Sharon's world

Bush is on his side, a longed-for Iraq war is coming, and the Palestinians seem to be under control, but the economy is in ruins and his right-wing coalition could be shaky. For Israel's ultimate survivor, it's business as usual.


Aluf Benn
March 1, 2003 1:33AM (UTC)

The snow-covered view of Jerusalem was a perfect background for Ariel Sharon's second inauguration as the prime minister of Israel. It was a week of celebrations for Sharon, who marked his 75th birthday on Tuesday and on the next day started his second term, a rare achievement for Israeli leaders. The festive mood was clouded, however, by last-minute wheeling and dealing over cabinet appointments, a ritual of Israeli politics, which angered Sharon's Likud Party leaders. When he presented his new government to the Knesset, many seats along the cabinet desk were empty.

Sharon's latest maneuver was to switch the jobs of his two senior ministers. Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister and Sharon's rival for party leadership, was moved from his beloved foreign ministry to the demanding, thankless job of treasury minister. In his new office, Netanyahu will have to guide the crisis-beaten Israeli economy through painful budget cuts, the toughest task for any politician, let alone an aspiring national leader. Netanyahu had managed to keep his mouth shut for four months -- no mean feat for the fiery right-winger -- hoping to appease Sharon and thus retain his diplomatic seat. But it didn't work out. When Sharon spoke to the Knesset, Netanyahu arrived seven minutes late to listen.

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Silvan Shalom, the ousted treasury minister, took Netanyahu's place at the foreign ministry. The third senior Likud official, Ehud Olmert, who resigned as mayor of Jerusalem to join Sharon's new cabinet and helped negotiate the formation of his new coalition government, was sacrificed in the appointments process: He was handed a lower-ranking position at the ministry of trade and industry, plus the empty title of deputy prime minister. Two other senior ministers kept their jobs: ex-general Shaul Mofaz at defense, and Limor Livnat, Likud's top woman, at the education ministry.

All the ministers share the same right-wing policies; they are determined to decide the conflict with the Palestinians by force and to keep most of the occupied territories under Israeli rule, though Livnat, Netanyahu and Shalom come across as more "ideological," while Sharon, Mofaz and Olmert pass as "pragmatic."

Sharon has been one of Israel's most conservative leaders. Always believing that time is on his side, he typically puts off decisions, preferring to wait for better circumstances. Despite that trait, however, Sharon's new government represents a quiet revolution in local politics. His election victory positioned Likud ("Unity") as Israel's dominant party, with 40 seats at the 120-member Knesset -- more than twice the number of the second-ranking Labor party with its mere 19 parliament members. Labor was the dominant party until 1977; since then, the political system has suffered from prolonged paralysis. Sharon formed the Likud out of smaller parties as a right-wing bloc in 1973, and the party won the elections for the first time ever four years later. But only in 2003, with Sharon at the helm, has it attained such an unrivaled position.

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The second, and more surprising, revolution is Sharon's turning his back on his veteran political partners, the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, who had been the mainstay of any Likud-led coalition in Israel. In a move that surprised veteran political analysts, the prime minister chose the "secular, middle-class party" Shinui ("Change"), led by ex-TV personality Yossef (Tommy) Lapid, as his chief coalition partner. Lapid won a remarkable election victory with 15 seats, and he extracted five cabinet posts for his team, including the prominent justice and interior ministries. Shinui's advent represents a counter-revolt of Israel's old elites. Virtually all of its Knesset members are Ashkenazi Jews, whose families came from Eastern Europe and held the top positions in Israeli society. In the new government, they replaced their anathema, Shas, whose voters and leaders are Sephardi, or Oriental Jews, mostly of Moroccan origin, who fought to improve their lot. When Sharon spoke, the offended Shas members, once the largest beneficiaries of government funds and friendly legislation, filled the Knesset plenary hall with boos.

Although Lapid ran on a strongly anti-religious platform, his actual achievements are relatively modest. Orthodox religious students will remain exempt from military service, and public buses will not ride during the Jewish Sabbath. Sharon promised to appoint committees to deal with most of Shinui's demands on religious-state affairs, a sure way to avoid tough decisions on such contentious matters. But the ministry of religious affairs will be dismantled, and Shinui will control the interior ministry, which deals with the sensitive issues of citizenship, conversion and personal status. Moreover, the powerful parliamentary finance committee was taken away from the Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

Throughout the campaign and afterward, Sharon had declared his intention to reestablish a "national unity" coalition with the Labor Party, as he did after his 2001 election victory. Having Labor as a partner made it easier for Sharon to avoid his worst fear, confrontation with the Bush administration over Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and the occupied territories. But Labor's defection last November led to the early election in late January, and brought to power a new Labor leader, former Haifa mayor Amram Mitzna, who pledged during the campaign not to join Sharon's government. To the surprise of many Israelis, Mitzna, an unlikely politician, kept his word and went into the opposition. He met twice with Sharon to discuss a possible partnership, but those talks never got off the ground. In addition to the ideological gulf that separates them, both politicians share mutual suspicion from their military days (Mitzna, a former general, resigned from his post in protest over Sharon's role in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres) and made no real effort to compromise, beyond the minimum needed to play the public blame game.

