1. Hold the bear hugs
Silvan Shalom took off last night from the United States on his way back to Israel, having learned that things don't look the same from there as they do from here. His appointment as foreign minister exposed him to a whole galaxy of considerations and positions that he had hitherto tended to dismiss. This process gained momentum this week following his meetings with President Bush and senior administration officials.
Now, it is much clearer to Shalom that the U.S. sees its war in Iraq as a decisive test of its international standing and its aspirations of introducing a new order in the Middle East. He saw from up-close the American determination to win this war, whatever its duration and cost, and the administration's desire to turn it into a window of opportunity to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shalom knows that within two weeks, the road map will be presented to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, more or less in its present form. He also knows that both sides will be given two or three weeks to respond to it and that afterwards, the American administration will want to start putting it into effect (assuming that the decisive stage of the war in Iraq is over by then).
So far, the Prime Minister's Bureau has promulgated the idea that the day when the road map will be placed on the table is still far off, and that Israel still has plenty of maneuvering room to slow down its implementation and to erode its significance. The Defense Ministry held the same view.
This week, however, those presumptions seemed rather shaky: Although Israeli sources claim that the issue of settlements wasn't brought up in Shalom's talks in Washington, at the AIPAC conference a few days ago, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell made it clear that the administration is serious about implementing the road map, which means that illegal settlements will have to be dismantled and that the U.S. will insist that Israel fulfill the clauses that call for a freeze on settlement development, including that resulting from "natural growth." The prime minister also understands this and next week he will hold special discussions about the road map.
From Shalom's talks in Washington, it appears that the degree to which the American initiative is implemented will depend in large part on how successful Abu Mazen is in establishing his administration and enforcing his authority among the entire Palestinian population - including the militant organizations. In the coming weeks, Abu Mazen will be scrutinized by his people, by the American administration and by the Israeli government to see how much leadership he demonstrates.
The Israeli and American intelligence agencies know how Yasser Arafat gave a green light to the use of terror against Israel. They will also be following Abu Mazen's conduct in this regard. If he is seen to be following in Arafat's footsteps, he will lose his standing in their eyes and be relegated to a similar fate as Arafat; if he shows that he can take control and bring a stop to the terror, Sharon will find himself in political trouble, since Washington will then demand that he fulfill his part of the road map. If Abu Mazen appears to accept the current level of terrorism, without encouraging it, but also without taking any firm action to quash it, he will exempt Sharon from having to meet the requirements imposed on him by the Bush outline.
Shalom left Washington with the impression that the administration accepts Israel's position that it should not be asked to conduct negotiations as long as the terror is continuing. Shalom told his hosts that all the Israeli prime ministers who forsook this principle were subsequently forsaken by the voters. The Israeli public expects its government to be able to restore security first; only then will it be ready for diplomatic concessions.
The demand for Abu Mazen to halt the Palestinian terror isn't being framed in terms of time: It's not that there must be a week or a month of quiet before negotiations can resume; the test will be in Abu Mazen's attitude toward the terror, in the effort he makes to rein in Hamas and Islamic Jihad and how solid his achievements in this area are. If he demonstrates a genuine will and resolve to curtail the terror, the U.S. will expect Israel to restrain from severe responses to isolated terror attacks.
The U.S. is treating Abu Mazen with kid gloves: It admires his willingness to challenge Arafat's leadership and is ready to help him as much as possible, but is deliberately refraining from embracing him publicly, lest he be embarrassed in the Arab world. And it is asking Israel to take a similar stance. In other words, Jerusalem will soon be asked to make some gestures toward the Palestinian prime minister; dismantling of the illegal outposts will likely be one of them.
2. Yesha's concerns
Meanwhile, the settler leaders are not hiding their concern about the American approach to the road map: They see the recent public statements by administration officials as a real threat and are preparing to fight it. The Yesha Council will convene in the coming days to discuss its response.
The settler leaders quote the statement of former defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, on the eve of the last elections, to the effect that all of the illegal outposts have been removed. They want to know just which settlement locations the Americans will be aiming their fire at: Will it be all one hundred that were built over the past ten years, since the ministerial committee on settlement activity ceased operating at the end of the Shamir government's tenure?
In Ben-Eliezer's last days at the Defense Ministry, there was a confrontation over one outpost - Havat Gilad; the others that were designated for dismantling were evacuated (they were not populated on a continuous basis). The future of another outpost, Givat Assaf, is pending the outcome of a High Court hearing. The Yesha Council is wondering: Does the American administration intend to discuss the fate of more established settlements like Alon (100 families), Rahelim (about 40 families) and Shvut Rahel (about 50 families)?
The main practical concern of the settler leaders has to do with the more precise clarifications of the process by which dozens of settlements were built in Judea and Samaria: They know that a good number of irregularities in the approval process could be found, particularly if American administrative standards are applied. The settler leadership isn't thrilled about the possibility that some government official (like Shinui minister Yosef Paritzky, for example), or any foreign official, might decide take a close look at the process by which the settlement enterprise has expanded in Judea and Samaria since 1992.
The settler leaders say they're not about to serve as the government's scapegoat; they expect that Ariel Sharon, who nurtured the settlement enterprise in the territories and who, before being elected prime minister, called on the young Yesha members to "grab the hilltops," won't bother them with fussy reviews of procedural matters, and that he certainly won't force them to abandon outposts. They also figure that, in the government's current composition, there is no political power capable of imposing such a decision on them.
Still, they are not being complacent. They view the series of American statements this week as a worrisome trend. They don't know at this point whether this new wave of remarks is only lip- service being paid by Bush to Tony Blair, or whether these declarations will translate into real pressure being put on Israel. In any case, they are taking the comments from Washington very seriously and as a cause for concern.
