Gulf War, which exposed the weaknesses of both sides. This round might follow the same pattern. After all, despite its backing for Sharon's latest operation, Washington is preparing quietly for its end. Sharon himself has said the U.S. is mostly concerned with "the day after" the operations, and what mechanisms will be created to restore stability. The Bush administration broke with tradition and supported two U.N. resolutions in March, calling for a cease-fire and embracing Palestinian statehood. It endorsed the Saudi initiative as a blueprint for the future. It went little noticed when Secretary Powell mentioned, in his Friday press conference, two calls he made to Amre Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League. The league, long seen as a symbol of Arab rejectionism, suddenly got a new lease on life as the guardian of the Saudi initiative.

Does all this indicate covert planning by the State Department for a major move, perhaps even another regional peace conference, based on the Saudi initiative? That's still not clear. But while Sharon tries to buy time and ask for personal proposals from the Arab leaders, the Israeli labor party decided on Monday to accept the Saudi initiative as a possible platform for future negotiations.

So two possible scenarios emerge out of the current mess in Israel and the West Bank. The rosy scenario would involve a new deal between Washington and Riyadh, in which both would cooperate in "finishing the job" on the two troublesome regional fronts, Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Bush wants badly to fulfill his father's legacy and get rid of Saddam; it's conceivable that he might trade support for the Saudi peace proposal in order to get Saudi backing for his Iraq agenda.

But the bleak scenario envisions more of the same: steady violent escalation, with alternating periods of bloodshed and relative calm. It is hard to believe that the status quo can persist much longer without American intervention, but it has been hard to believe much of what has gone on in this ugly Sharon-Arafat rematch.

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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