Ariel Sharon's toughest battle?

With the Israeli prime minister facing tough criminal investigations, the Mideast cease-fire serves his political needs very well -- for now.


Aluf Benn
August 14, 2003 1:55AM (UTC)

Quietude is the hottest political commodity in Israel these days, both on the Palestinian front and in the state's leadership. The relative security calm, following the temporary cease-fire -- "hudna" -- declared by the main Palestinian factions in late June, is noticeable everywhere in the country. Israelis are less fearful of Palestinian suicide bombings and eagerly spend their summer holiday out of their homes; the beaches, cafes and shopping malls are crowded. The shattered economy has shown its first signs of recovery, and even some tourists are back at the empty Tel Aviv hotels. Nobody knows how long this relaxation will last, as the shaky truce faces almost daily hurdles and pressures. But as long as it holds, it lifts spirits both in Israel and in the occupied territories.

On Tuesday morning, two Palestinian suicide bombers mounted separate attacks, one in the Israeli town of Rosh Ha'ain, and the other at the West Bank settlement Ariel; two Israelis died, and a dozen or more were injured. The apparently unrelated bombings came after several days of gradual escalation, and were depicted as retaliation for an Israeli military operation in Nablus over the weekend. But despite the outburst of violence, both sides appeared willing to resume the cease-fire. Taking into account the low number of casualties, Israel refrained from another round or reprisal, opting instead for putting diplomatic pressure on the Palestinian Authority through Washington. A few days before, the Israeli government reacted in a similar way to Hezbollah attacks over the Lebanese border. Nobody, it appeared, wants a return to the pre-hudna bloodshed.

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Until Tuesday's violent eruption, the Palestinian conflict had moved to the back pages after virtually monopolizing the Israeli agenda in the past three years. Public attention had turned instead to the criminal investigation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Though he has won two electoral landslides and crushed the opposition, Sharon is now facing a battle for political survival. He and his two sons, Gilead and Omri, are the subjects of two criminal investigations; one involves crooked campaign financing and mysterious money trafficking; the other alleged bribery involving Sharon, his son Gilead, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the developer David Appel, a longtime confidant of Israeli politicians.

Sharon has kept silent on the investigation. Since his reelection in late January, he refrained from any public reference to it. His son Gilead kept his silence under questioning by police, asserting that the case is all but a plot against his father and his brother (Omri is a member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and an important political wheeler-dealer). Before the election, Sharon fired a deputy minister, Naomi Blumental, who refused to cooperate with the police in a campaign-related scandal. Now, with his son in the suspect's seat, the prime minister has declined to intervene. Soon, the other son and the father will get their summons to the police.

It is too early and too risky to predict the investigation's outcome. There are contradictory leaks regarding the evidence. Moreover, Israel's judicial system is very forgiving to public officials. In the past decade, almost all politicians and senior government officials who have stood trial have been acquitted. Sharon has a remarkable, unparalleled record of falling from grace and returning to a higher stance. Public opinion, too, favors Sharon over any possible heir, and treats campaign finance scandals as a necessary political evil. Nevertheless, the inquiry already reverberates in the political arena. Sharon's fellow ministers, sensing his weakness, are already preparing for the next leadership contest in the ruling Likud party.

As always, the domestic turmoil infects the security and foreign policy fields as well. The prime minister faces opposing "wag the dog" accusations from both political ends. The right wing suspects that Sharon will try to ease his way out of criminal trouble by rushing to move the peace process forward, paying for his own political security with territorial and other concessions to the Palestinians. In this scenario, the Israeli public will have to make a "peace or law" choice, and will eventually forgive Sharon for any alleged wrongdoing. The left, in a typical mirror image, fears that Sharon will wreck the cease-fire, thus shifting public attention away from unpleasant legal matters to the familiar security trench. Here again, Sharon's bravery under fire will keep him in the job.