This week, one settler leader wondered aloud why the new foreign minister was so quick to accept Bush's outline and the road map derived from it. "We'll remind Silvan Shalom where his power comes from," said the man, impressing upon his listener the influence that the settlers have on the members of the Likud Central Committee.
3. Jerusalem do-gooder
Roni Bar-On had barely warmed his seat in the Knesset before he announced his candidacy for mayor of Jerusalem. The entry of Bar-On, the man whom Aryeh Deri and David Appel once wanted to fete with the job of attorney general (in the 1997 so-called "Bar-On Affair," in which there was an alleged deal to get Roni Bar-On appointed attorney general with the expectation that he would halt legal proceedings against then Shas leader Deri in exchange for Shas's votes in favor of the Hebron Agreement with the PA) into the mayoral contest gives Jerusalem residents an interesting choice. Should they opt for someone of his ilk or look for a candidate of a different stripe.
Bar-On will first run in the Likud primaries, and those in the know say that his chances of winning the nomination are assured, since a few of the figures whose names were associated with the "Bar-On = Hebron" affair (Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman) plan to support him.
The immediate upshot of this was Dan Meridor's decision not to run. Ever since Sharon informed him that he would not be included in the new government, Meridor was weighing the odds of his winning the Jerusalem mayoralty. Things looked promising, but Meridor wanted to be sure that he would have the support of the prime minister and the Likud, which did not materialize. Once again, Meridor found that while he enjoys the respect of other parties, the Likud is not behind him.
What most of those who have so far thrown their hats into the ring have in common is that none seems to be motivated by a burning desire to improve the condition of Jerusalem. They seem more inspired by visions of the honor and prestige that the post would bestow on them. Meridor, too, had he decided to run, would have seemed to be doing so as a last resort, in his search for an alternative outlet for his innate passion for public service rather than because of a deep desire to focus on municipal matters.
With about three months to go before the election, the only candidate who appears to break the mold is Nir Barkat, whose candidacy is reminiscent in some ways of Ron Huldai's campaign for Tel Aviv mayor (not to mention Teddy Kollek's 1965 Jerusalem campaign): He's a relative unknown, a non-political person who seems to genuinely care about the state of the city, is not weighed down by outside considerations and does not obviously have his eye on other positions.
Barkat, 43, comes to the mayoral race from a highly successful run in high-tech: He acquired half of the shares of Checkpoint at the right time and at the right price and sold them at the right moment for a huge profit. In the past five years, he has invested millions of shekels in philanthropic activity in the fields of education and welfare, in Jerusalem's peripheral neighborhoods. Some of the other candidates have been heard to insinuate that Barkat's generous contributions were not altogether altruistic, but intended to lay the groundwork for his mayoral campaign. Another charge being made against him is that his business and management talents will not necessarily translate into the skills needed to handle public affairs and that he is overreaching in his quest for the mayor's office.
Barkat is investing effort, money and time to make himself a media presence and to infiltrate the consciousness of the Jerusalem public, and is succeeding quite well at it (see these lines, for instance). His name and his slogan ("Jerusalem deserves a success story") adorn billboards all over the city and the written press (nationally as well as locally) has been giving him a good amount of space in recent months. The local Jerusalem papers place him in the thick of the competition. Polls show that his name and his message are gaining wider recognition and that he has some solid support.
As a conversationalist, Nir Barkat is fairly dry and to the point. He says that he only decided about six months ago to run for mayor, at the urging of friends. He says that his philanthropic activity derived from idealistic motives and that when he started it, he didn't have the slightest thought about ever running for mayor. He wants to present the voters with a detailed plan of action for all areas of city management, with the main focus being on serving the residents. He has a vision of the municipality as a provider of services, not as an entity that reigns over the populace. He intends to expose the city's dire financial situation (according to his campaign headquarters, Jerusalem has a cumulative deficit of NIS 1.5 billion and an operating deficit of NIS 455 million) and to position himself as someone who can save the city from bankruptcy.
When presented with more detailed questions, his self-confidence falters a bit: He does not seem that well-versed in the intricacies of municipal activity; the terminology he uses comes from the world of executive management, but it has a bit of a sloganeering sound to it.
Barkat's political outlook is strongly right-wing, but there's no telling whether it has always been such or whether he has adopted such a position for election purposes (he says that he voted for the Likud in the last Knesset election). His outlook is based on the conclusion that Arafat deceived Israel and that the Oslo agreement was a mistake that derived from the excessive eagerness of Shimon Peres and his aides to present the public with an Israeli-Palestinian accord. If it were up to Nir Barkat, he'd also close down Orient House, open the Western Wall tunnel, allow Jews to live in the Muslim quarter and in Silwan, and make the presence of Israeli authority firmly felt in East Jerusalem. Does he also support the opening of the Temple Mount to Jewish visitors? He does not reject the suggestion outright but says that he would have to consult with experts first before deciding. Still, Barkat wants to emphasize that he "advocates a liberal and humane attitude toward the city's Arabs."
4. A suitable replacement
Sharon's choice of Uzi Landau to take over the ministerial duties that were Dan Meridor's province in the last government was a sensible decision: Landau is just as familiar with the security, strategic and intelligence issues that Meridor kept track of for the prime minister.
But Landau's appointment might make less sense if it is also to include the diplomatic aspects of Meridor's former job. After all, Sharon had given Meridor the task of putting together a comprehensive plan that would guide his government's diplomatic approach. Can Landau be expected to step into Meridor's shoes here? Or, was Sharon perhaps really kidding when he gave Meridor that assignment and told him that he was seeking a political accord with the Palestinians?
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