Sharon's strangulation strategy

Israel is using economic pressure to force the Palestinians to cry uncle. But will a humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories spoil the plan?

By Aluf Benn
Published July 30, 2002 7:18PM (EDT)

Gen. Moshe ("Bogy") Ya'alon is the new chief of staff of the Israeli military, in charge of the country's war against the Palestinians. Upon taking command on July 9, the former special-operations officer pledged "not to allow the Palestinians any sense of achievement" from using terror. Determined to outdo his hawkish predecessor, Gen. Shaul Mofaz, "Bogy" moved quickly to escalate the fight. But his initiative backfired, and taught the general a hard lesson about the political constraints on waging war in the region.

Following an attack on a bus near the West Bank settlement of Immanuel, on July 16, which killed nine Israelis, the army detained 21 family members of the alleged planners of the attack, planning to expel them to Gaza. Israeli security authorities have long claimed that the only way to deter future Palestinian suicide bombers is by punishing their families by expulsion. The idea of expelling families of terrorists has been floated several times during the latest conflict, now 22 months old, but never implemented. (Israel has expelled many Palestinian activists in the past, but discontinued the policy after the Rabin government deported 400 Hamas leaders to Lebanon for a year in late 1992.) This time, after the military had difficulty catching the perpetrators of the bus attack after a two-day chase, Ya'alon launched his forces against the families. Their homes were demolished -- a tactic frequently used by the IDF against the families of Palestinian militants -- and they were held waiting for expulsion. But Israel's attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, ruled that only relatives who had knowledge of or took part in the bombing could be expelled, and that they had the right to appeal. This, of course, stopped the measure -- since if Israel had evidence against them, they could be tried in a regular judicial proceeding, and the whole idea was to quickly expel as many family members as possible. Enthusiasm for the measure petered out and died after the P.R. disaster of the Shehada strike, and the military quietly released some of those detained.

A few days later, Israel sent an F-16 to drop a one-ton bomb on the Gaza house of Saleh Shehada, the leader of the military wing of Hamas, the Islamic terror organization that has been Israel's bitterest enemy for over a decade. Shehada was killed, all right, but so was another Hamas operative and 16 civilians, including 10 children, most of them in adjoining buildings destroyed by the enormous blast. More than 150 civilians in the crowded neighborhood were also wounded. Shehada had long been at the top of Israel's assassinations list, and no fewer than eight hits had been planned, but again and again Israel postponed killing him because he was surrounded by civilians and family members. But on Monday, July 22, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon authorized the operation, and the pilot dropped his deadly bomb on the Gaza neighborhood. Sharon initially hailed the attack as a "most successful operation," but the political firestorm that followed forced him to backtrack. Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer were quick to blame the military and intelligence for the civilian deaths. Ya'alon, for his part, also directed the responsibility downward, at the anonymous air force officers who planned the bombing and recommended the heavy weapon.

These expressions of regret and buck passing, however, convinced few Israelis: Dropping a 2,000-pound bomb in a teeming Gaza neighborhood was guaranteed to produce heavy civilian casualties, intelligence reports or no intelligence reports. Israel's leading commentator on military affairs, Ze'ev Schiff, wrote in Ha'aretz that what drove the IDF to abandon its minimize-civilian-casualties policy was rage and frustration at the constraints imposed on it.

"Anyone who decides to drop a one-ton bomb in the heart of a densely-populated area in order to kill one murderer is undoubtedly very angry at the attacks carried out on Israeli civilians and very frustrated because of the way in which the war is being conducted," Schiff wrote. "And, indeed, the Israel Defense Forces is angry in a way that it has never been angry before -- in any previous war. The result is that when the location of the head of the military wing of Hamas becomes known, the decision not to let him slip away is made, whatever the consequences."

With help from the White House, Israel was able to ride out the wave of international criticism that followed the Gaza bombing. Nevertheless, the events of the past three weeks have showed the Israeli leadership that there are no shortcuts to winning the war.

Sharon and Ya'alon are aiming for a decisive victory over their Palestinian adversaries. Two weeks ago, the prime minister set out his terms for ending the war in a four-page letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell and other world leaders. In the letter, Sharon made clear that Israel would not settle for a cease-fire, as it did last year, but is demanding that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat be ousted and "his armed gangs" turned into a new security force that would fight terror in earnest. Until such a force takes control, Israel will keep its forces in the West Bank cities it recaptured last month. Officials in Sharon's office said this week that these demands remain unchanged.

