Sharon tests Bush

By pushing the limits of what the president will accept, Sharon is buying time to complete his military strategy. But is he digging his own political grave?

By Aluf Benn
Published April 10, 2002 9:31PM (EDT)

This week, Ariel Sharon ignored the first rule of survival for Israeli prime ministers: Avoid confrontation with Washington at any cost. After 13 months in office, Sharon ignited the self-destruction mechanism that threatens every right-wing leader in Israel, by defying President George W. Bush's repeated calls to start pulling Israeli forces out of the Palestinian towns of the West Bank. And as if to emphasize his folly, Sharon used the same words as his predecessor Yitzhak Shamir, who fell from office a decade ago after a serious clash with the elder President Bush: "There is no confrontation, merely a disagreement between friends."

Sharon had obviously miscalculated the seriousness of the president's demand to "Stop the incursions and start the withdrawal," made during his Middle East speech last Thursday. He can hardly be blamed. For weeks, the administration had sent contradictory messages on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, tilting between its hawks and doves. The perception in Jerusalem was that Secretary of State Colin Powell was trying to pull Bush away from Sharon, but that the White House backed the Israeli invasion of Palestinian areas, which started on March 29, after the "Seder massacre," a suicide bombing that killed 27 Israelis. The president's remarks were interpreted as a "yellow light" from Washington to keep the operation going until Powell's arrival in Jerusalem this Thursday or Friday.

But this assessment proved overly optimistic. Unbeknownst to Sharon, Powell and Bush closed ranks during their consultations last week and carried a coordinated message. From Sharon's point of view, it was a classic example of America changing the rules of the game without telling him. Bush emphasized that he meant withdrawal "without delay," and bashed Sharon in public and in a rare phone call. By Monday, Israel had ordered its forces out of two Palestinian towns, Qalqilia and Tulkarm. This move was meant to buy more time elsewhere in the territories, while heavy fighting went on in Jenin, and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) surrounded Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah and dozens of Palestinian warriors took refuge at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

On Tuesday, Sharon had widened his rift with Washington. As Secretary Powell announced his intention to meet Arafat, the prime minister responded by calling the proposed meeting "a tragic mistake." Sharon told a group of visiting Jewish leaders from the United States that "such meetings have never brought a reduction of terror. They merely encouraged Arafat to wage more terror." At the same time, however, Israeli defense sources indicated that Israel would carry out further withdrawals from Palestinian towns, and might ease the blockade on Arafat himself, prior to the Powell visit. Sharon is playing a delicate game with the administration, trying to push his limits with Bush. The big question remains whether Sharon will pull all or most of the army out before Powell comes. He seems likely to pull out some troops, but leaving Ramallah, Jenin and Bethlehem as they are would mean a Palestinian victory. It would be unwise to predict anything with certainty.

The clash with the president topped Sharon's troubles with the United States. It was not the only disagreement, however. Israel's "isolation" of Arafat in Ramallah has rendered the mission of retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, the American special envoy, all but useless. Zinni negotiated a cease-fire proposal, which the Israelis accepted two weeks ago. The Palestinians balked. Last Friday, Zinni met the besieged Arafat, after pressuring Sharon to allow him into the sealed compound. The Palestinian leader asked to consult his advisors on the text. Zinni relayed the request to Sharon, who said no. On Monday, Zinni and U.S. ambassador Daniel Kurtzer called on Sharon, raising the issue once again. "There is no point in my mission," complained the envoy, "if the Palestinians cannot discuss my proposals." Palestinian officials refused to see Zinni, unless they were first allowed to confer with Arafat to get instructions.

Sharon agreed to let Arafat's underlings in, but rejected Zinni's demand to pull the IDF further away from the compound, to facilitate Powell's planned meeting with the Palestinian leader. "The secretary could not enter the meeting under Israeli tank barrels," Zinni told the prime minister. Sharon, however, wants the Palestinians to turn over the suspected assassins of Israeli minister Rehavam Ze'evi, killed last October. Israel claims that they're hiding with Arafat, along with Fuad Shubaki, the paymaster implicated in importing the shipment of arms from Iran on the Karine A that was intercepted by the Israeli navy in January.

Despite his reluctance, Sharon ordered the army to fix the water and electricity systems at Arafat's compound and supply him with better food. Israeli defense officials say that eventually, the military forces would be moved to smooth Powell's way into the besieged headquarters.