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With Labor outside the government, Shinui became the left-leaning partner in the coalition, but more in appearance than reality. Lapid is a longtime arch-conservative, and while some of his party leaders lean more to the left, Shinui's main interest lies with social and economic affairs, and its influence over foreign and security policy will be minimal. Likud reinforced itself by turning to the right and far right, bringing in the National Religious Party and the extremist National Union Party into the coalition. Both represent the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, and they oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. Their leaders openly advocate the "transfer," or exile, of the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza -- a policy that almost all of the international community regards as a grave violation of international law. To bring them aboard, Sharon pledged to "bring to prior cabinet discussion and decision" any agreement about Palestinian statehood.

Sharon declared that his new government's first priority was to deal with Israel's severe economic crisis and stimulate growth. Foreign affairs, such as settling the never-ending conflict with the Palestinians, would have to wait until the coming war in Iraq was over. The world's attention is now focused in Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue has moved to the diplomatic back burner in Washington, Europe and the Arab capitals. This has given Sharon additional time to bring the Palestinians down by force, while preparing for a possible post-Iraq peace process. The military situation on the Palestinian front is more or less stable. Israel's reoccupation of the West Bank cities has succeeded in lowering the number of Palestinian suicide attacks, and brought life in Israel back to relative normalcy. Recent outbursts of violence around Gaza have not altered the delicate security balance.

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Unlike his first term, when Sharon wasn't sure whether America supported him or not and therefore did everything to blur his positions, this time he presented a detailed agenda. Sharon's policy is based on President George W. Bush's speech of June 24, 2002, in which Bush called for a new Palestinian leadership. Ever since then, Sharon has attached himself to Bush's "vision" of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security. In Sharon's eyes, though, it would be a mini-state surrounded by Israeli forces and settlements, and restricted by Israeli control of its borders and airspace. By Likud standards, Sharon's position is actually moderate, on the verge of making him a left-wing "peacenik." Indeed, since the Oslo peace process collapsed and Israeli public opinion swung to the right, the prime minister has positioned himself as a centrist.

Sharon has announced three preconditions for resuming negotiations with the Palestinians: a complete cease-fire, a thorough reform of Palestinian institutions, and the replacement of Yasser Arafat with new leaders. Following those changes on the other side, Israel would respond with "painful concessions," which Sharon has always refused to specify.

This week, Sharon's position received important backing from Bush, who repeated Sharon's demands on the Palestinians. In his Feb. 26 speech laying out an idealistic vision of a post-Saddam Middle East, Bush said he expected Israel to fulfill its part by supporting the creation of a "viable" Palestinian state (a code name for major withdrawal from the occupied territories) and ending settlement activity, but only after the "terror threat is removed, security improves," and "progress towards peace" has been made.

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Under those terms, it is no wonder that Sharon feels no need to rush. Sharon's office was very pleased with the president's remarks, which followed a "Happy Birthday" phone call from Bush to Sharon. During the coalition deal-making, Sharon's lieutenants reassured possible partners that they had nothing to worry about; any diplomatic process would begin with very difficult tasks for the Palestinian side, and a long time would pass before it was Israel's turn to reciprocate. "The time for domestic debate is far down the line -- let's split the political booty now and worry about ideology later," Sharon's deputies in effect argued. The far-right National Unity leader, Avigdor Lieberman, bought the argument and became transportation minister. Labor's Mitzna refused to bow: He demanded a solid timetable for withdrawal and settlement removal from Sharon, who balked at the idea.

From Sharon's perspective, the main diplomatic adversary is not the Palestinians, and not even the Arab states, but rather the Europeans, who have taken the lead in advocating for the Palestinian cause. While Europe is split over the Iraqi war, there is no debate on the old continent about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the European Union leaders met 10 days ago, disagreements ran high over Iraq and Bush, but all sides agreed on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Even Europe's most ardent Bush supporters, like British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spain's Jose Maria Aznar, called upon the president to resolve the Palestinian problem after Saddam's ouster.

