It looked like Ariel Sharon's moment of triumph.
The polls indicate overwhelming public support for the Israeli prime minister in the wake of his military invasion of the West Bank, operation "Defensive Shield," which curbed the wave of Palestinian suicide attacks in Israeli cities. The Oslo agreements, which Sharon opposed, are all but gone, with the Israeli army encircling the Palestinian population centers and issuing travel passes between towns. Sharon's archenemy, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, is facing growing external and domestic pressure for regime reform. And last but not least, the Bush administration has shown no signs of pressuring Sharon to take any meaningful steps toward fulfilling its declared vision of a Palestinian state.
But alas, Sharon's victorious moment didn't last long. Painful realities returned, in the form of a looming economic collapse, renewed terror attacks that prompted more Israeli incursions into Palestinian towns, and cracks in the governing coalition. Using all of his considerable political shrewdness, the Israeli leader managed to stay afloat, buying more time without changing his course. The big mystery, for his allies and foes alike, is how long Sharon can get away with his tactics. Little pressure is seen as coming from the Bush administration, which has signed off on Sharon's tough line. The announcement on Tuesday that CIA chief George Tenet was finally going to make his long-delayed trip to the region to oversee reforms in the Palestinian Authority did not change the political equation.
The military and security situation is more volatile. After stopping for a few weeks, Palestinian attacks have increased, pushing Israel and the Palestinians back to the brink. Last Thursday, a bomb exploded in a fuel depot near Tel Aviv. Fortunately, there were no casualties, but experts said that the explosion could have killed hundreds of citizens in nearby neighborhoods. On Tuesday evening four Israelis were killed in separate West Bank shooting attacks, the day after a suicide attack in Petach Tikvah killed a grandmother and her year-and-a-half-old granddaughter. Israeli authorities say they have thwarted numerous other planned attacks, including a bomb that was found at the entrance of a residential building in Jerusalem.
Sharon is certain to respond militarily to the attacks, though the scale of the response remains unknown. As for the political dimension, he is sticking to his wait-and-see, no-need-to-change policy. Rejecting the views of those who argue that without genuine political dialogue, the conflict will continue or even get worse, he believes that it is not in Israel's interest to take the diplomatic initiative. "Diplomatic success is not necessarily measured in hyperactivity," a Sharon aide told me. "Sometimes you need to think dispassionately about what not to do. We need to let the undercurrents of reform work out and change the Palestinian Authority, instead of putting out initiatives that will only save Arafat."
In Sharon's eyes, "reform" means only one thing: moving Arafat out of power and into a figurehead position, or a "soft ouster." Speaking to a visiting delegation from the American Jewish Committee last Monday, Sharon used the Afghanistan model to describe the type of reform he believes is necessary. "There needs to be an interim government until an election, headed by a newly appointed prime minister. Thus Arafat's power and influence will wane, and the subsequent reform will create a new Palestinian Authority as a partner for political dialogue and eventual settlement. With Arafat, there will be no reform," said Sharon.
There is not much debate in Israel over this policy. Israeli politicians are almost unanimous in their rejection of Arafat as a possible peace partner, seeing him as an implacable adversary, unreformed terrorist and liar. Laying out their platforms at their party meetings earlier this month, all four self-declared candidates for the next premiership simply ignored Arafat, calling for negotiating with a still unseen successor, or simply advocating unilateral steps to bring peace and security.
On the right, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu preaches a reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza and creating self-governed Palestinian enclaves. On the left, Labor candidate Haim Ramon suggests a unilateral "separation," or disengagement, whereby Israel would leave all of Gaza and 75 per cent of the West Bank, evacuate the settlements in the evacuated areas and create an interim border until some future Palestinian leader would come to the table.
Between these two extremes, both Sharon, the Likud leader, and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, the Labor chairman, propose negotiating with Arafat's heirs -- but their respective plans are vastly different. Sharon is proposing a long-term interim deal, under which the settlements would remain in the midst of a Palestinian mini-state. Ben Eliezer wants to return to the Clinton plan of 2000, giving most of the West Bank and all Gaza to the new neighboring state, evacuating settlements and sharing Jerusalem. However, without Palestinian participation, these blueprints amount to fairy tales for domestic consumption.
The only Israeli politician who still believes in dealing with Arafat is Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the last relic of the Oslo process. Last Thursday, Peres tried to convince Sharon over lunch that Israel should come up with a new political offering. Peres told the prime minister that operation "Defensive Shield" created a new opportunity for diplomacy, by showing the Palestinians that Israel had not abandoned its will to fight. In his view, Israel should seize the momentary advantage and translate its military success into political movement. "Without a political process we will only have more terror," a senior Peres aide told me earlier this week. "The Palestinian Authority could change its policy and fight terror, under the combination of military and international pressure. But this could happen only if there was to be a move towards resolving the conflict, and there is only one leader on the Palestinian side that has enough legitimacy to do it. His name is Arafat."
