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<1. Into the bullring

The chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon, sounded worried at the cabinet session a week ago: The U.S. administration is showing a fondness for Abu Mazen and the group around him, especially Salam Fayyad, the finance minister. Israel is caught in a trap that could develop into a situation in which the White House will consider Israel and Hamas the adversaries in the Land of Israel, while the Palestinian Authority enjoys the status of observer from the gallery. Not only is Israel being deprived of the right to decide whether the members of the new Palestinian leadership are carrying out their part in the agreement, Washington is demanding Israel take steps to enable that leadership to achieve popularity among the Palestinian people. The warning of the chief of staff reflected the mood in which the Israeli leadership is advancing toward the hudna (temporary cease-fire), assuming it is actually declared.

Ya'alon as well as Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are broadcasting the message of people who find themselves at the start of the corrales, the narrow corridor along which the bulls are led into the ring and ultimately to their slaughter - an image Sharon likes to invoke when he describes political moves that lurch our of control. In other words, the ramified strategic move, which was implemented with Israel's concurrence and its aid, and which led to the election of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as the Palestinian prime minister, has boomeranged. The chick that has yet to sprout feathers, in another of Sharon's colorful images, is growing wings and confronting Israel with a complex challenge in the international arena, especially in the competition to win the heart of the United States. Abu Mazen, in short, is making moves in a way that thrusts the ball back into the Israeli court.

On the eve of the (possible) declaration of the hudna, Israel finds itself in a situation in which the necessary condition, in its perception, to ensure the validity of the truce will not come into being. As matters stood on Wednesday afternoon (until the attempted assassination of Palestinian activists in Khan Yunis), the cease-fire was rapidly approaching without any guarantee that it will be utilized to dismantle the infrastructures of terrorism. The Israeli leadership was concerned that it was being pushed through a gate beyond which the expectation was for a period of (relative) calm in Palestinian violence - without their being able to challenge this or violate it on the grounds that Abu Mazen and his top security man, Mohammed Dahlan, are not implementing the clauses of the road map that refer to the arrest of terrorists, collection of weapons and depriving the terrorist organizations of their ability to strike at Israel.

Israel discovered that this is the Palestinians' intention from the declared positions of Abu Mazen and his colleagues in the new leadership and from reports about their internal discussions. In both public and closed conversations, Dahlan made it clear he has no intention of becoming the only patsy who is willing to take on Hamas by means of force. He argued that Abu Mazen had avoided this, and that Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, certainly is not encouraging it. Dahlan is refusing to show Israel a concrete plan of action to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, and when it is suggested to him that he share his ideas with the United States, he replies that as long as the hudna is in effect, he will not attack the rejectionist organizations - even if under the cover of the hudna, they rearm and plan the next round of violence against Israel. He also one-upped Israel by proposing the armed units of the terrorist organizations become a legitimate part of the PA's armed force, thus koshering the weapons that the road map stipulates are to be handed over to the American inspectors.

There were some who took consolation in the traditional American sympathy for the suffering inflicted on Israel by Palestinian terrorism, but a question mark now hangs over this political asset. That, at any rate, is the impression of senior cabinet ministers, and that is also the implication of the remarks made by the chief of staff at the cabinet meeting. In their view, Abu Mazen and his colleagues are not delivering the goods expected by Israel in the security sphere, while at the same time they are becoming a catalyst that legitimizes the Palestinian position in the U.S. Whereas Sharon and his bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, believe the Israeli-American understanding is solid, and report the existence of secret agreements between the two countries about the character of the future Palestinian state, at both the interim stage and in the permanent settlement, key cabinet ministers are wondering how credible these assertions are, citing the American position at the Aqaba conference as a case in point of the way Washington is ignoring Israel's expectations.

For example, they note the refusal by President George Bush to include in his speech a statement to the effect that the Palestinian state will be demilitarized, though at the same time, he accepted the Palestinian request to mention that their state will be "viable" and have "territorial contiguity." They also cite the understanding that was reached between the U.S. administration and the Palestinian leadership on resolving the dispute over control of the longitudinal road in the Gaza Strip, in the form of joint (Israeli-Palestinian) patrols. Abu Mazen agreed to this; Sharon did not.

