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1. The bitter truth

In consultations two days ago following the terror attack at the Megiddo Junction, the bitter truth surfaced: The country's leadership is incapable of providing its citizens with security.

In meetings in the defense establishment, it was said that the Israel Defense Forces is already basically operating unimpeded deep inside Palestinian territory, so what good will an order for a further incursion do? At the cabinet meeting, Minister David Levy had some harsh words for the prime minister: What are you planning to do to change the situation? Minister Yitzhak Levy seconded him: Do you realize that this is a terror attack on the magnitude of the slaughter at the Dophinarium? At the cabinet meeting on Sunday, Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter repeated an assertion he'd made before: In the present conditions, we cannot supply a total response to Palestinian terror. And he repeated his recommendation that all of Area A be retaken for an extended period of time.

Information supplied by Military Intelligence shows that while Operation Defensive Shield was in progress, the terror curve went down to nearly zero. It seems that as soon as the IDF began to loosen its grip on West Bank towns, the Palestinian terrorists got back to work. Hence, the recommendation that the IDF be allowed to return and retake control, but with one difference: Only in those locations that are the most likely sources of trouble. In other words, the IDF is looking for the go-ahead to take over Jenin, Nablus, Tul Karm and other places in accordance with developments or intelligence that is gathered. This approach is predicated on the idea that terror can be isolated, that it is not a manifestation of popular emotions sweeping the entire Palestinian public, and that it is in Israel's power to maintain the necessary forces for an unlimited period of time in order to choke off the Palestinian Authority's vital arteries.

For the moment, at least, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer holds a somewhat different view. He says that the internal process of reform that the PA is seemingly undergoing should be given every opportunity to run its course - meaning that the government should refrain from launching any massive operations that would focus attention on the Israeli response rather than on the Palestinian terrorist attacks. Therefore, Ben-Eliezer is aiming to temper the IDF's recommendations and channel them into an approach that offers a chance (albeit not a big one) for the international pressure being applied to Arafat to have an effect.

Ben-Eliezer sees what he takes to be some initial encouraging signs: the criticism leveled at Arafat from within the PA; the interest that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are showing in reaching an accord that will keep the turmoil from spilling over into their realms; the reproachful comments about Arafat's behavior expressed by important European figures (such as German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer); and the forceful warnings relayed to Arafat by the American administration (one of the most recent being CIA Director George Tenet's telling Arafat that if the terror attacks continue, the Bush administration will no longer be urging Sharon to respond with restraint).

There is no guarantee that Ben-Eliezer's approach will last for long. Not only because consistency has not exactly been his forte, but because he has declared from the outset that it all depends on developments: Should one terror attack keep following another, the dynamic that leads to a major escalation will be unstoppable. And, of course, hopes for a significant change in Arafat's behavior or effective international pressure may very easily be disappointed, which will only lead to a heightened call for a renewed show of force by the IDF.

Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, on the other hand, has been very consistent: He is not deterred by criticism from the prime minister and defense minister and tells the cabinet members exactly what he thinks: He continues to advocate the reoccupation of all the PA territories followed by a thorough search for all terrorists and explosives, however long it takes.

2. Back to Washington

The likelihood of the prime minister eventually approving a large-scale operation in the territories (beyond the response to the car bomb at the Megiddo Junction) if the wave of terror attacks continues is quite high, since no one in the government intends to wait for another 400 Israeli casualties to accumulate. The mood among the ministers a couple of days ago was angry and belligerent, as one would expect after a terror attack of this magnitude. The demand that Arafat be ousted from the territories was again a common theme (voiced by Uzi Landau, Silvan Shalom, Limor Livnat and Effi Eitam). Sharon continues to mention this as a possibility, and his aides claim that Washington is turning a receptive ear to him on this issue. They say that the U.S. understands, and even agrees, that things would be better with Arafat out of the picture since he is the main obstacle to achieving any progress in relations between Israel and the Palestinians; the debate is over which steps should be taken to bring about his neutralization, and over their timing. Thus, when Sharon holds talks in Washington three days from now, the expectation is that he will be making an effort to obtain coordination on this matter.

Only a minority of the cabinet members thinks otherwise: At the meeting two days ago, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres advised David Levy to calm down and to remember that decisions ought not to be made in the heat of anger. In private conversations with ministers from his party, the foreign minister says that the government should not bind itself to a predetermined political plan, but instead wait for developments initiated by the United States. In other words, it is in the Labor Party's interest not to commit at this moment to a specific political strategy, but to wait for the Americans to put together a plan of action and then see if it can be adopted.

Dan Meridor says that notwithstanding the understandable impulse to respond strongly to such a horrific terror attack, the government must strive to put an end the bloodshed either by means of a final status agreement or an interim agreement. In private talks, some ministers even wondered whether Israel really had evidence that ties Arafat to the bombing at the Megiddo Junction or proof that he has an interest in seeing the terror attacks continue at this time.

People in both Sharon and Ben-Eliezer's bureaus reply that it is indisputable that Arafat is not lifting a finger to halt the terror, and that had he wanted to, he could have done so. The defense minister told George Tenet this week that Arafat aligned himself with terror by making his people view it as a legitimate tool in the struggle against Israel. Yesterday, some in the defense establishment were saying that the fact that the terrorist at the Megiddo Junction belonged to Islamic Jihad was merely coincidental and did not mean that Arafat has no connection to terror attacks: Every day, the intelligence and security forces manage to foil a couple of terror attacks planned and ready to be carried out by Tanzim members, who are directly subordinate to the head of the PA.

