The "moderate" Bulldozer

The Likud vote rejecting Palestinian statehood allows Ariel Sharon to present himself as a centrist -- an image his staunch ally George Bush is happy to affirm.


Aluf Benn
May 14, 2002 11:15PM (UTC)

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has one goal: to survive in power as long as possible without giving any territorial concessions to the Palestinians or dismantling any Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. To achieve this goal, Sharon has relied on two things: the "national unity" coalition he heads and the support of U.S. President George W. Bush. While keeping the coalition together is an endless task, Bush increasingly seems like an ally Sharon can count on. Indeed, in many ways Bush and Sharon are strikingly similar and have strikingly similar views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two men seem to genuinely like each other. Both are simple men with simple worldviews, who distrust idealists and believe that force is the final arbiter. Profoundly conservative, neither is given to risky initiatives. These facts, and potent domestic political considerations, mean that neither man has much interest in jump-starting the peace process. Specifically, Sharon knows that Bush is unlikely to push him to make any genuine concessions to the Palestinians.

Sharon is likely to need Bush's unflagging support, because Israeli politics is pushing him to the right. During his turbulent 14 months at the helm, Sharon has managed to stay politically alive, zigzagging to the right and left and crossing endless political and diplomatic minefields along the way. The events of the past two weeks put Sharon's leadership through multiple tests. He did well with Bush in Washington, successfully selling his plan to reform the Palestinian Authority and avoiding pressure from Washington to accept some version of the Saudi peace plan (which would inevitably mean removing settlements). He also continued to impress the Israeli public, which rewarded his massive military incursion into the West Bank with high approval ratings. But at the end of the week this master of political juggling and maneuvering was handed a stinging defeat by his own party.

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Former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been hounding Sharon from the right for months, accusing him of being too soft on terrorism. And at the meeting of the Likud Party's central committee on Sunday, which signaled the opening of Israel's next election season, Netanyahu successfully outflanked Sharon. The committee, which is dominated by Netanyahu supporters, voted decisively for a Netanyahu-sponsored resolution opposing any future Palestinian state, rejecting Sharon's plea not to take any decisions that might bind his government's freedom of action. Sharon stated he supported Palestinian statehood last September, but has taken some steps back since. Recently, he has demanded that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority be completely reconstituted before steps toward that goal are taken -- a position that leaves some doubtful how committed he really is to the idea.

The contentious meeting, marked by heckling on both sides, is the first time the two contenders have verbally attacked each other over the Israeli right's pet issue: who is the truest, deepest enemy of Arafat. Is it Netanyahu, who once shook Arafat's hand but is now demanding his exile, or Sharon, who refused a handshake but bowed to American pressure and freed his despised adversary from his house arrest in Ramallah? As expected, the central committee members chose ideology over pragmatism.

The day after, Sharon was doing damage control. "No partisan maneuvers will dictate my policy," he told the Likud parliamentary faction. "After all, we got up in the morning, the smoke has cleared, and Sharon is the prime minister and not Netanyahu," a Sharon aide told me. "Sharon came to the Likud meeting to speak his mind, and to show that he is a national and not partisan leader." Sharon has already vowed to keep his government in power until the last possible day, October 28, 2003, and then to stand for reelection.

Sharon was quick to send a calming message to Washington, saying that there was nothing to worry about and that his government's policy would remain the same. His aides worked full-time on Monday to tell reporters that even though he lost the central committee vote, Sharon is favored by the general public, which supports his "national" stance. To run again, Sharon needs to be nominated by the entire Likud membership, around 200,000 primary voters. He has good reasons to be optimistic: Friday's Maariv-Market Watch poll showed Sharon leading even among right-wing voters, a group that so far has favored Netanyahu.

