Sharon's insecurity, Bush's indecision

As an anxious Israeli prime minister flies to Washington to make sure he has U.S. support, Bush is still wavering and stalling for time -- and Arafat's ouster seems closer than ever.

By Aluf Benn
Published June 8, 2002 7:22PM (EDT)

In the race between violence and diplomacy in the Middle East, diplomacy is in danger of falling behind. On the surface, there is much activity: Regional leaders are racing to Washington, and a flock of American messengers have toured Arab and Israeli capitals. But with the Bush administration deeply divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, America -- regarded by all sides as holding the key to the problem -- has not yet come up with a coherent policy for the region. To the dismay of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the State Department has advanced a Camp David-like plan that would hand over almost all of the occupied territories to the Palestinians, but President Bush has not accepted it and has not shown any signs of committing himself to bold initiatives of any kind.

While the political stalemate continues, the violence that had abated for a few weeks after "Operation Defensive Shield," Israeli's massive military campaign in the West Bank, resumed with ferocity. A Palestinian car bomber carried out a bloody terror attack in Israel, killing 17 people; it was followed by more Israeli sweeps of Palestinian towns, and a retaliatory attack on Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat's battered Ramallah compound that killed two people. Israeli troops also swept into the Palestinian city of Jenin, hunting for militants. On Saturday morning, Palestinian terrorists infiltrated an Israeli settlement on the West Bank and killed three people.

The situation is ominous, not least because of increasing warnings from Israel that a "mega-terror" attack could be coming, and that it might expel Arafat after the next big terror attack. There appeared also to be an increasing possibility that he might be accidentally killed: Israeli tanks fired a shell into his bathroom during the recent sweep. The consequences of Arafat's expulsion are unpredictable, with Israeli military experts and statesmen themselves divided and Washington's reaction to such a radical move uncertain.

Amidst this darkening scene, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is traveling to Washington, where he will meet with Bush on Monday morning. Sharon's hasty trip has two main goals: to thwart any peace plan unpalatable to him that is being contemplated in Washington, and to be given a freer hand against Arafat. Sharon is going to repeat his familiar message: that he will not negotiate with his old adversary and that any political process is subject to two preconditions -- a complete halt to violence and "substantial reform" of the Palestinian Authority, which for Sharon means pushing Arafat aside.

Sharon met with Bush only a month ago, on May 7, but he felt the need to call on the president once again to lobby Bush and make sure he has continued American support. "Sharon is afraid of nothing, but he's always worried," says an aide. Sharon's worst nightmare is a deal between the Bush administration and its Arab friends in Cairo and Riyadh that would push Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza. And although Bush has backed Sharon staunchly so far -- he declined to lean on Sharon to end the invasion of the West Bank after he had sternly told him to -- the prime minister can't be sure that Washington will continue to support his policies. Beneath the facade of friendship lies great suspicion, fueled by word of a new diplomatic initiative, concocted at the State Department with help from Arab and European governments. "We hear that the whole world is dealing with the fate of Israel, and we're the last to know," he complained last week to visiting U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a conservative supporter of Israel.

Sharon knew that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is due at Camp David this weekend with his new peace plan, calling for the declaration of a Palestinian state early next year, without fixed borders, and then moving to final-status agreement in three years. When Mubarak put out his ideas in a New York Times interview last Sunday, Sharon's advisors smelled a rat. Similar blueprints for a "statehood first" deal, like the draft negotiated between Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian legislative chief Abu Ala, have proposed a shorter timeline. Why did Mubarak suggest a longer timetable? Most probably, he wanted to beat Sharon's trump card, the American electoral calendar. In early 2003, the midterm elections would be over, and in three years, Bush could well be into his second term, free from Jewish influence over his ballot and wallet.

Sharon wanted to be the last leader to call on the president before he made his crucial decision, to refute whatever Bush would have heard from the Egyptian leader. Sure enough, Bush announced Friday that after meeting with Sharon and Mubarak, he would lay out his vision for the Middle East. "After my meetings ... I'll talk to our country about how I believe we should move forward," Bush said. Bush aides said he would try to have the new American policy in place for the regional peace conference, to be held late next month in Turkey. (Sharon proposed such a conference to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in April, and Washington accepted the idea.)

Even more troubling for the Sharon administration than the Mubarak initiative was news from Washington about a new American plan, formulated at the State Department with the help of Flynt Leverett, the National Security Council's Middle East point man, who chaired the interagency discussions at a working level. According to an Israeli Embassy report that reached Sharon earlier this week, the draft American proposal hands out carrots and sticks to both sides of the conflict. It calls for the creation of a Palestinian state in virtually all the West Bank and Gaza (along the 1967 lines, perhaps with minor modifications), and gives a three-year timetable for final status negotiations.