The incomplete success of Operation Defensive Shield, already evident right after its completion, was demonstrated even more forcefully this week. The Israeli security forces are incapable of squashing Palestinian terror; they need the support of a political mantle that the present government is reluctant to provide. Sharon leaves tomorrow for the U.S. (absent any last-minute changes) in a bid to gain time: He is not seriously interested in a political process since he does not wish to arrive at the moment of reckoning when he will have to confront the future of the settlements. Hence, he is raising demands for a change of the Palestinian leadership as a precondition for the opening of negotiations. And he is demanding the institution of reform and democratization in the PA - conditions that no Arab leader or regime presently meets.

The bombing at the Megiddo Junction will help him achieve his objective: If the meeting with Bush was originally intended to counter the Arab influence exerted on the president in recent weeks, the ghastly terror attack will give renewed force to Sharon's request for American backing for his insistence that Arafat either rein in the terror or hit the road. And so, as has often happened in the past, the power of the militant organizations to torpedo any chance of alleviating the conflict will be proven yet again.

3. Nothing new in the north

Militant elements are also behind the growing tension along the northern border. Hezbollah, with Syrian and Iranian encouragement, is planning an escalation, for which it will determine the timing. According to the prevailing assessments in Jerusalem, the aim is to remind Israel and the United States of Damascus's presence and to demonstrate its ability to disrupt plans to convene a regional (or international) conference if Syria is not invited. Another theory: Iran and Syria aspire to foil any move that has a chance of leading to a positive turning point in relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Decision-makers in Jerusalem keep telling themselves that they must react with restraint to the Syrian and Iranian provocations (being made through Hizbollah). So far, they have done so; only Minister Uzi Landau advocates a preemptive strike inside Lebanon "in order to remove the rockets and Katyushas from within range of Israel."

4. A shameful disgrace

It took the Labor party 52 years to reach the conclusion that it should apologize to Israeli Arabs for the state's treatment of them; but it only took two years for it to erase this goodwill gesture. Ehud Barak asked for forgiveness after the events of October 2000, though it didn't help him in the March 2001 elections. Two days ago, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer lent a hand to a parliamentary move that is sure to be remembered as a shameful disgrace by the Arab public in this nation.

Until 1993, those who had not served in the IDF were eligible to receive only a reduced children's allowance from the National Insurance Institute (NII). Ostensibly, the law applied to both Arab and ultra-Orthodox citizens who did not receive the allowance reserved for army veterans. But in fact, most of the ultra-Orthodox population enjoyed various benefits that made its NII allowances equal to those received by army veterans.

The Arab population did not enjoy any such benefits. This discrimination was corrected during Yitzhak Rabin's second term as prime minister: Based on a decision taken by the Labor party congress, the government decided to equalize the allowances among all sectors of the population and it allocated NIS 900 million (NIS 1.5 billion in today's terms) for this purpose. At the same time, the government proposed the Decommissioned Soldiers' Bill, which grants a certain sum of money to a soldier upon his discharge. In this way, the government preserved the universal character of the NII allowances (which are given to all sectors of the population) and still rewarded those who served in the army.

This week, the Sharon government came up with a new version of the earlier discrimination: In the emergency economic plan that it presented to the Knesset, it distinguished between those who served in the army and those who did not for the purpose of determining the size of the allowances. In a move designed to favor the ultra-Orthodox over the Arabs, Avigdor Yitzhaki, the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, proposed that the committee addressing the matter (led by MK Weizman Shiri of Labor) equate the allowances of those who did full army service with those who served for a shorter period (most of the ultra-Orthodox serve for an exceedingly brief period of about a month before returning to the halls of Torah study).

Some of the Labor MKs, led by Avraham Beiga Shochat, rebelled and announced that they would vote against the approval of the economic plan. Shochat said that the proposal would introduce shameful discrimination between Arab and Jewish citizens and that it was Sharon's gift to Shas for returning to the coalition.

The stance taken by Shochat and his colleagues embarrassed Ben-Eliezer. But when he heard their explanation, and the warnings from Effi Oshaya and Ophir Pines that, if passed, the proposal would cause a final rift between the party and the Arab sector, he announced that he would instruct the faction members to vote against the proposal. However, the next day, when Sharon summoned him for a talk and warned that if Labor did not support the economic plan, he wouldn't hesitate to spark a coalition crisis, Ben-Eliezer promised to instruct the faction to vote in favor. He tried to reach an understanding with Shochat and even offered to have him head a committee that would study the issue in depth. After doing some checking, Shochat concluded that Ben-Eliezer wasn't prepared to leave the government if the discriminatory proposal was not removed, and that Finance Minister Silvan Shalom was not prepared to make any changes in the economic emergency plan (that would compensate the state coffers for the money that would be missed should the clause be cancelled). He decided to pass on the honor.

In the end, the proposed discrimination between the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs was cancelled due to the recommendations of legal advisers who warned about the possibility of Supreme Court intervention. The discrimination between those who served in the army and those who were not able to (including the disabled, single parents, people with a low physical or psychological profile) remained intact. Shochat says this situation is destroying the effectiveness of the NII as an aid mechanism.