Can Sharon fend off the U.N.?

The Israeli prime minister is wrangling with Kofi Annan over the scope of the inquiry into what happened at Jenin, and finds that U.S. backing sometimes has its limits.

By Aluf Benn
Published April 25, 2002 9:20PM (EDT)

The power equation in the Middle East has always been asymmetrical. Israel's military superiority is countered by Palestinian "international legitimacy," achieved through scores of U.N. resolutions. The recent Israeli invasion of Palestinian cities in the West Bank, the so-called Operation Defensive Shield, serves as a perfect example for this old rule of regional diplomacy. Using its overwhelming force, Israel succeeded in quelling an epidemic of Palestinian suicide attacks, which had turned daily life in the country into a nightmare. The military operation brought a sense of security back into the lives of ordinary Israelis, who were scared of shopping and dining out.

But nevertheless, when the heavy shooting stopped, and the army withdrew from most Palestinian towns, Israel had to fight uphill to justify its actions in the eyes of the international community, a political battle it may eventually lose.

In this diplomatic wrangle, fought over the piles of rubble at the Jenin refugee camp and in the U.N. corridors, Israel has the inferior position. Only the United States comes to its rescue, but even the American backing sometimes has its limits, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon learned in the last week. It was an up and down week for Sharon: He survived increased pressure from Secretary of State Colin Powell and found himself endorsed last week by President Bush as "a man of peace." But he was then forced by U.S. pressure to submit to a U.N. investigation into the events at Jenin, where the heaviest fighting took place during the recent military campaign. And the U.S. discouraged Sharon's thinking about ways to get even tougher with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

As usual, although Israel made great gains militarily thanks to Operation Defensive Shield, the Palestinians won the P.R. war. In the eyes of the world, Jenin has become a synonym for the entire operation, which began four weeks ago in retaliation for the bloodiest Palestinian terror attacks of the current 19-month war. The issue at stake is one of the most contentious in global politics: how to define a legitimate response to terror attacks. Was Israel's operation in Jenin a battle to uproot the "infrastructure" of suicide bombers, or a punishing campaign against civilians, using tanks and armored bulldozers? Israel asserts that the world uses a double standard, accepting America's bombing in Afghanistan while opposing Israeli retaliatory operations in the West Bank. Its critics accuse Israel of using excessive force and ignoring humanitarian principles.

Israel knew all too well that the Palestinians would use the Jenin devastation to their diplomatic advantage. However, the turn of events in recent days took Sharon by surprise. Last Thursday, the skies seemed as bright as ever for the prime minister. He scored a major diplomatic coup when President Bush called him "a man of peace," a rather unlikely endorsement, since even Sharon's most fervent backers would praise him as a warrior, not a peacemaker. As important as Bush's words was where they were delivered: sitting next to Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had just returned from a frustrating mission in the Middle East, where he played hardball with Sharon without gaining much ground. Powell returned home with no cease-fire at hand, and without much progress toward resuming security cooperation and political negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. And Bush issued his praise for Sharon before Powell could even brief him on his mission.

Back in Jerusalem, the president's remarks were interpreted as a rebuff to Powell, who tried hard to change the administration's pro-Israel policy into a more "balanced" approach. The White House spared not a single positive word for Sharon's adversary, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

What caused Bush to stand so forcefully behind Sharon? The Israeli Embassy in Washington cabled three possible explanations. The first was that Bush was responding to pressing domestic needs, in view of growing congressional and Republican dissent over the administration's appearance, during the Powell mission, of getting a little tougher with Israel. "Bush needs two groups for the next election, the Catholics and the Jews," an Israeli official told me.

The second explanation had to do with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's visit to Bush's ranch this week. Bush wanted to show solidarity with Sharon, to avoid any attempt by the Saudi leader to wedge himself between the U.S. and Israel.

And finally, it might have been simply an expression of wishful thinking, as if calling Sharon a peacemaker would make him one.