The route to Israeli-Palestinian peace is laid out in the "road map," a working plan being developed by the "Quartet" -- the U.S., the E.U., the U.N. and Russia. The road map is meant to realize Bush's vision: It calls for the creation of Palestinian state with provisional borders by the end of 2003, with a permanent-status deal to be reached in 2005. Progress will be decided by both sides' performance, as judged by the Quartet's monitoring mechanism. The road map has already gone through three drafts. The Europeans asked Bush to finalize the text and present it to Israel and the Palestinians to take it or leave it. Sharon, however, persuaded the administration to delay the plan until the new Israeli government took office, and then to listen to its comments regarding the draft.

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Sharon has said repeatedly that he accepts Bush's vision. As for the road map, he has refrained from discussing it in public. In private, he has spoken cautiously, saying, "We could live with it" and "It has many positive aspects." An interagency team, led by Sharon's bureau chief Dov Weisglass, has been charged with writing Israel's formal response to the road map. The draft document, while not yet complete, already includes more than 100 corrections to the latest road map text.

Sharon's strategy is to attach himself to Bush's June 24 speech, which put the onus almost entirely on the Palestinians, and to reject those elements in the road map that demand Israeli concessions. For instance, the road map calls for a Palestinian leadership committed to democracy and to fighting terrorism, but says nothing about new leadership; the Israeli response insists on "a new and different" Palestinian leadership, as Bush did in his June 24 address. Israel also wants the Palestinians to renounce their demand for the "right of return" of the 1948 refugees to Israel proper. Another key point of controversy regards timetables versus performance: The road map demands that Israel meet timetables for withdrawal from the occupied territories, while Israel, following Bush's June speech, says that all Israeli moves must be contingent on Palestinian ones. Bush's Wednesday speech, which called for Israel to end settlement activity "as progress is made toward peace" but set no deadlines, cheered Sharon because it reaffirmed the Israeli position.

The new Israeli government, with its right-wing majority, will try to kill the current road map and replace it with a more favorable document. In a letter to Lapid on Monday, Sharon acknowledged that "Israel has many reservations and corrections to the drafts brought to us by the American administration," and laid out his plan: first, to finalize the Israeli position, then to negotiate the text with the Americans, and only then, "when a full understanding is reached between Israel and the United States," to bring the final document back to the cabinet for discussion and decision. This way, Sharon will leave his ministers out of the delicate talks with Washington and will present them with a diplomatic fait accompli.

For many months, as war with Iraq looms, Israeli politicians and officials have been debating the "day after" scenarios for the Middle East. The main mystery is whether Bush will follow in his father's footsteps and turn on Israel after beating the Arabs, as the elder Bush did in 1991, or will pay only lip service to regional peacemaking, focusing his energy on his reelection campaign and shoring up the Jewish vote. Given the administration's ongoing support for Sharon, and its frosty relations with Europeans and Arabs alike, most officials in Jerusalem are confident that the Americans will not pressure Israel after it deals with Iraq. "They will pressure the Palestinians, not us," a senior Sharon aide told me.

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The top echelons of the Israeli government and the military command share a high enthusiasm for the coming Iraqi war. They believe that an American victory will ultimately alter the regional balance of power in Israel's favor, weakening the Palestinians militarily, putting pressure on hardline states like Iran and Syria, and eventually leading to Arafat's ouster. As the region gears toward war, Sharon already sees signs of greater neighborhood acceptance. The first leader to congratulate him for his electoral victory was none other than Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, who had had only tough words for the Israeli leader in the past two years. Mubarak even invited Sharon to meet with him for the first time. For his part, Sharon made some small gestures of reconciliation: He met with two Palestinian leaders, after a long period in which he had not done so, and agreed to resume revenue transfers to the Palestinian Authority.

Its support for Israel notwithstanding, the Bush administration is leaving its postwar options open. It's quite clear Washington will not deal with Arafat. But that may not mean an automatic "yes" to any Sharon whim. Israel's comments on the first road map draft were only partially taken into account. And more important, at least in the short term, the administration will apparently not grant all of Israel's special aid request. Israel had asked for a four-year package of $4 billion in military grant, and $8 billion in loan guarantees (over and above the annual aid of $2.7 billion), to shore up its collapsing economy and compensate it for its growing security expenditures. Last week, an Israeli delegation met with skeptical American officials in Washington and returned home to prepare a better case. The current assessment in Jerusalem is that Israel will get the loan guarantees, under strict conditions, but will have to make do with a modest security package, worth a little over $1 billion.

In his foreign and economic policies alike, Sharon finds himself totally dependent on Bush. And in his second term, just as in his first one, nurturing his friendship with the American president will be far more crucial than navigating through the political minefields at home.


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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