The two candidates will offer strikingly different electoral strategies. Sharon will portray himself as a tough but realistic statesman, who managed to weaken Arafat and win American support without giving any real ground to Bush or the Arabs. Netanyahu, free from the shackles of office, will present his candidacy as offering the ultimate tough response to Palestinian terrorism and extremism. The outcome will most likely be determined by the state of the semi-war between the Palestinians and the Jewish state. Judging by the previous year's polls, further escalation will push voters towards Netanyahu, while a quiet period would vindicate Sharon's policies and help him.

Sharon will no doubt use the Likud vote to show Bush how difficult it will be for him to sell concessions to an increasingly hard-line Israeli public, while striving to avoid the appearance of being weak at home. Most likely, he will maintain his now-familiar policy of talking about peace without moving on substance. "Arik is very stable [right now]," a political aide told me. "Sunday's event strengthens him with the center bloc, and to some extent even on the left. He still has a strong hold over the right, but if he turns too much to the left, he risks losing his right-wing coalition partners and the support of the Likud parliamentary faction."

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As much as he loves to portray himself as an unswerving leader, for months Sharon has responded to pressure from Netanyahu, however reluctantly. He advocated a Palestinian state and then backed off, calling the issue "irrelevant at this time." He opposed expelling Arafat, saying "it's better to keep him here," and then tried to exile him. He vowed "not to take the country to war" and then invaded the West Bank. Time and again, Netanyahu raised the stakes and pushed the line further to the right -- and Sharon has managed to move with it without breaking with Washington. The hard-line position staked out by the Likud vote could spell catastrophe down the road for Sharon if the Bush administration decides to hold his feet to the fire on Palestinian statehood. But right now, with both Bush and Sharon more interested in delaying and maintaining the status quo than taking the political and ideological risks necessary to find a political solution, that possibility seems remote.

The old warrior Sharon is proud of his ability to face intense pressure and not crack. Sometimes, though, he needs a hand to pull himself out of a self-inflicted mess. Two weeks ago, Bush succeeded in untangling a dangerous deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, negotiating a deal to free Arafat from Ramallah in return for pulling the plug on the planned U.N. investigation of Israeli actions at the Jenin refugee camp during operation "Defensive Shield," the code name for Israel's West Bank invasion of late March. Under American pressure, Sharon hastily agreed to accept the U.N. commission, but then changed his mind when the military revolted against putting its personnel under the threat of international investigation and possible war crimes indictments. Bush -- who had no interest in the Jenin investigation in any case -- used the Israeli fear as a leverage to pull Sharon's forces out of Arafat's compound in Ramallah. This "Ramallah for Jenin" exchange paved the way for a subsequent deal on Israeli withdrawal from the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, completed last weekend.

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By signing off on the Ramallah deal, Sharon proved to Bush that he was capable of turning his back on a previously declared position. Sharon had pledged to do anything necessary, including holding new elections, to bring the assassins of Israeli minister Rehavam Ze'evi to Israeli justice. The suspects had taken refuge in Arafat's headquarters, and Sharon had toyed with the idea of breaking into the compound to catch them. Washington feared for Arafat's life if shooting occurred in his office, and warned Israel to avoid the operation, making Sharon an offer he couldn't refuse. In the end, the assassins were locked up in a Palestinian jail in Jericho, under British and American supervision, an idea that Sharon had turned down only weeks before.

As for Bush, he showed that American intervention, when used in earnest, could be effective in restraining the Israeli "Bulldozer." Sharon's prize for his good behavior was an invitation to the White House, for a fifth audience with the president in a little over a year. The prime minister saw the trip as an opportunity to cash in the diplomatic rewards of operation "Defensive Shield." Domestically, the temporary reoccupation of five West Bank towns was highly popular with a public worn out by a string of suicide attacks, which killed 140 Israelis in March. Sharon's approval rating, having sunk to less than 50 per cent under the terror wave, shot up once again to around 70 per cent.

