The real problem in establishing a U.S.-Israeli line is not in the White House, but over the Green Line, where there are signs of change, still slight, but nonetheless evident in the heartbeat of the Palestinian community. It could be a passing episode, but it also has the chance to become the moment that will be remembered as the beginning of preparations for the post-Yasser Arafat period.
On the eve of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to Washington, the Bush administration updated its assessment of the situation with a sense of satisfaction. Operation Defensive Shield delivered such a serious blow to Palestinian terror that the supporters of the use of violence on the Palestinian side have no capability - and those on the Israeli side looking for ways to avoid a political process have no excuse - to foil efforts at calming the situation.
The leading spokesperson for that view is National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, with CIA Director George Tenet behind her. Her counterpart in Sharon's entourage is Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy. At home are the champions of drafting staff papers, Israeli National Security Council head Uzi Dayan and Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, head of IDF planning.
The joint product is a platform for a new, rehabilitated Palestinian Authority, a Gaza first approach, model 2002. It returns the Palestinians back to eight years ago, to the first week of May 1994, when Arafat and his forces arrived in Gaza (and Jericho).
Israel now wants to stop the clock at that critical moment, the big bang of Oslo, and take back security control over the territories. The civil administration will remain in the hands of the Palestinians - but with foreign supervision, by the donor countries and Egypt and Jordan.
The security infrastructure in the territories was tainted by terrorism, and since the civil infrastructure was part of the security structure, both were damaged during Operation Defensive Shield. Enlisting outside help, with Israeli help, to rehabilitate the civil administration will create an opportunity to build a much less threatening society.
The two important levers for shaping the Palestinian community, just as in relations between Jerusalem and Washington, are money and arms. The defense establishment assumes that consistent, ongoing action to undermine violent forces in the West Bank and Gaza, denying them the arms they used for intimidation, will bring back powerful financial and political forces who during the Oslo years withdrew in the face of the militias. Without weapons, the thugs will resort to their natural dimensions.
The economic aid to the Palestinians will go directly to the development and welfare projects without dripping into the sands of Gaza through the corrupt institutional pipes. The donors will no longer just hope for the best without effective supervision of their funds.
There is no guarantee that this is the way things will turn out, but reports from the territories indicate it is possible. Palestinians speaking with Israelis talk about mounting political and personal criticism of Arafat. They are demanding decentralization of authority.
Abu Mazen stands out as representative of the minority, a kind of Trotsky versus Stalin, and a well-known financial figure in the West Bank tells an Israeli friend, referring to Arafat, "get that clown out of here and shut down his circus."
Senior officials in the PA regard the violence since September 2000 as a failure. The Israeli demand for unification of the security forces is being echoed in the territories, as witnessed by the proposal to appoint Nasser Yusuf, head of the hitherto toothless Palestinian police, the chief of the combined forces.
The Palestinians cannot ignore that a Gaza first approach means strengthening of the head of Preventive Security forces in the area, Mohammed Dahlan. The power struggles between him and his ally, Mohammed Rashid, and the head of the West Bank's Preventive Security services, Jibril Rajoub, are no longer beneath the surface. There are reports of "arrests" and "releases" and even shooting around a Ramallah hotel during a meeting of one of the camps. Opponents of Dahlan and Rashid call the areas they control - or strive to control - "The Two Mohammeds Authority." Dahlan has also allied with head of the special forces, Bashar Nafa. In the first confrontation between Nafa and Rajoub, Rajoub came out with the upper hand, but these are only the first stages, not the semifinals.
The Palestinians have their two Mohammeds, the Israelis have their two Benjamins - Netanyahu and Ben-Eliezer. The consolidation of a new leadership instead of Arafat, first under him and then replacing him, is dependent to a large extent on Sharon's readiness to show political flexibility - and that is dependent on the political timetables of both Benjamins.
Washington, busy with mid-term elections in November, will understand if Sharon has to put a freeze on moderate statements for a while, as distinct from what he says behind closed doors with Bush, under similar circumstances in Israel, meaning early elections.
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