Shortly after he received his televised hug from the American president, Sharon convened "the kitchenette," a forum of Israel's political and military leaders, to discuss how to proceed in the aftermath of Operation Defensive Shield. A source who took part in the meeting says the participants felt strong, and the smell of victory was in the air. The military chief of staff, Gen. Shaul Mofaz, proposed his pet plan, calling for the expulsion of Arafat from the Palestinian Territories. Sharon embraced the idea warmly. "Only Arafat's departure would give a chance to a different, more moderate Palestinian leadership. As long as he's in power, there is no chance for any progress," said the prime minister.

Sharon and Mofaz were encouraged by reports from former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Cabinet Minister Nathan Sharansky, both of whom returned last week from Washington, where they had high-level meetings at the White House. They concluded that the Bush administration is as close as ever to seeing Arafat as a "nonpartner." Sharon promised to present a proposal for Arafat's ouster to the Security Cabinet for approval, despite the opposition of Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer and the head of the security service, Avi Dichter.

Separately, Sharon ordered the military to prepare a plan for a forceful entry into Arafat's besieged compound in Ramallah to grab five most-wanted Palestinians who took refuge there. The five include the assassins of Israeli minister Rehavam Ze'evi, who was killed in October, and Fuad Shubaki, Arafat's paymaster and the man in charge of the Palestinian arms ship Karine A, intercepted in January. Sharon, vowing to bring the assassins to Israeli justice, has demanded their extradition, ignoring Arafat's improvised trial of the five. In the meantime, the presence of the wanted men in Arafat's headquarters serves as an excuse to keep the Palestinian leader under house arrest. The military started looking for ways to enter the compound without harming Arafat.

The tide turned only moments after the "kitchenette" meeting, when Uri Shani, Sharon's top aide, came to see his boss and submitted his resignation. The prime minister argued into the wee hours of the morning trying to get his aide to stay on the job, to no avail. Shani's move came as a big surprise. He was widely seen as Sharon's right-hand man, the ultimate handler and political fixer. Why he deserted remains unclear. Among the explanations given to the media were tempting job offers in the private sector, a criminal investigation of campaign financing, internal fighting with Sharon's other confidants and Shani's disagreement over his master's visible political turn to the right. He had been a strong advocate of the alliance with the Labor Party. Whatever his reason, Shani abandoned Sharon's ship at a critical moment and seemed to signal his lack of faith in the prime minister's chances for a second term. Sharon appointed his personal lawyer, Dov Weisglass, to replace Shani.

The next morning another visitor to Sharon's office met with the prime minister's aides, and later went to Tel Aviv to call on the defense minister. The guest was the American assistant secretary of state for Near-Eastern affairs, Bill Burns, who remained in the region after Powell's departure. Burns told Israel to avoid breaking into Arafat's headquarters, warning that any mishap to Arafat might have dire consequences.

Burns' other message was equally bold. He told his interlocutors that Israel should accept a U.N. investigative team in Jenin. The matter was brought to the Security Council, and the U.S. decided not to veto it. "We're your friends," Burns told Ben Eliezer, according to an informed Israeli source. Burns went on to say that while the U.S. had no objections to Israel's military operation, the administration thought Sharon should agree to a U.N. fact-finding mission. Such a meeting, Burns argued, would air the Palestinians' complaints but also let Israel show the world what the U.S. already knew -- how much the country had suffered from terror.

For Israel, any U.N. involvement is bad news. Traditionally, Israel finds itself isolated in any international body governed by a parliamentary vote of states. The "automatic majority" supports the Arab side, and the staff is mostly composed of Europeans and Third World nationals, whose governments generally do not approve of Israel's policies. Therefore, the Palestinians always aim at "internationalizing" the conflict and bringing in the U.N. True to form, as Israel gained the upper hand militarily, the Security Council was quick to intervene and call it quits, just as it did in the wars of past decades. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding father, summed his country's relations with the international organization in his famous phrase "U.M.-Shmoom." (U.M. is the Hebrew acronym of the U.N.) This attitude has barely changed ever since.