Riding high at home, Sharon prepared for his diplomatic coup. The White House indicated that the prime minister would get the red carpet. But Sharon remained suspicious. "He was very stressed before the trip," a senior aide told me afterwards. "The signals from Washington were positive, but we weren't sure. There were contradicting press expectations, and some Jewish leaders told us to bring our life vests with us."

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What was Sharon afraid of? His worst foreign-policy nightmare is a deal between the American administration and the Saudi royal family to bring Israel into a new round of peace talks, leading to a withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, including the removal of most settlements. Sharon has vivid memories of 1991, when a similar agreement between the elder Bush and his Saudi friends forced Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to attend the Madrid peace conference. The successful visit of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, on April 25, raised the level of concern in Jerusalem. It seemed as if the two leaders agreed on a division of labor: Abdullah would deliver Arafat and Arab support, while Bush would pressure Sharon. "We worked night and day before the visit," recollected the senior aide, "preparing answers to any contingency, such as possible presidential questions on issues like settlements."

Sharon's other headache was the looming Likud meeting, where he was bound to lose, but nevertheless tried to save face. According to Sharon's advisors, in order to keep his fragile coalition and prevent early elections, he has to tack to the right, while throwing peace gestures at his dovish foreign minister, Shimon Peres. Moving too far to the right, under pressure from Netanyahu, would push the Labor Party out, while making concessions to the Palestinians would alienate Sharon's power base on the right, as the results of Sunday's vote clearly showed.

To preempt both threats, diplomatic and domestic, Sharon devised a new formula: toughening his positions, while wrapping them up in a kinder, gentler packaging. Since his first day as prime minister, Sharon has demanded a "full and complete cessation of Palestinian terror, violence and incitement" as his precondition for any peace negotiations. Later on he added, then dismissed, a demand for "seven quiet days" before any political progress. This time around, Sharon put up an even more ambitious agenda, calling for a "fundamental reform" of the Palestinian Authority before negotiating with it.

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In Sharon's vision, the P.A. would transform itself from a "terrorist and corrupt dictatorship" into a "transparent, accountable," peace-loving and democratic quasi-government. In the process, Arafat's power would wane; he would become a formal "head of state" like the Queen of England, with the real executive power given to a new Palestinian prime minister. A newly organized, unified Palestinian security apparatus would take care of fighting terror. Sharon hinted that with such a nice partner, Israel would be more flexible. "The Israeli public might be more open for concessions if it was facing a more democratic Palestinian Authority," a Sharon advisor told me during the trip. In other words, negotiations would be postponed into the indefinite future, until Sharon is satisfied with the changes on the other side. As an appetizer, Sharon proposed a regional peace conference, "with a subcommittee to oversee the Palestinian reforms." The previous demand for "seven quiet days" seems modest in comparison.

To prepare the ground, Sharon sent Ephraim Halevy, head of the Mossad intelligence service, to brief senior administration officials on the need for Palestinian reform. Halevy met CIA Director George Tenet and apparently also National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. He gave them information about the current mess on the Palestinian side, where rival security and intelligence services are mainly fighting and spying on each other for money, turf and Arafat's attention.

Sharon, however, was not satisfied with the reform plan. He made a bolder decision, to hit back at the heart of the renewed partnership between the Saudis and Washington. Using captured Palestinian documents, Israeli military intelligence prepared an 85-page "black book" on Saudi assistance to families of suicide bombers and indirectly to Hamas, the Islamic terror organization. Sharon's office translated the material to English, and the prime minister's entourage was reinforced with Col. Miri Eisen, an intelligence officer with an American passport and perfect English, who has become the chief military spokeswoman since "Defensive Shield."