Israel's strategic weapon in this war is economic pressure, exercised through sieges, roadblocks and curfews. It is not a new concept in prolonged wars. The blockade of Germany won World War I for the Allies, after four years of indecisive, bloody attrition in the trenches. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, the economic siege is meant to break the Palestinians' will to fight and cause them to turn their anger on their leader, Arafat, who cannot provide them with food and work, let alone political independence. In a statement issued on Sunday, Sharon said: "Israel is sorry for the distress brought on the Palestinian people due to their corrupt and irresponsible leadership. We will seek every possible way, under security constraints, to ease the life of Palestinians not involved in terrorism." The two words "security constraints" tell the whole story.

From the Israeli viewpoint, the combined pressure of reoccupation, economic hardship and American calls to replace Arafat is slowly working. Cracks are appearing in the Palestinian front, and there is a growing effort to call a cease-fire by the main fighting organizations, Tanzim and Hamas, mediated by the European Union's security representative in the West Bank, the Briton Alistair Crook. Another effort involves talks between the P.A. leaders and the different Palestinian factions. The Tanzim leadership was supposed to publish such a call, but it was halted by the Gaza bombing last week. Nevertheless, these efforts have continued despite the Israeli attack.

The reports of an imminent cease-fire were largely dismissed by the Israeli side as both premature and insufficient. "All this talking has nothing to do with us, and our sources say it's not serious. And even if they succeeded, and talks led to a cease-fire announcement, it would not come close to our demands," a senior official at the prime minister's office told me. His view is widely shared throughout the Israeli government and the military. Even Shimon Peres' foreign ministry accepts it. A senior official there told me that Israel could not accept deals between the P.A. and the terror groups that would allow them to keep their weapons and build up forces for the next stage of confrontation. "We must insist on a single armed force under the P.A., and on dismantling Hamas and its likes," the foreign ministry official said. Seeing the other side's weakness, the Israelis are trying to hold to their positions and force the Palestinians to surrender.

Sharon's strategy, however, is far from being risk-free. Indeed, it has three major weaknesses. First, it risks causing a severe humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories, which could bring about strong international pressure on Israel to back off. Second, it is deliberately obscure on the "day after" question: What would happen if the Palestinians surrendered, fired their leader and arrested all the terror activists, as Israel demands? And last, the Israeli government itself is living on borrowed time, threatened by a growing economic and social crisis and political discontent.

The humanitarian issue is the most pressing. Alarmed by reports on malnutrition, massive poverty and collapsing health services in the territories, the Bush administration pressured Sharon to do something. Despite its strong backing for Sharon's policies, the White House does not want to share the blame with its ally for Palestinian hunger or disease. The fate of the Palestinian population has been a constant Bush talking point with Sharon since last year, but the Israeli leader has always managed to brush the issue aside. This time, however, the Americans lost patience.

Last Monday, hours before the fatal Gaza bombing, three of Sharon's closest confidants came to Washington to meet with Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. According to Israeli sources, the Americans promised to maintain their Arafat-must-go line. But when the conversation turned to the humanitarian issue, the tone changed. Powell and Rice told their interlocutors: "We are fed up with your promises, and want to see some movement." Israel was asked to ease restrictions on the movement of Palestinian people and supplies, to improve access to health services and, most crucially, to transfer frozen Palestinian tax funds to the new P.A. finance minister, Salem Fayed.

The money issue has been the most contentious. Under the Oslo agreements, Israel collects indirect taxes and tariffs for the P.A. After the intifada broke out in 2000, however, the Israeli government stopped the payments, pledging "not to pay the enemy" and "not to fund terrorism." Despite recurring requests by various parties to pay the Palestinians their money, Israel balked, and has accumulated 2.1 billion shekels (about $440 million), according to Israeli treasury data.

As the U.S. embraced the Israeli idea of "reforming" the Palestinian Authority, and Arafat promptly appointed Fayed -- an economist with long experience in international organizations -- as his new finance minister, Daniel Kurtzer, the American ambassador in Tel Aviv, came up with an idea: Israel would transfer 10 percent of the frozen money to Fayed, to help him promote reform. For his part, the new minister presented an ambitious plan to fix the P.A.'s accounting problems. He pledged to maintain a single bank account, and personally authorize incoming and outgoing payments. There would be no more handwritten notes from Arafat to pay this or that operative.