In this week's cabinet meeting Sharon emphasized that Israel has made clear its position concerning the war against terrorism: If the PA doesn't do it, Israel will act as it understands. Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) asked whether the U.S. accepts the Israeli position that implies continued assassinations of Palestinians whom Israel defines as "ticking bombs." The defense minister replied that the Americans did not express objections. Sharon added: The matter was made clear in the clearest possible manner. Even if the U.S. does not agree with a targeted preemption, we will act as we understand. Late Wednesday afternoon another such attack was carried out in Khan Yunis against what the army described as a squad that was suspected of getting ready to fire Qassam rockets at Israeli targets. What happened is that one of the squad members was seriously wounded and two civilian passersby, a man and a woman, were killed. At press time, it was not clear whether Washington would pass over this attack, too.

2. Stretching the rope of Bush's tolerance

A few days after the failed attempt on the life of top Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantisi, Sharon spoke like someone who had successfully come through a severe test: The American reaction, which was initially harsh, changed. The reason for the shift in tone may have been the suicide bombing on a bus in Jerusalem the next day, which has claimed 17 lives, or perhaps the emotional involvement of the U.S. ambassador, Dan Kurtzer, in the tragedy (a cousin of his was killed in the attack), or perhaps a presidential decision not to let events of this kind divert the U.S. from the path that leads to implementation of the road map. From Sharon's point of view, the decision to assassinate Rantisi was a calculated gamble that paid off (it was preceded by a discussion about a suggestion to carry out a more extensive assassination, but that idea was shelved): It stretched the rope of Bush's tolerance very taut, but it didn't break.

Security is the banner Sharon is flaunting in his struggle to set the rules of the game during the period of the cease-fire. In his recent speeches (including the one at the Likud convention), he has refrained from invoking sensitive terminology such as "occupation," "settlements" or "outposts." Instead, he is reiterating his commitment to the security of the country and its citizens, and is out to burn into the consciousness of everyone his firm intention to do battle against Palestinian terrorism, even during the hudna, if Abu Mazen and his aides fail to do so.

Sharon told the ministers that his reason for entering the road map process was the commitment he gave the U.S. He explained to them that given the choice of a certain clash with the U.S. now or a possible dispute in the future, he is opting for the second possibility. Therefore, he told the ministers, he decided to accede to the American requests concerning the formulation of the road map, its timing and the manner of its launch. The ministers have no knowledge about understandings Sharon has reached with the Americans about the implementation of the road map; at most the optimists among them hope that he obtained Bush's acceptance of Israeli targeted assassinations against loudly ticking bombs.

The warnings by senior figures in the defense establishment about the confining character of the hudna that the Palestinians are formulating, the unequivocal messages in this spirit that were transmitted via diplomatic channels to the international community, and the dispatch of the head of the Shin Bet security service and the director of Military Intelligence to Washington, were all part of the Israeli effort to obtain U.S. support for the demand to include in the cease-fire concrete and unceasing activity by the PA to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. Bush's statement on Wednesday would seem to attest to the success of this campaign. The president spoke in no uncertain terms about the needs to deprive the terrorist organizations of their ability to perpetrate attacks and about the pointlessness of verbal commitments to stop the violence that are not backed up by deeds.

However, the missiles fired by Israeli helicopters at a target in Khan Yunis shortly after Bush's tough remarks threatened once more to tip the balance toward Abu Mazen.

