Sharon and Arafat are locked in a battle over time: Arafat wants to put off the declaration of a cease-fire; Sharon wants to make it happen as soon as possible. Arafat wants a cease-fire announcement to coincide with the Arab League summit in Beirut; Sharon would like to foil his plans.
1. Sharon versus Arafat
Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat are locked in a battle over time: Arafat wants to put off the declaration of a cease-fire for as long as possible; Sharon wants to make it happen as soon as possible. Arafat wants a cease-fire announcement to coincide with the Arab League summit in Beirut; Sharon would like to foil his plans. Arafat knows that if he can shrink the period of time between the announcement and the summit to just a few days, and then have a meeting with U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney to look forward to, it will be hard for Israel to demand that he take concrete steps to uphold the cease-fire, and to prevent him from traveling abroad. Sharon knows that this is the corner into which Arafat is trying to push him, and he is trying to squirm out of it.
In the backdrop is the Tenet Plan, which stipulates that immediately following a cease-fire declaration, the Palestinian Authority must call upon all those in its territory who are illegally armed to turn in their weapons, announce that terror attacks against Israeli targets are forbidden, and stop its incitement. Arafat wants to create a timetable that will make it impossible to check if he has met these conditions. Sharon believes that the obligations the Tenet Plan imposes on Israel are much easier to effect and so he wishes to have both sides put to the test as early as possible.
The American vice president's expressed willingness to meet with Arafat complicates the situation, from the Israeli point of view, since it offers Arafat a tangible reward - a breaking of the ban imposed on him by the White House - in return for a declaration (of a cease-fire) alone, without waiting to see if he has in fact lived up to his commitment.
Essentially, Israel is now being pressured to completely bypass the Tenet Plan. The Europeans do not hesitate to say this openly, and the Americans seem to be itching to follow suit. The position that is emerging in the international community is to call upon both sides to halt the preliminary diplomatic game and get right to the heart of the matter - implementation of the Mitchell Report. Ministers from the Likud, Shas and Yisrael b'Aliyah feel that Israel should insist on full implementation of the Tenet Plan; the stance of the Labor ministers is less clear. During his visit this week, Cheney was pressed for assurances of the White House's full backing for the Tenet Plan. The right-wing cabinet ministers cite the assessments they heard this week from the heads of the Shin Bet security service and military intelligence, who said that Arafat does not wish to arrive in Beirut having put down the banner of terror.
For now, Sharon is in agreement with the right-wing ministers on this issue. He supposedly came to an understanding with the vice president about the need to stick to the Tenet Plan and is well aware of the lurking danger that a concession on the stages set by Tenet could lead to the disintegration of his government: Certain ministers from the Likud, Shas and Yisrael b'Aliyah would not be prepared to continue serving in a government that they felt was helping to establish a terrorist state alongside Israel. To them, the Tenet document is the means to dismantle the terrorist components of the Palestinian entity; forgoing it would mean erasing all the red lines that Israel has set for itself. These arguments make one wonder: If the Tenet Plan is so advantageous, why did Sharon put off using it for so long?
2. Peres versus Sharon
Shimon Peres has another view altogether. In a string of public and private appearances this week, he expressed a readiness to skip over the Tenet Plan and go straight to political negotiations. Moreover, the foreign minister appears to be urging Sharon to hurry up and complete the political negotiations within four to five months. He appears to be advocating that Arafat not be held to a very high standard in terms of upholding the cease-fire and he also seems to want to prepare Israeli public opinion to accept a certain level of terror attacks even while political negotiations are taking place. Beyond that, his remarks indicate a willingness to make concessions on fundamental Israeli positions - for example, on the matters of the right of return and safeguarding Israel from falling victim to the "phased plan" ascribed to Arafat - based on his reasoning that the world will not allow the Palestinians to realize these aspirations.
Peres would like to see an immediate and revolutionary change in the Israeli approach to the Palestinians and talks about the need to develop real political momentum and make historic decisions.
This is what he says: "A revolution is needed in our policy. We've become immersed in psycho-strategizing; we're constantly trying to analyze Arafat's character. We need to release the frozen PA funds and allow Palestinian laborers to return to work within Israel. Yes, there will be two or three terrorists among them, but this way will improve the Palestinians' economic situation; when we prohibit them from working here, we ensure that there will be many terrorists. We should present the Palestinians with demands that they are capable of meeting. The United States is waging a war of no choice against terror. Cheney reported that they discovered Taliban plans to use unconventional weapons. Part of the Muslim world is on the defensive: If the Muslim world goes along with terror, it will become the target of those who are fighting terror. The Arabs no longer have oil as a weapon: Huge oil wells have been found in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Angola. The Arab world cannot be left without oil and with terror. It has to join the war on terror.
"The world will not accept the demand for the right of return, even if Arafat won't give in on it. Everyone understands that the right of return means the transformation of the Jewish state into an Arab state. We have to reach an agreement with the world about the Palestinian problem. The agreement is vital to us. Even without terror, you can't play around with the demography: We do not have time; within five to seven years, there will be a new demographic balance here. Anyone who is pushing for victory has to triumph demographically and not militarily. Arafat is the person who spoke of the 1967 borders, not the 1947 ones. He will be satisfied with 22 percent of the territory and isn't demanding 55 percent. It is said that he is pursuing a phased plan. There is a world that will not let him carry it out. Ever since the Oslo agreement, Arafat has been dependent on Europe and America. If Arafat remains in the terror camp, he has no future. As long as we maintain the occupation, we make it easier for him. For our own interests, we must make a change in our approach."