Looking ahead, Peres sees only more trouble if the current Israeli policy remains in place. He warns that the proposed Palestinian reform is only a recipe for a stalemate. "The proposed election will only force the candidates to use tougher rhetoric, there will be a debate over the right of East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote, and eventually we'll get the same results," he told visiting Canadian foreign minister Bill Graham on Monday.
Sharon, however, was not convinced. In his view, time is on Israel's side. In any case, he knows that Peres has no political power, and wants to keep his foreign minister job. The elder statesman and Nobel laureate has lost his clout with his own party and the public, and has no real leverage over the prime minister.
In counting on Arafat's departure, Sharon is discounting the assessment of his own intelligence reports. General Aharon Ze'evi, the head of Israeli military intelligence, said last week that the immense domestic and external pressure Arafat is facing amounts to a grave challenge to his leadership. "He has lost his legitimacy with the international community, moderate Arab regimes see him as dangerous to their stability, and unprecedented cracks have appeared between Arafat and his circle, as the Palestinian body politic is united in its call for regime reform," Ze'evi told an audience at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "But nevertheless, the Palestinian public sees Arafat as the sole option for leadership, and no other leader is seen on the horizon."
Ze'evi said that since no Palestinian is ready to challenge Arafat directly, senior Palestinian officials are trying to reform the Palestinian Authority in a way that will take power away from the incumbent leader. Their scheme consists of three elements: better control over government funds, a unified and more effective security force, and changes in the executive and legislative branches. The seasoned P.A. chairman, however, is not ready to relinquish power. "Arafat's precondition for reform is keeping power in his own hands," said Ze'evi. "More importantly, he is not ready to dismantle the militant organizations or pressure them to stop terrorism, which means that terror attacks will continue." The intelligence chief, who believes that there is no chance for peace with Arafat, will travel soon to Washington to exchange views with his American counterparts.
Another key Israeli player in negotiations with the Palestinians, Major General Giora Eiland, said that "with Arafat in power, there is no chance for any settlement or reconciliation." Speaking at the Heberew University in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Eiland said that Israel should present the international community with a choice: to keep Arafat, or improve the Palestinians' situation by letting him go.
Eiland, who represents the military in Israel's negotiating teams, said that Israel is facing two possibilities. One is genuine Palestinian reform, in which Arafat would be replaced by a new partner and negotiations resume. The other is international pressure to talk to Arafat, "in which case we might need to play the game, knowing there would be no results."
In Eiland's assessment, operation Defensive Shield ended with a weakened Arafat, but also with a stronger determination on the part of the international community to move toward final-status discussions and forgo the previous "gradual" approach that called for a slow movement from cease-fire to political negotiations.
So far, American support has been Sharon's ace in the hole. He has proven false predictions of a rift between him and President George W. Bush, whose backing for Israel has remained steadfast during the past difficult 15 months. The United States gave a de facto approval for Israel's operations in the West Bank, giving Sharon a free hand to do what he wanted as long as he didn't kill or exile Arafat. American criticism has been restrained. For instance, an NSC staffer told an Israeli diplomat 10 days ago that the U.S. recognized Israel's right for self-defense, but that it should employ methods other than long incursions into Palestinian territories, such as covert action. The American official asked for Israel's help in defusing the situation. "This administration does not believe that we can resume the Clinton ideas, or implement the two-state vision now, but Israel should offer the Palestinians some future," he said.
That Sharon essentially ignored the American request underscores the fact that Israeli officials, both in Sharon's office and Peres' Foreign Ministry, believe that Washington will not exert any pressure on Sharon. "We are not on the administration's strategic targets board. Their main goals are fighting global terrorism and toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq. They might focus on us after Iraq, but this might take years. As much as they would like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to somehow settle down, it does not threaten them like Kashmir at this point," a senior Foreign Ministry official told me. Another official, who returned recently from talks in Washington, added: "The administration is confused; there is no center of gravity in its Mideast policy." Some administration officials simply share Sharon's view that Arafat should be moved aside. Among them are the top echelons of the Pentagon and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
Government officials in Jerusalem are awaiting the new American plan. The latest word from Washington is that Bush will make a decision on his Middle East policy shortly after hosting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on June 5 and 6. Mubarak will be the last regional leader to come for Washington consultations. In the meantime, the Israeli-Palestinian issue has moved to the back burner in the Beltway. First came "9/11-gate." Then Bush and his entourage took a long trip to Europe and Russia, where they had to deal with India and Pakistan's game of nuclear brinkmanship.
Back in Washington, two teams are preparing blueprints for the Middle East. CIA Director George Tenet is dealing with a planned reform of the Palestinian security and intelligence apparatus, streamlining it from 12 different services and organizations to three or four, under a unified command and clear civilian authority. Bush announced on May 7 that Tenet, who at one time was the American official closest to Arafat, would soon travel to the region to discuss his reform plan. Tenet was reluctant to go, telling an Israeli friend, "it's a mission impossible." The Israeli government showed no enthusiasm for the Tenet trip, either. Since then, old and new threats of terror attacks in the U.S. kept Tenet in his Langley, Va., headquarters -- until Tuesday, when it was finally announced that he would travel to the region this weekend.