Sharon's silence fits perfectly into his reactive leadership style. Since taking office in March 2001, the prime minister has pushed to buy time; he's tried to keep maximum freedom of action while avoiding tough decisions. After decades of rift and paralysis, this attitude had brought much-needed political stability to Israel. But it had also prolonged the violent conflict with the Palestinians, where Sharon, too, left the initiative to the other players and made do with responding.

True to form, the Sharon government has all but officially ignored the hudna, viewing it as an internal Palestinian issue and suspecting a honey-trap. While enjoying the security brought by the cease-fire, Israel has repeatedly warned that Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa martyr brigades should not use it as an umbrella for regrouping and rearming. However, under American prodding, Sharon and his defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, agreed to allow the Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas ("Abu Mazen") a grace period of three months before tackling the terrorist groups.

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The relative success of the hudna so far has been the result of the matching interests of all the players involved. For the Israelis, it eased the strangling security burden over daily life and the economy. It spared Abu Mazen and his security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, from a forceful showdown with Hamas, which they oppose. It relieved the leaders of Hamas from the fear of Israeli assassination. And last, but not least, it allowed U.S. President George Bush to show some achievement in the Middle East before leaving for his Texas summer vacation.

Bush surprised many observers of the Mideast upheaval with his burst of diplomatic hyperactivity in the spring, when he crowned Abu Mazen as prime minister, imposed the "roadmap" peace plan (a three-stage blueprint for creating a Palestinian state and ending the conflict by 2005) on Sharon, and then came personally to the region to launch a new process of rapprochement between Israel and the new Palestinian government. After a few weeks, however, it appears that the White House has returned to its modest expectations and modest goals. Bush is not fantasizing about a Nobel Peace Prize like Bill Clinton did. Facing reelection next year, he is naturally reluctant to confront Israel over the tough, but necessary, issues of a peace accord, such as dismantling Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza or discussing the future sovereignty over Jerusalem. Therefore, his main goal in the Mideast conflict is to take it off the hot spots list and to fend off criticism that America has answered seemingly endless bloodshed with inaction. The time-out in hostilities fulfills this modest ambition more than any other effort in the past three years. To be assured, Bush had brought both Abu Mazen and Sharon to Washington, separately, before leaving for his Crawford ranch.

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Sensing the lack of American determination and pressure, both sides resorted to their familiar blame game, aiming to throw the ball into the other's court. They even switched sides in their propaganda war. Several months ago, when Israel showed reluctance to adopt the "roadmap," the Palestinians accepted its terms unconditionally and called the international community to impose it upon Israel. Nowadays, the Israelis demand Palestinian adherence to the roadmap's terrorist-bashing provisions, while Abu Mazen's government raises new demands, which were not explicitly mentioned in the plan, namely the release of prisoners from Israeli jails, recognizing the hudna as the means to dismantle terrorism, and halting the construction on Israel's security barrier in the West Bank.

The Bush administration has tried to forge a delicate balance, somewhat forgoing its previous pro-Israel policy. It accepted Sharon's demand to dismantle the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, but recognized the Palestinians' need for more time and resources. This compromise has led, in fact, to the freezing of progress in the roadmap implementation, since the dismantling of terrorist infrastructure is a precondition for moving into the second stage, which aims to establish a Palestinian state within interim borders. Thus, it spares Sharon from the hard choices of the next stage, leaving the roadmap in its first, security-oriented part, when most of the burden lies on the Palestinians' shoulders and there are relatively minor demands on the Israeli side.

Sharon supported the appointment of Abu Mazen as a substitute for the despised Yasser Arafat, the veteran Palestinian leader. The two prime ministers have met several times, and forged a kind of working relationship; Israel transferred control over Gaza and Bethlehem, removed several roadblocks and released over 400 low-key prisoners. Nevertheless, behind the businesslike façade lies little trust. Sharon has pledged to reach a peaceful settlement and make "painful concessions" along the way. But he has yet to face the fulfillment test. Sharon praised Abu Mazen's moderate views, but still does not recognize him as a serious negotiating partner. Israeli officials doubt Abu Mazen's grip on Palestinians politics, and still see him working under Arafat's long shadow.