Israel's only shield is the American veto power in the Security Council, but Washington is careful not to overuse it. And so, when Sharon learned of the administration's decision to support the investigation in Jenin, he gave his reluctant consent. An American-cooked compromise set the terms: It would be a "fact-finding team" and not an "investigative commission" with legal powers, and its mandate would stem from the U.N. secretary-general's appointment, and not from a Security Council resolution. "I'm very concerned about the team, but it was the lesser evil," Sharon admitted Monday, speaking to the parliament committee on defense and foreign relations.

Sharon's counterattack came on Sunday. His chosen target was Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N.'s special coordinator in the Middle East. Visiting Jenin the previous Thursday, following the Israeli Defense Forces withdrawal, Roed-Larsen issued a strong condemnation of Israel, accusing it of "humanitarian crimes" by preventing aid and rescue missions from entering the refugee camp during the operation. The Norwegian diplomat spoke about "horror beyond belief" and "earthquake-like destruction" in Jenin. Sharon struck back quickly. Opening the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, he ordered his ministers to avoid any contact with the U.N. emissary, and said he was considering declaring Roed-Larsen "persona non grata" in Israel, or demanding his replacement. The ministers echoed his line, and competed with each other in cursing the U.N. representative and pledging never to talk to him again.

For Sharon, it was not merely a tit-for-tat reprisal, but also a settling of an old score. In 1993, Roed-Larsen stood at the cradle of the Oslo peace process, Sharon's anathema. By ousting him, Sharon would get rid of a living symbol of the detested agreement with the PLO. Not surprisingly, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who was the Israeli partner in Oslo, was quick to issue a statement of support for Roed-Larsen, calling him "a unique contributor to peace, despite his nasty remark." A day later, a right-wing newspaper exposed a $100,000 grant given to Roed-Larsen by the "Peres Center for Peace" three years ago.

Roed-Larsen's fate remains unclear. He would find it hard to fulfill his mission without talking to Israeli officials. On the other hand, Peres, who returned on Wednesday from a week abroad, might try to save his friend's job and plead with Sharon to spare him.

Sharon, nevertheless, was not satisfied with his censure of the U.N. special coordinator and moved even further to the political right. Provoked by a Labor minister, he declared that during his term in office "there would be no discussion" of evacuating Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. "Uprooting a Jewish settlement on a Jewish land? What are you talking about? This issue will not be brought to this government's discussion, period," he boasted to his ministers. Sharon never planned to remove any settlement, but he blurred his position on the issue, in order to buy himself room for diplomacy.

By Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced the composition of the Jenin fact-finding team, and said it should start its work without delay. The chosen members are Finland's former president, Martti Ahtisaari, as chairman; Sadako Ogata, former U.N. high commissioner for refugees; and Cornelio Sommaruga, former president of the International Red Cross. Two advisors were also named, American retired Gen. Bill Nash on military affairs, and the Irish Peter Fitzgerald on police matters.

To deal with this group, Sharon and Ben Eliezer appointed the defense ministry's best legal mind, Moshe Kochanovsky. Nominally the ministry's deputy director-general for special tasks, Kochanovsky handled some of the country's most delicate missions. He headed the "boundaries committee" during peace negotiations with Jordan and Syria, and then negotiated the withdrawal line from Lebanon with the U.N. (dealing with Roed-Larsen, of all people). Last year, he coordinated Israel's contacts with the Mitchell Commission, appointed to find out why the Israeli-Palestinian violence broke out, and how to prevent its recurrence. His new appointment was natural.

Armed with his two foreign advisors, British international law experts Elihu Lauterpacht and Daniel Bethlehem, and a group of Israeli security, legal and diplomatic officials, Kochanovsky sat down to work. The Israeli intention was to present the U.N. team with tons of information about Jenin as "the capital of suicide bombing," to portray the "high standards of fighting" of the IDF and to show the evils of Palestinian terrorism.