Sharon, of course, opposes the proposed border, which would mean the removal of most, if not all, of the Israeli settlements he was instrumental in putting in place. He also objects to the timeline, calling instead for a "long-term interim agreement" without schedules. In a New York Times Op-Ed scheduled for publication on Sunday titled "The strategic horizon of peace," Sharon writes about Israel's need for defensible borders as the centerpiece of a future peace plan.

In exchange for giving up the occupied territories, the U.S. plan would give Israel two major concessions. First, Palestinian refugees would not be allowed to return to Israel proper. This crucial issue would be underscored by U.S. recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" -- a recognition, first extended by Colin Powell in a November 2001 speech, that reflects American acceptance of Israeli demographic concerns. The second is a major reform of the P.A.

Although details on sticky issues like Jerusalem have apparently not yet been worked out, the plan sounds similar to that advanced by Bill Clinton at Camp David and Taba -- one Sharon has always bitterly opposed. "All these plans are variations of that old time bomb, the Clinton plan," a Sharon aide told me, "and the prime minister will try to defuse it."

Sharon dreads such a plan, knowing it would inevitably put him on a collision course with Washington. His worries, however, seem exaggerated. A veteran Israeli peacemaker with many years of Washington experience speaks about "the Gewald syndrome" in Israeli-American relations. Israeli leaders, he says, tend to entertain groundless fears of an American gambit behind their backs. The Bush administration has clearly not decided what to do: It speaks in multiple voices on the Middle East, and mainly shows confusion.

Last week, Sharon met separately with Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith. Burns spoke about simultaneous progress on three fronts -- restoring security, moving toward a "political horizon" and reconstructing the Palestinian Authority. Sharon rejected Burns' idea of a timeline, repeating his insistence that no political discussions take place until violence stops and Arafat is gone. He had a much happier meeting with Feith, one of Israel's most ardent supporters in the Bush administration, who told him that America should attack Iraq first, and then turn to dealing with the Israeli-Arab conflict. With Saddam Hussein removed, the Palestinians and Syrians would be more flexible, the Pentagon official -- whose hawkish views are apparently shared by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- told the prime minister.

America's current approach to the Middle East is mainly made of endless "consultations" with allies and friends. The Bush administration has reached out to its European and Arab friends, unlike the Clinton team, which preferred to go it alone. This may represent some progress -- some analysts have speculated that Clinton erred at Camp David by not consulting with the Arab players, thus depriving Arafat of political cover to make tough decisions -- but so far, Bush has not shown which advice, if any, he's going to take. The other players, too, are content with this policy, which also spares them from doing anything. It's a waiting game: The Americans are waiting to hear more ideas, while the rest of the international community is waiting for the new American plan. Meanwhile, the conflict is escalating and Israelis and Palestinians are dying.

So far, Bush has not accepted the State Department plan. A White House official, briefing reporters on Wednesday, all but dismissed reports of it. Bush is more worried about the Senate and Florida races in November, and has no stomach for a clash with Sharon that would risk his growing Jewish support. Although Sharon's advisors reassured him of this only a week ago, the prime minister didn't feel he could be sure without hearing from Bush himself how far Israel could go.

One thing working in Sharon's favor is the growing international sentiment against his nemesis, Arafat. Earlier this week, Sharon received diplomatic reports that not just the U.S., but also Europe (which is more pro-Palestinian than the U.S.) and even Egypt oppose Arafat's rule and want to deprive him of control over the Palestinian Authority's security services and finances, his two pillars of power. The international community all but rejected Arafat's proposed "reforms," regarding them as insufficient. According to Israeli media reports, visiting CIA Director George Tenet told Arafat that if he continued with his current policies he would "be left alone" to face Sharon.

The statement by Egypt's Mubarak was more momentous, representing as it did the harshest criticism he has ever directed at the Palestinian leader. Mubarak told the New York Times' Patrick Tyler that as long as Arafat and Sharon held power, it was difficult to see a way forward and that it was possible that Arafat could move to a "ceremonial" job within a year. Egyptian officials told their American counterparts that Mubarak is determined to act, not merely talk about reforming the P.A., and to prove it sent intelligence advisors to reorganize the Palestinian security services. (They pointedly contrasted their active involvement with Saudi Arabia's stance, pointing out that the Saudis pledged to talk to Hamas about ending violence but ended up doing nothing.) They proposed a joint American-European monitoring force, with Egyptian participation, to implement the reform.