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As a diplomat, however, Abu Mazen proved himself as a formidable rival to Sharon. The Palestinian prime minister managed to stir Bush to his side in opposing the Israeli barrier project. In recent weeks, Sharon faced a growing American pressure to stop, or alter, its proposed route. The U.S. went as far as public threats to cut the project's price from American loan guarantees to Israel, an unprecedented move for a friendly administration like Bush's.

The barrier enjoys immense public support in Israel as a shield against suicide bombers from the West Bank. A similar barrier surrounding the Gaza Strip proved successful in preventing such attacks. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak proposed it as a provisional border, a unilateral substitute for the failed peace process with Arafat. Sharon initially opposed the idea -- fearing the isolation of his beloved settlements on the other side of the barbed wire -- but surrendered to public pressure last year and authorized construction. Since then, he insisted repeatedly that the barrier would not draw a border, but merely serve as an obstacle for terrorists.

As long as it was built more or less along the "green line", which divided Israel and the West Bank before 1967, Washington turned a blind eye toward the project. To be sure, its first stage had cut through some Palestinian lands and surrounded the town of Qalqilyeh. But that was diplomatically bearable. When the second part came to approval, the fence planners faced a problem: what to do with large settlements, Ariel and Qdumim, built deep inside the West Bank, but believed to be annexed to Israel under any conceivable future agreement. Mofaz, the defense minister and aspiring national leader, took the easy way out. He proposed to include Ariel and Qdumim in the fence's security perimeter, thus building two Israeli "fingers" in the West Bank. Sharon sensed trouble, and decided back in April to suspend the plan until some better circumstances develop. Since then, he avoided bringing it to Cabinet approval.

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The Palestinians used the time to launch a successful media and diplomatic campaign against what they called the "Israeli Apartheid wall," bringing foreign reporters to see concrete walls that are part of the project. The Berlin comparison proved very convincing to the American conscience; the administration's top echelon, including Bush himself, voiced strong reservations about the barrier. Sharon had to bow, and promised to alter the plan in a way that could provide the necessary security, while not harming the Palestinians. His office says that the new route will soon be mapped and presented to Sharon.

A senior Israeli official said in an interview that the American pressure is related to the possible influence of Israeli actions over the final peace agreement. Thus, for instance, Washington is less concerned with releasing Palestinian prisoners, which is seen as a tactical move. It worries more about illegal settlement "outposts" in the West Bank, which Sharon has pledged to evacuate, and even more over future construction in the existing settlements. In this scale, the barrier is seen as the most troubling, since it prejudges the future border, regardless of Sharon's assurances.

Israeli officials interpreted the American criticism of the security barrier line as a hint that the Bush administration, just like its predecessors, views the final Israeli-Palestinian border as similar to the pre-1967 "green line" -- a line that Sharon and his political allies view as dangerous to Israel's very existence. Needless to say, they have vowed never to return to the 1967 lines. Bush and Sharon want to postpone the inevitable American-Israeli debate over the final borders, and therefore feel comfortable in the current climate of ambiguity and indecision.

In recent days, the calm situation faced growing challenges, which proved that the hudna is all but a thin cover for a highly volatile situation, and the interest of Israeli and Palestinian leaders in quiet is temporary at best. Israeli security chiefs have warned repeatedly that the Palestinians are not doing enough to prevent terrorist buildup. Sharon passed the warning to American envoys on Sunday and Tuesday, and asked the United States to put pressure on the Palestinians to curb terrorism in their areas. American influence is limited, however, and Sharon will soon face the double challenge of security deterioration and the police investigation. Even for this old warrior, it could be the toughest battle of all.

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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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2004 Elections George W. Bush Middle East

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