Bush throws back a ball

Tourism Minister Benny Elon (National Union) this week tried to enlist the support of the cabinet for an initiative to freeze Israel's involvement in the implementation of the road map on the pretext that the Palestinian side is not carrying out its side of the agreement. Elon's initiative took the form of a draft resolution that was circulated among the ministers: "Resolved, pursuant to Resolution 292, of May 25, 2003 (comments No. 1 and 2), that Israel will freeze the continued implementation of its part in the first stage of the road map until the cessation of the incitement in the Palestinian media and the achievement of a complete stop of hostilities by the Palestinian side, including suicide bombings, shooting attacks and the firing of mortars and rockets at Israeli civilians and soldiers everywhere. Until the cessation of the incitement and the cessation of the hostilities, as noted above, Israel will not transfer the Palestinian tax revenues, will not release prisoners, will not dismantle outposts and will not freeze Jewish settlement."

Elon recalled on Wednesday night that he voted against Resolution 292, in which the cabinet approved the road map, but even from the viewpoint of the ministers who supported it, the best move would be to freeze it and examine how far the Palestinians are fulfilling their part. Elon maintained that the government did not accept the road map as it is, but the road map together with the government's 14 reservations. The first of these states: "Both at the commencement of and during the process, and as a condition to its continuance, calm will be maintained. The Palestinians will dismantle the existing security organizations and implement security reforms during the course of which new organizations will be formed and act to combat terror, violence and incitement (incitement must cease immediately and the Palestinian Authority must educate for peace) ... "

The second reservation states: "Full performance will be a condition for progress between phases and for progress within phases. The first condition for progress will be the complete cessation of terror, violence and incitement ..."

Elon recalled that between the Aqaba summit and the drafting of his proposal, 29 Jews were killed in Palestinian attacks, the incitement did not stop and no action was taken to collect the illegal weapons or dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.

In explanatory remarks that he circulated among the ministers, Elon noted that not only did Israel not cease implementation of its part in the agreement, but the prime minister, in an information paper he distributed to the ministers, stated: "Israel is fulfilling its part when it acts resolutely to implement its commitments relating to the transfer of the Palestinians' tax revenues, the release of prisoners, the dismantlement of the illegal outposts and the freeze on Jewish settlement according to the principles that were agreed."

Elon's move ran into flak. The National Religious Party told him to first get the Likud to sign and then NRP ministers Effi Eitam and Zevulun Orlev will add their names to the draft resolution. However, Elon found no great response to his initiative in the Likud, either. On Wednesday night he said that he would decide what to do by next Wednesday's cabinet meeting: Maybe the prime minister himself will initiate a similar resolution, Elon said, even though he knew better.

Elon's position reflects the evaluation of a good many of the ministers about the way the PA is implementing the road map, but this group finds itself in a small minority when it tries to translate its opinion into an official political move. For the time being, there is no concrete opposition in the cabinet that will dare to mount a public challenge to Sharon's policy; the prime minister continues to espouse the formal implementation of the commitments he has assumed in connection with the road map. This is not to say that there are differences within the cabinet in terms of the analysis of the PA's performance in regard to the road map.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom stated explicitly that if the government does not insist at this stage on the Palestinians' fulfillment of the terms of the road map, it will be repeating the mistakes made by past governments. In the foreign minister's perception, the major obstacle in relations with the Palestinians was Israel's acceptance of their violations of agreements and understandings that had ostensibly been reached with them. If that syndrome repeats itself now, the new process will fail, too. Defense Minister Mofaz believes the terrorist attacks will continue, and he warns against the haven that the hudna will provide for the terrorist organizations to rearm. Sharon, too, was quoted this week as objecting to the hudna.

If a cease-fire is declared, the Sharon government will find itself in a dilemma: Will it dare breach the cease-fire on the grounds that beneath the surface Hamas and Islamic Jihad are preparing a new terror campaign? Will the world be persuaded? Will President Bush not think that such arguments will interfere in the election campaign he is about to enter? Will the Israeli public, which will suddenly enjoy the kind of quiet it has not had for the past 1,000 days, not resent its government for disturbing this tranquillity?

Bush's remarks on Wednesday show that the fears expressed by the chief of staff about the charm that Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad are exercising on the leaders of the administration were exaggerated. They also show that the understanding between Sharon and Bush is quite extensive. Bush came down on Israel's side in its suspicious attitude toward the hudna. In doing so, he threw the ball back into the Palestinian court.