Rightist ministers who were apprised of Peres's ideas this week replied that the foreign minister's eagerness to save the Oslo process is eroding his capacity for sound judgment.
3.Yesha versus the government
The Yesha Council is unsure of what to do about Ariel Sharon at this point. The demonstration it organized in Tel Aviv ten days ago was deliberately kept as apolitical as possible. The rabbis instructed that the event be used "to lift the nation's spirits." Thus, prominent politicians were kept off the stage, name-calling was carefully avoided and the rally was held under the slogan, "A strong nation vanquishes terror." Just a day later, the prime minister lurched leftward and the settler leaders are now pondering how to react.
When the National Union faction resigned from the coalition, the Yesha Council lost its main instrument of leverage on the prime minister. Now it is dependent on Yisrael b'Aliyah and the far-right wing of the Likud. It is doing its best to get a sense of what Sharon's intentions are from its sources in the government and the IDF. So far, the conclusion is pessimistic: Even though Sharon attributes the shift in his position to tactical considerations (his desire to meet American expectations as the U.S. prepares to undertake an offensive against the regime of Saddam Hussein), the settler leaders think this is just an excuse; they feel that Sharon's opting for Shimon Peres over Avigdor Lieberman reflects a political and psychological set of priorities, and is not merely a tactical maneuver.
The Yesha leaders believe that Sharon is very keen to achieve a cease-fire with the Palestinians before the upcoming meeting of the Likud Central Committee, and that this explains his readiness to pay a high price. Sharon has informed the American administration that if the terror continues, he will instruct the IDF to go back and exert full force on the PA, even if this leads Peres and the Labor Party to leave the government - but the settler leaders don't believe this will really happen. When they look back, they see that the restraint that Sharon occasionally exercised in the face of the Palestinians' murderous violence did not produce calm, and that when the Israeli military response resumed, it was not carried out with sufficient force (in their view).
The settler leaders yearn for a comprehensive and crushing military campaign that will wipe out Palestinian terror. They feel the war of attrition being waged by the Palestinian terror organizations should be answered with an Israeli lightning strike. They believe this is an achievable outcome, if only the prime minister had the fortitude for it. But they've concluded that Sharon is incapable of ordering the IDF to take the necessary steps.
4. Nusseibeh versus the left
When Prof. Sari Nusseibeh was late in arriving for his lecture at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Jerusalem this week, some in the audience joked that he "wanted to show how hard it is to pass through the checkpoints." When he showed up and explained that he preferred to pass through the checkpoints on foot, but his car that was left behind had taken a bullet in one of the tires, he did so like someone sharing an amusing anecdote with his listeners. And to remove any suspicion that he was exerting emotional pressure on the audience, he went to the trouble of stressing that he had no hidden intentions in relating this incident. Only after the fact, when the radio and newspaper reports laconically mentioned the circumstances in which the car had come under fire near the Qalandiyah checkpoint, did it become apparent that with just a tiny bit less luck, the incident could have ended with a stray bullet hitting the sole PA representative who talks about peace in acceptable terms, at least to part of the Israeli public.
In the audience were people like Haim Guri, Haim Shor and Aharon Amir, whose anger and frustration was evident. There were also several prominent analysts like Yehoshua Porat, Benny Morris and Menachem Milson, who told the guest speaker of their great dismay at the turn of events in September 2000. During the break, the question being whispered around the snack bar was: "Do you believe him?"
Because Nusseibeh, who is experienced at meeting Israeli audiences, said all the right things: He accepts Zionism, he accepts the existence of the State of Israel, he believes that the right of return will primarily be realized in the Palestinian state that will be established alongside Israel, but that a mechanism must be put in place that would make it possible for a limited number of refugees to be absorbed within Israel, with Israel maintaining veto powers on this issue. Part of Jerusalem would be the capital of Israel, and the other part would be the capital of Palestine, and a formula must also be found to ensure the city's continued unity.
He knows that, from the Israeli point of view, Ehud Barak's offer at Camp David was an unprecedented response to Palestinian demands, but from a Palestinian point of view, it was not sufficient to end the conflict. And the Israeli side also understood this, as proven by the further flexibility it showed at the Taba talks.
The most illuminating thing about the lecture was the response of Nusseibeh's listeners. The Israeli left, whom Arafat lost a year and a half ago and now seeks to court again, was well represented. This left evinced a pronounced mistrust of Nusseibeh and his message. The speaker sensed the mood of the crowd and told them that their response was part of the problem, because it showed that they do not recognize the Palestinians as human beings.
He explained that it would not be human to get up one morning and decide to go through this whole pretense about the Israeli-Palestinian problem just to win over Israeli public opinion, and that it would not be human to obey any supposed orders to do so. Nusseibeh noted that there are still Israelis who think about him in these terms and urged his listeners to accept him for what he is - one of the few Palestinian public figures who goes against the tide. It is not easy, he added, pointing out that his positions sometimes cause him problems in Palestinian society.