Sharon hesitated until the last minute, but eventually he decided to unleash the anti-Saudi propaganda effort. To do this he used education minister Limor Livnat, a highly popular politician in the Likud, who was given a plane ticket to strengthen Sharon's position in his party. Livnat and Eisen called a press conference at the Israeli Embassy in Washington last Monday. When their allegations met with a highly skeptical American press corps, Sharon decided to take matters in his own hands, and told Bush and other senior officials that "Saudi Arabia would have to stop supporting terrorists in order to take part in the regional conference." The documents, said Sharon, prove that the flow of Saudi dollars kept going even after Sept. 11. The administration, however, had no interest in a diplomatic rupture with Saudi Arabia and all but dismissed the Israeli charges.

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The Palestinian reform plan received a warm welcome at the White House. Bush bought the idea of a model democracy in Palestine, and according to the Israeli camp, went as far as talking about an interim government and a Palestinian constitution. Before the meeting, Sharon had listed "neutralizing Arafat" as his No. 1 talking point. But American officials told their Israeli counterparts that the prime minister should not waste the president's time with another discussion on how to do away with the Palestinian leader. Sharon got the message, and the conversation focused on principles rather than personalities. As a first step, Bush announced he was sending Tenet to the Middle East, to prepare a blueprint for the new Palestinian security force. More quietly, Bush ordered the CIA and the State Department to devise more concrete ideas for Palestinian reform. The Pentagon opposed the whole idea and avoided the process, according to an Israeli source with good connections in Washington.

The administration was backed by Palestinian proponents of reform. Khalil Shikaki, the Ramallah pollster, arrived in Washington before Sharon, and told officials and journalists that Arafat was ripe for moving to a formal position. Shikaki proposed parliamentary elections to determine the next leadership. Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan, the competing heads of security in the West Bank and Gaza, sent the CIA their own proposals for a unified force.

But Sharon overplayed his hand, trying to push his understanding with Bush a step further than Washington would allow. On his way home, a senior official in his entourage briefed the traveling press. After recounting the friendly atmosphere ("Bush called Sharon by his first name, Arik, and told us jokes") he got down to business.

"The Americans fully share our position that there is no point in negotiating with the current Palestinian Authority. Both sides agree that Arafat should step aside, or upwards to a nominal position, and others would hold power. The Americans understand that without the structural change, there is no partner to talk to, and there is no point in wasting time on it," said the senior official. The implication was clear: Bush had exempted Sharon from negotiating as long as Arafat remained in place.

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Hours later, the rosy picture turned into an embarrassment. The White House, which had promised the Saudis and the Europeans to push Sharon into negotiations, denied ever giving him an exemption, or agreeing to oust Arafat. As usual, Bush strongly criticized the Palestinian leader, saying he had "disappointed" him, but he stopped short of calling for his dismissal. The American position remained that negotiations should progress simultaneously with reform, not only after its completion. The next day, Sharon's office backed off somewhat from the previous recollection. "The way it's done in such meetings, is that we speak, and the Americans nod," the senior Sharon aide explained. "They are correct in saying that there was no agreement." The Israelis didn't take the American denials seriously, though. "This administration is pragmatic. They haven't pushed us to negotiate with Arafat so far, and they realize that there is no point in negotiating without a serious partner," another Sharon aide told me.

Certainly the meeting between Sharon and Bush skirted all the tough issues. Issues like the settlements were mentioned only briefly in the Oval Office meeting, and Bush did not press for a timetable to renew the peace process. "Sharon came out relieved," his senior aide told me. "There was not a single disagreement."

The briefing aboard the prime minister's plane served another purpose. During the meeting at the White House, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a gambling club in Rishon Letzion, 10 miles south of Tel Aviv. Sharon and Bush learned about it when they parted. The prime minister was furious, and told Vice President Dick Cheney that Israel would retaliate "severely." Back home, the military started planning an invasion of Gaza, and Sharon called an emergency meeting of the Security Cabinet at the airport. Before departing Washington, he called a press conference, and refused to say if he would propose to expel Arafat this time. While flying over the Atlantic, Sharon apparently had second thoughts. The press was told about the new understanding with Bush on Arafat's peaceful ouster, en route to a refueling stop in London. That gave the radio and TV stations at home an opportunity to run the story for five hours before the Cabinet. The message was that if Bush agreed to do away with Arafat, there was no point in expelling him. Indeed, Sharon refused to even discuss it with his ministers.