Despite their dislike for Arafat, all these players have rejected Sharon's demand that Arafat must be removed before any meaningful political process can start. They have called on Israel to start the process with Arafat, and then ease him out. Bush, who has repeatedly gone out of his way to criticize the Palestinian leader, is torn between the two positions: Sharon's "reform without Arafat" and the State Department, Europe and the Arab world's "reform with him."

This was the political background when, on Wednesday morning, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a car bomb next to an Israeli bus near Megiddo, the site of a famous biblical battleground. The date was June 5, the 35th anniversary of the Six-Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan. Seventeen Israelis were killed in the bus, most of them young conscripts. The worst Palestinian attack since Operation Defensive Shield, it followed numerous bombing attempts, most of which were prevented by Israel's security services. Israel's ongoing incursions into Palestinian towns have yielded many arrests and seizures of explosives, but the reservoir of young Palestinians willing to die in order to kill Israelis seems endless.

Sharon avoided a Cabinet discussion of Israel's response to the Megiddo attack, knowing that the ministers would compete to propose ever-harsher punishments for Arafat. The idea of exiling the Palestinian leader was floated once again, but the prime minister did not want to spoil his Washington trip by taking that drastic step. Instead, he sat down with Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, the Labor Party chairman, and his military commanders.

The outcome was a compromise. The IDF entered Arafat's Ramallah compound early on Thursday, killed a member of Arafat's guard, demolished some buildings, and went out. Sharon and the military wanted still more demolition of Arafat's compound, while Ben Eliezer advocated sending "a message" and warned against turning Arafat into a victim. They settled for the middle ground, which eventually drew American criticism when the White House issued a statement saying that the IDF's actions would not bring peace. Nevertheless, Arafat's expulsion seemed more possible than ever, especially after the White House spokesman said that "Arafat has never played a role as someone who could be trusted or effective." If the feared "mega-attack" occurs, with many Israeli casualties, Arafat's fate is all but doomed.

In the Israeli Cabinet, more and more members are opting for Arafat's ouster and exile. "I used to be in the extreme right, but I find myself now at the center," Homeland Security Minister Uzi Landau told me on Wednesday. Landau proposes to treat the P.A. the way the allies treated Germany after 1945. In his view, Israel should reoccupy all the P.A. areas, uproot terrorism, and wait four to five years before holding an election that would create a new Palestinian government -- but one whose authority would be limited to civilian administration and law enforcement. Israel would be responsible for security. Only a little over a year ago, such ideas were seen as extremist; now they are a regular part of public discussion.

Israel remains divided about what to do about Arafat, stopping terror and moving the peace process forward. The army and the security service want to reoccupy the Palestinian towns, asserting that encirclement and occasional incursions are not enough to block the terrorists. On the left, Peres still believes in negotiating with Arafat. In the center, Ben Eliezer's message is confused: He is calling on the international community to pressure Arafat, while saying Israel should "ignore" him altogether.

Not surprisingly, foreign visitors who have recently met with Sharon, Peres and Ben Eliezer have been struck by the multiplicity of different policies they advocate. Former Foreign Minister David Levy warns that this confusion amounts to anarchy, and is demanding that the government decide on one policy line. But Sharon, who needs to preserve his wide-ranging coalition to stay in power, prefers to keep it that way. His main interest is in buying time, and his uneasy alliance with the Labor Party serves his purpose perfectly.

Despair of finding a political solution to the violence and the consensus that it is useless dealing with Arafat have brought Israelis to a unilateral solution: erecting a fence between Israel proper and the West Bank. The reason is clear. The Gaza Strip is surrounded by a fence, and no suicide bomber has managed to cross into Israel. But there is no barrier along the "Green Line," or "stitch line," that separates pre-1967 Israel from the West Bank. No Israeli government has wanted to put a fence along the border: Such a marker would leave the settlements out and signal a possible future withdrawal. Cabinet decisions on the matter have been left unimplemented.

Nevertheless, as the number of casualties has multiplied, public pressure to build a fence has grown. Ben Eliezer, who opposed the idea for a long time, changed his mind when his party challenger, Haim Ramon, rose in the polls after adopting the "separation" line. Following a failed attack on a fuel depot near Tel Aviv, Ben Eliezer decided to build a fence along the stitch line. He convinced Sharon to give the green light to the first phase along 110 kilometers, about 60 miles. Ben Eliezer's line almost overlapped the old border, but Sharon made some changes on the map to include some settlements within the fence-protected area. The defense minister is proposing a crash program, using 20 contractors, that would put up a fence within a year. The West Bank settlers initially opposed the idea fiercely, but reconsidered after the Megiddo bombing, grasping the growing public criticism directed at them.

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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