Sharon feels he can risk a public rift with Bush because he has a trump card: Arafat. The prime minister uses his bitterest enemy as his shield, knowing that Washington loathes the Palestinian leader. Bush used harsh language about Arafat, saying he "betrayed the hopes of the people he's supposed to lead." The Palestinians, said Bush, "deserve a government that focuses on their needs, rather than feeding their resentments." National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice appealed to "other Palestinians" to renounce violence if Arafat would not. Back at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, these remarks were interpreted as a veiled acceptance of the idea of replacing Arafat. (Palestinian leaders took them the same way: Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said they amounted to a "license to kill" Arafat.) Sharon has tried to persuade Bush time and again on the need to do away with Arafat, to no avail. Last week's speech, as seen from Jerusalem, indicated a new White House openness toward the idea of ousting Arafat, although the official American position still holds that Arafat is the legitimate Palestinian leader.

According to Israeli sources close to the administration, there was an internal American debate on Arafat. State Department officials argued that Arafat's strength lies in his ability to stir the Arab "street," thereby threatening the moderate, pro-American regimes with domestic instability. They recommended recruiting Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco to attempt to force the Palestinian leader to engage in "rational" behavior.

Bush agreed to give Arafat "one last chance" to behave himself, accept Zinni's proposal and move toward a serious cease-fire. The "or else" part of the equation could mean an American resolution to displace him, and encourage a new leadership for the Palestinians. The means for such removal are still unclear. Zinni, according to the same sources, passed the threat to Arafat in their meeting last Friday. Wrapped in diplomatic understatement, the American envoy made clear that if Arafat sticks to his intransigence, the Powell meeting would be the last one Arafat would have with a senior American official. The assessment at the Bush White House is not optimistic, however, given their bad experiences with Arafat so far.

According to one version, Bush is convinced that as long as both Arafat and Sharon are at the helm, there is no real chance for a peaceful settlement and regional calm. Replacing Arafat with a more moderate leadership -- assuming such leadership could be found -- might in turn move the Israeli public to replace Sharon, and pave the way back to peace.

Nevertheless, such scenarios are still down the road. The "Bush doctrine," developed before Powell's departure to the region last Sunday, takes American policy back to the days of the former Bush administration. It sees the Arab-Israeli conflict and eventual peace process in regional terms, and seeks a greater role in the process for America's Arab allies. This approach could build on the Saudi peace initiative, now endorsed by the Arab league, as a blueprint for future negotiations. By taking leaders such as Saudi Prince Abdullah and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak onboard, Bush could share the responsibility, and disperse Arab criticism that the U.S. "is not doing enough" to restrain Sharon and work seriously toward peace. The main candy for Sharon in the new doctrine is diminishing Arafat's role in the negotiations.

The new Bush approach is remarkably different from President Clinton's. The previous administration sought peace by bilateral negotiations and agreements between Israel and its immediate neighbors, the Palestinian Authority and Syria. Arafat was seen as a key regional player, and was duly invited time and again to the White House. One of the bitter lessons of the Camp David debacle in summer 2000 was the need for greater involvement by Mubarak and other leaders, who might have influenced Arafat to compromise, had they been approached and consulted in advance. As it happened, Egypt and Saudi Arabia intervened to block any Palestinian concessions over Jerusalem at the failed summit.

The idea of a new regional peace conference, kind of a follow-up to papa Bush's Madrid conference of October 1991, is in the air. Bush, however, has made clear that any talk of another summit is at best premature. The American message to Israel is that Arafat is still responsible for calming the situation and has to deliver, while Sharon should facilitate the cease-fire by withdrawing his forces and easing the blockade. Israel was also told that taking political steps ahead of the cease-fire would help Zinni and Powell in cementing the needed security measures.

Sharon will greet Powell with a new initiative, laid out in his Knesset speech on Monday. The prime minister tried to follow the American lead and proposed "a peace process without Arafat," calling Bush to summon a peace conference with Sharon himself and "moderate, responsible leaders" from the Arab world. While making no substantive concessions, Sharon did utter a few positive words about the Saudi initiative, which he sees as the platform of the proposed conference. "As before, we're going one step ahead of the Americans," a Sharon aide told me.

At the same time, Sharon demanded that "responsible Palestinian leadership" would assume responsibility for the areas evacuated by the IDF and prevent terror attacks. He also declared that after concluding their "terror uprooting" missions in the West Bank, Israeli forces would redeploy in "security zones," whose locations would be unilaterally declared by the Israeli government.

In view of Sharon's plan, Arafat's fate is certain to take center stage during Powell's visit, along with Palestinian claims regarding the massive killing and destruction at the Jenin refugee camp, where the heaviest fighting took place this week. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the dove of Sharon's "national unity" coalition, warned in private talks that Israel would be blamed for a "massacre" in Jenin, where about 150 Palestinians have been killed and many houses demolished, some allegedly with people inside them. Yesterday, the Palestinian fighters at the camp hit back and killed 13 Israeli soldiers, firing at them from rooftops and detonating explosives that brought a building crashing down on the Israeli troops. Twenty-five IDF troops have been killed in the invasion. Palestinian casualties number in the hundreds, with the total impossible to verify so far.