But when legal expert Daniel Bethlehem was asked for his advice, he told his colleagues that he smelled a rat. "This inquiry is much more serious, and poses much greater risks for Israel, than the Mitchell inquiry," he wrote to Kochanovsky. "If the committee's findings uphold the allegations [of war crimes] against Israel, even on poor reasoning, this will fundamentally alter the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and make it impossible for Israel to resist calls for an international force, the immediate establishment of a Palestinian State, and the prosecution of individuals said to have committed the alleged acts." Moreover, the Cambridge international law scholar criticized the Israeli decision to accept the committee. "I am dismayed that the political level could have agreed to such a procedure without first consulting its officials/advisers and having a clear sense of how the process will unfold," he went on writing.

The alarmed Kochanovsky began ringing every possible bell, warning his political masters away from a dangerous trap. In a confidential memo to Sharon, dated Tuesday, Kochanovsky quoted Bethlehem's warning, and found a series of flaws in the team's mandate. If the mission is meant to find facts about a military campaign, why is its focus on human rights? From a suspicious Israeli perspective, there could be only one explanation: The Jenin team is a setup in diplomatic disguise, meant to convict Israel.

Sharon was quick to react. By Tuesday afternoon, he had relayed his concerns to Burns, who had come to bid farewell, and later called Powell to ask for American help. In the evening, he convened a quick consultation, in which he accepted the professional advice, and withheld any cooperation with the team until the U.N. changes its mandate and personal composition. Annan agreed to promote the American ex-general to full membership, but said that the team would arrive at the scene by this weekend, with or without Israel's consent. In response, Sharon dispatched Kochanovsky and two other government legal experts to New York to negotiate more acceptable terms of reference. Meeting Israeli Ambassador Yehuda Lancry at the U.N., on Tuesday, Annan made clear that he would not change the team's composition, but left room for modifying the terms of reference.

Israeli officials are quite confident that the Palestinian claims of a "massacre" can be disproved. Their main concern is that the committee's findings on other issues -- such as using excessive force, bulldozing homes and blocking humanitarian assistance -- could be used as a basis for future war-crimes indictments, in The Hague and elsewhere. Therefore, the Israeli legal team's instructions were to press the need for "confidentiality," meaning that whatever the U.N. finds would be inadmissible in any other procedure. "We have checked the terms of reference of past U.N. fact-finding missions, and all we ask is an equal treatment," an Israeli official told me. "The team's inquiry should be limited to the Jenin refugee camp, and it should present only facts, and not conclusions."

With the legal battle deferred to Thursday in New York, the situation on the ground remained in stalemate. Burns left and no other emissary was sent to replace him, thus leaving the Israelis and Palestinians without American babysitting. Washington decided to keep a low profile, until Israel completes its withdrawal from all Palestinian areas. Sharon eased Arafat's isolation and allowed European visitors to enter his compound. And on Wednesday, Colin Powell asserted that the U.N. inquiry is in Israel's interest and encouraged cooperation.

Still, there remains considerable uneasiness over what the U.N. inquiry may bring. "Israel has already lost the P.R. battle," says Daniel Bethlehem. "Whether or not there was a massacre in Jenin as the Palestinians contend, there is a widely held perception in the international community that Israel's use of force in Jenin was excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate and that this was compounded by a failure to provide or allow the provision of humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of the conflict. Even assuming that all the facts are in Israel's favor, it will be difficult to redress this balance".

And there is still no solution in sight for the two hottest flash points, Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Israel wants to get hold of Palestinians who hide inside both sites. Sharon agreed to let the Bethlehem fighters choose expulsion over Israeli detention (they rejected it), but demands an Israeli trial for the Ramallah five. So far, he has rejected ideas for a third-party trial along the "Lockerbie model."

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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