Last week, Tenet invited the intelligence chiefs of Israel, the P.A., Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Washington to discuss the proposed reform. Israel was represented by Ephraim Halevy, head of the Mossad foreign intelligence service, who has recently become Sharon's personal envoy to the administration; and Gen. Giora Eiland, head of planning for the IDF. The Palestinian delegates were Mohammed Dahlan, the Gaza security chief who is regarded by many as America's and Israel's preferred candidate to replace Arafat, and his friend Mohammed Rashid, Arafat's financial advisor and personal confidant.
Not much came out of the intelligence heads' deliberations. According to Israeli officials, Halevy's message was that security reform could not work on its own and must be part of a comprehensive process. Rashid told a Washington think tank: "Arafat is not going to be a titular president; it's against his nature." He spoke about "delegitimizing" the suicide attacks, but rejected the idea that Arab governments, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, should be involved in fighting Palestinian terrorism. "The Arab governments should curb terrorist elements outside the Palestinian territories," said Rashid, in a nod perhaps at Syria, which hosts the offices of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their likes.
Rashid made it clear that the Palestinian elections are bound to complicate and slow down any negotiations. "Campaign time is not an easy period to express compromise on contentious issues," he said. Sharon sent Washington an identical message, warning that any pressure on him would lead to government breakup and elections. "I would win, of course, but the campaign would mean six months of no progress," he told Secretary of State Colin Powell two weeks ago.
For weeks, Powell tried unsuccessfully to persuade Tenet to go to the Middle East, contenting himself with sending his assistant for Near East affairs, William Burns, who is scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem on Thursday, a few days before Tenet. Powell is seen in Israel as a weakling without much authority or real influence over policy. When Bush wanted Sharon to end his siege of Arafat, he used national security advisor Condoleezza Rice as his messenger, after Powell had failed to gain any ground with the Israeli leader during his April trip.
Meanwhile, the White House is conducting discussions on the proposed regional peace conference -- a pale and diminished version of the full-blown international conference envisaged in the Saudi plan floated several months ago. According to Israeli sources with good ties in Washington, the interagency work is being chaired by Flint Leverett, the NSC's Middle East expert. The plan is to convene the parties by late July for a mainly ceremonial event, as an opener for negotiations. Since both Israelis and Palestinians have lost their trust in each other, and therefore are not ready to make any compromises, the plan is to bring in outsiders to bridge the gaps. For instance, American and British observers would help with security, and the Bush two-state vision would serve as substitute for a joint "political horizon."
The conference faces many apparently insurmountable obstacles. Sharon opposes Arafat's participation, but wants to come himself. He refuses to discuss a final-status agreement, and rejects outright any timetable for concluding it, which the Arabs see as a precondition for talks. Arab governments are less than excited about the whole idea, fearing that Sharon wants to drag them into an empty photo-op. Then there is the issue of Syrian participation. The Arabs demand it, and Sharon in turn demands that Syria must completely change its behavior. And so on.
Leverett and his team are trying to devise creative ways to get around these political landmines. They know that Bush is reluctant to confront Sharon. "Even mentioning a Palestinian state in the invitation letter might break [Sharon's] coalition," warns an Israeli Foreign Ministry official. Bush is unlikely to push Sharon: He'll try to keep all sides onboard by showing the Arabs empathy and involvement but delaying any real decisions at least until after the November elections.
The Israelis, in the meantime, are focusing on domestic issues. Defense Minister Ben Eliezer wants to create a fence between Israel proper and the West Bank. A similar physical obstacle around the Gaza Strip has prevented suicide bombers from reaching Israeli cities, and the public supports it overwhelmingly. Sharon opposes the fence, which would leave many of his beloved settlements on the Palestinian side, and would inevitably provide the form of a future border. For Ben Eliezer, the issue might serve as the excuse to leave the coalition and force Sharon into a political duel.
Sharon's "national unity" coalition, which held firm under Palestinian attacks, suffered a major setback last week, when the prime minister fired the ministers of Shas Party, his closest coalition partner. Shas is a unique political creature, representing Orthodox Jews of Oriental origin. It grew to become the third largest party in the Knesset and an essential part of any coalition. When its ministers voted against Sharon's emergency budget, he reacted furiously, aiming to prevent a stock market disaster. The public, which by and large dislikes Shas power plays, applauded Sharon's tour de force. It was the second time in a month that Sharon managed to turn a political defeat into a public victory. The first example was the Likud Central Committee meeting that favored Netanyahu's resolution opposing a Palestinian state. Sharon lost the vote, but the press and the polls hurrahed his performance as statesmanlike, as opposed to his rival's show of partisanship.
Sharon may have won the battle of spin, but the victory is no remedy for the country's deep troubles. Moreover, he knows only too well that without Shas his coalition is doomed and bound for an early election. Efforts at reconciliation have proved futile so far, but there is still large room for compromise on the budget. And always lurking is the possibility of another big suicide attack, which would push both Sharon and Shas to put their differences aside and launch another major blow against the Palestinians.