Nevertheless, Sharon approved a limited invasion of two refugee camps near Gaza, as retaliation for Tuesday's bombing. Thousands of reservists were called up. On Thursday, he called it off, in agreement with Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. Both claimed responsibility for the cancellation, citing "leaks" by "ministers and senior army officers" as the reason. Later, a Sharon aide gave a different rationale. According to his version, Sharon was not satisfied with the military plan, and refrained from risking his "success in Washington." Moreover, there was no public enthusiasm for a costly operation in Gaza. "The international pressure was moving in Arafat's direction, pushing towards the [P.A.] reform, and it was not a good climate for a military operation," said the aide. The White House was happy with the cancellation, but avoided public pressure on Sharon before the Likud meeting. According to the Washington-connected Israeli source, the Americans tried to take credit for the aborted invasion, telling their Saudi counterparts that this was an example of how they restrained the Israeli leader.

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After a week of diplomatic showing-off in Washington, with simultaneous visits by Sharon, King Abdullah of Jordan and Saudi foreign minister Saud Faisal, the administration has shifted back to low gear. With the Gaza operation off, Washington postponed the Tenet trip, giving time for the Saudis and Egyptians to fulfill their part and pressure Arafat to halt terror attacks. Israeli officials were waiting to see the American blueprint for the regional conference, expecting a preparatory visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell next month. The military arena entered a fragile stalemate, until the next violent outbreak.

What will Sharon do? Peres expects him to move leftwards, after concluding that he has no chance to defeat Netanyahu on the right. The foreign minister wants Sharon to enter negotiations on a Palestinian state, appealing to the public fatigue over the war. But his strongman rhetoric notwithstanding, Sharon would find it hard to move to the left and risk losing his party's support. His conclusion, most likely, would be to keep buying time and dragging his feet, just as he did before.

Meanwhile, the unspoken understanding between Sharon and Bush continues. Sharon accepts the highly visible American intervention, which serves Bush's needs to appear engaged, but he knows that the White House is not eager to push him towards real concessions. "Bush was careful not to raise any issue which might embarrass Sharon," the senior aide told me. "There was only a general mention, in one sentence, that eventually Israel would have to deal with final-status issues like the borders and settlements." Does this mean that Bush rejects Sharon's idea of a "long-term interim agreement"? No, said an Israeli diplomat in Washington. "We checked it with American officials, and they held to their position that they would support any proposal which would be accepted by both sides." In other words, the administration sees little chance that the Palestinians will agree to an interim deal, but nonetheless will not push Sharon to negotiate final status issues.

The Palestinian reform idea suits Bush and Sharon well, because it buys them more time and saves them from having to make tough decisions. The ball is now in the Palestinian and Arab court: Jerusalem and Washington are waiting to see if the Saudis and Egyptians succeed in curbing the terror attacks. Israel gave its contribution -- and incurred a possible debt -- with its military operation and massive arrests of Palestinian activists. If quiet reigns, the Saudis will give Bush the bill, and demand payment with Israeli currency. Only then might Sharon face tough choices.

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So far, Arafat and the Palestinian suicide bombers have saved him from trouble. Using Palestinian intransigence as a pretext, Sharon avoided the Mitchell report with its call for a settlement freeze. Now the Mitchell plan is dead, and Sharon has replaced it with his reform plan -- one that directly threatens Arafat's leadership role.

The pressure is on Arafat, but the Palestinian leader has launched his expected counterattack. Over the weekend, he sent his confidant, Mohammed Rashid, to meet Peres and senior European officials. Rashid told the Europeans that any effort to create an "Arafat bypass" through structural reform would fail; Arafat would remain in power.


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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