Sharon balked. He demanded an American-supervised "mechanism" to ensure that the money would not end up in terrorists' pockets. Israeli intelligence reports say that Fayed has good intentions, but Arafat and his cronies keep him in the dark and won't tell him about their secret funds. After the Gaza P.R. debacle, however, Sharon was in a weaker position with the U.S., and was forced to trim his sails. He quickly authorized the treasury to give Fayed 210 million shekels (about $40 million) in three payments, the first payment of which was made Monday. Responding to another American request, he appointed Peres as the Israeli coordinator of humanitarian and other assistance to the Palestinians.

"We must work to prevent a humanitarian disaster," Ambassador Kurtzer told a meeting of international and Israeli officials, headed by Peres, last Thursday. The American envoy proposed that Israel take steps "to improve the atmosphere," such as freezing construction in the settlements and removing illegal "outposts" in the West Bank. Sharon ignored these proposals, but on Sunday he granted Kurtzer a rare meeting, and presented him with a list of Israeli "relief measures" for impoverished Palestinians. Some of them are mainly for show: Sharon agreed to issue 5,000 more work permits for Palestinians in Israel, raising the total number to 12,000. The problem is that these quotas remain unfulfilled due to "security limitations" and thus serve mostly as a P.R. tool.

Sharon is clearly trying to get the Americans off his back while making as few concessions as possible. Will his tightrope act succeed? "We have to walk a very fine line," a military official told me. "While there is no hunger in the territories, there is serious economic distress, which speeds the progress toward a cease-fire and the marginalizing of Arafat, who was not involved in the recent internal discussions between the factions. At the same time, if the situation grows worse, it might lead to international pressure on us and bring Arafat back to the picture."

And what if the Israeli pressure succeeds, and the Palestinians sign on Sharon's surrender terms? Bush's Mideast speech of June 24 is the common agenda of everybody involved. It calls for creation of a Palestinian state within three years in two stages, provisional and final. Sharon accepted, somewhat grudgingly, the principles laid out in the speech. He has refrained from talking about a Palestinian state, which is a dirty word in his Likud Party vocabulary. His aides prefer to promise economic relief in return for better security. Peres, on the other hand, believes that Israel must make some concessions to the other side. But the foreign minister likes his job, and is not going to challenge Sharon over policy. He keeps whatever criticism and frustration he has to well-guarded off-the-record remarks. Peres is content with his narrow mandate: to talk with P.A. officials and make occasional foreign trips to explain Sharon's policies. On Thursday he visits Washington, a few days ahead of a Palestinian delegation.

The prime minister's worries are on other political fronts. The Labor Party, his hitherto docile coalition partner, is showing growing signs of disintegration. Its leader, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, is a very efficient political operator, but he lacks public stance as a leader. As a result, he is finding it hard to fill cabinet posts left open by resigning ministers. Pressures on Labor to leave the coalition are increasing, as Fuad's Labor adversaries take aim at his weakest ideological point, his "sticking to the minister's chair."

As in America, the key month in the Israeli political calendar is November. That's when Ben-Eliezer will face Haim Ramon in the labor primaries, and Sharon will face Binyamin Netanyahu's challenge at the Likud conference. Until then, and as long as there are no major terror attacks, the political debate will focus on the crumbling economy. The treasury presented a deeply cut budget for 2003, which will be debated at the cabinet and Knesset until December. Growing unemployment and weakened welfare services have made the public more aware than before of the economic cost of the war. Last year, the government claimed that the conflict was but one factor in the Israeli economy's woes, along with the global downturn and the high-tech collapse. But these excuses no longer work, and despite Sharon's overall high approval rating, he receives very poor marks on his economic leadership.

David Levy, one of Israel's veteran politicians who has zigzagged between both political camps in recent years, joined Sharon's cabinet in the spring, when Israel launched its West Bank offensive. He submitted his resignation on Sunday, citing criticism of Sharon's economic policy and saying he had been left out of decision making. In the past, Levy's resignations were a reliable sign of the current prime minister's imminent downfall. This time, Sharon managed to contain the damage, and the media presented Levy as a has-been.

As it now appears, Sharon will be able to hold onto power. Despite its economic problems, Israel is still far more prosperous than its rivals, and can withstand a downturn for a longer period. On the other hand, Israelis want prosperity. And the younger generation, which is being forced to bear the burden of the war effort as conscripts and combat reservists, sees little hope in the future. Sharon, therefore, does not have unlimited time. Like Ya'alon, he needs to win the war before economic and political trouble sinks him.

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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