Feeling more isolated than ever in the cabinet, Peres has been very critical of the prime minister's policies. He depicts Sharon's plan as diplomatically stillborn. Seeing no successor to Arafat, Peres believes that no Arab leader or Palestinian official would dare come to a peace conference without Arafat. Moreover, he sees no chance for Palestinian acceptance of the "long-term interim agreement" that Sharon proposed, which would leave large chunks of the West Bank in Israeli hands as "security zones."

His disapproval notwithstanding, Peres has decided not to leave the government yet. Meanwhile, Sharon has strengthened the right wing of his coalition, weakening even further the position of Peres and the Labor Party. Last month, Sharon lost the extreme-right National Union party, who left the coalition protesting what they charged was his "soft line" toward the Palestinians. Feeling stronger, Labor's leader, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, repeatedly threatened to bolt from the coalition. The prime minister retaliated by adding two right-wing parties, the National Religious Party (NRP) and Gesher, and negotiating the return of the National Union. The Labor ministers felt especially humiliated by the advent of the new NRP leader, former Gen. Efi Eitam, who recently laid out an extremely nationalistic anti-Arab agenda.

Peres has stayed in the government so far for several reasons. He has argued that his presence has helped to "moderate" Sharon at critical moments. His party will not desert the government while fighting is going on. Finally, the foreign minister is waiting to hear what new ideas his counterpart, Powell, might bring, before deciding whether to leave the coalition or stay with Sharon.

By reinforcing his coalition's right wing, Sharon had locked the weakened Labor Party even further in his government. His political maneuver brought two advantages for the prime minister: He strengthened the right-wing majority for any hard-line decision, while still allowing him to use Peres to ward off international criticism of his hard-line actions. To appease the angry Labor leaders, Sharon called only Peres and Ben Eliezer to a meeting, in which they decided on the initial West Bank pullout, hours after the Knesset approved the new right-wing members in the cabinet.

The late-night discussion had to deal with another explosive issue, which complicates even more the already extremely volatile situation in the Middle East: the renewed fighting along Israel's northern border with Lebanon. Hezbollah, the Shi'ite militia whose engagements with Israel have hitherto been limited to low-level fighting over the disputed Shebaa Farms area, stepped up its campaign and opened fire on Israeli military outposts and civilian villages and resorts, aiming to provoke Israeli retaliation against Syria, which controls Lebanon, and open a second front to help the Palestinians.

Israeli and American strategists agree that an escalation in the northern front would be even more dangerous to regional stability than the fighting in the Palestinian territories, since Israel and Syria might be drawn into an all-out war. Upon its withdrawal from southern Lebanon two years ago, Israel announced that any attempt to attack its territory from across the border would be responded to with massive retaliation. On one such occasion last year, Sharon's government decided to bomb a Syrian radar station. Ever since then, Israel has refrained from attacking Lebanon, fearing a second front. Hezbollah used the calm to deploy thousands of rockets and missiles aimed at Israel, among them hundreds of long-range Iranian-made missiles capable of hitting deep in Israeli territory. Thus they created a major deterrent against Israeli retaliation, but also a source for possible escalation.

Last week, when the drizzle of Katyusha rockets and mortar shells grew heavier, Sharon brought the air force commander, Gen. Danny Halutz, to the security cabinet meeting. The ministers approved the "bank of bombing targets" presented by Halutz, but decided to give one more chance to diplomacy.

So once again, Sharon found himself in need of American protection and help in the north, while he defies Bush in the West Bank. The American ambassadors in Damascus and Beirut were called to pass the message to their hosts: Avoid escalation and restrain Hezbollah before it's too late. The Syrians, the de facto rulers in Lebanon, played a tricky game, disclaiming responsibility for the attacks while making no effort to rein them in. The American ambassador could only see a low-level bureaucrat at Syria's foreign ministry, who told him that "we don't want escalation, but Hezbollah's actions are beyond our control." The Syrian forces in Lebanon redeployed away from populated areas, and the shooting went on.

On Sunday, Israel announced a partial mobilization of reserve units to the northern border. The day after, the cabinet met again to discuss a possible retaliation. But the moderate ministers managed to block it, and convinced Sharon that diplomacy is not over yet, since the American message has not reached the "highest level" in Syria, President Bashar Assad. Urgent calls were made to Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, asking their help. Ben Eliezer told Powell that an escalation in Lebanon might threaten American interests in the region. Rice promised that Vice President Dick Cheney would call Assad and try to defuse the tense situation along the border, thus perhaps saving Powell the need to calm down another hot flashpoint in the troubled region.

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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