Critical State

Two nights ago, after the prime minister's decision to significantly intensify military action against the Palestinians, one cabinet member explained that this move was made possible by the Bush administration's total backing for Sharon's policy.

1. Powell's language

Two nights ago, after the prime minister's decision to significantly intensify military action against the Palestinians, one cabinet member explained that this move was made possible by the Bush administration's total backing for Sharon's policy. At roughly the same time, Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed sharp criticism of the prime minister and his approach, which seemed to signal an emerging change in the American attitude.

The fact that this cabinet member was unaware of the impending turnabout in Washington's policy isn't surprising. The cabinet members, who know so little about Sharon's moves as it is, can hardly be expected to keep up with developments in the U.S. position. The question is whether Sharon knew.

The evening before, the prime minister's office had issued a statement about a talk that Sharon had with Powell. The tone of the announcement was very assured: "The prime minister updated the Secretary of State about the serious escalation caused by the recent terror incidents and explained to him that Israel will take all necessary measures in order to defend its citizens. The prime minister said that the State of Israel will not allow the Palestinian Authority and the refugee camps to become safe havens for the terrorists."

In other words: Israel is informing its patron that it intends to attack, if not to occupy, the refugee camps and Palestinian Authority facilities for some time, in order to prevent them from giving shelter to terrorists. The announcement was the inevitable consequence of the decisions that Sharon pushed through the cabinet and the expanded kitchen cabinet - to strike harder at the Palestinian terror organizations, and at the PA, which gives them full rein, by means of deeper and continuous military operations. And there were his blunt words in the Knesset: "Israel finds itself in a difficult war, facing a cruel and bloodthirsty enemy. Many losses must be inflicted so that the enemy will feel the heavy price of its actions."

Having been careful up to now to coordinate his moves against the Palestinians with the U.S. administration, Sharon felt it was only proper that he report to the Secretary of State about his decision to escalate Israel's response to the terror attacks. The results came the next day, when Powell appeared before Congress: He reproached Sharon personally, took issue with the reasoning behind his approach to the Palestinians and advised him not to seek an increase in the number of Palestinian casualties. Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham expressed similar criticism. Israel's main pillar of political support suddenly looked wobbly.

We'll find out in the coming days whether Powell's harsh words really herald a new trend, or whether they were a one-time anomaly. There are signs that the Secretary of State's remarks were not random, and that they stem from the incredulity and concern that have gripped the American administration in view of Sharon's handling of the conflict with the Palestinians. As much as the Bush administration understands Israel's need to respond forcefully to savage terror attacks, it cannot sit and do nothing in the face of the looming escalation.

Sharon's tendency to give much weight to the positions of Avigdor Lieberman and Uzi Landau (and the menacing shadow of Benjamin Netanyahu) and ignore the opinion of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has not gone unnoticed in Washington. Though there have been disagreements within the administration this past year over how much rope to give Sharon, this week's cabinet decisions and the prime minister's hotheaded declarations tipped the balance in favor of the State Department: Powell's harsh comments are not just an expression of his personal view; they reflect the concern of the entire administration over the way in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deteriorating, and the implications this could have for the region's stability and on U.S. plans for pressing its war on world terror.

2. Sharon's vise

Meanwhile, Sharon is also feeling the pressure from Shimon Peres and the Labor Party. Granted, the foreign minister has not made such a big fuss yet and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer made do with taking credit for the decision to hold off on once again moving the tanks closer to Arafat's headquarters, but the noises coming from the direction of the coalition government's senior partner couldn't help but cause the prime minister to lose a little sleep.

At the cabinet meeting, Matan Vilnai seconded Dan Meridor's harsh criticism of the plan of action recommended by Sharon. Peres was also critical, and this time he made sure to express his displeasure outside the cabinet session, too. A group of senior party members called for a meeting of Labor's central committee to discuss the possibility of resigning from the government. Sharon smelled danger and invited Peres to a private meeting in hopes of calming the waters. Even if Sharon's efforts in this regard are successful (Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Ephraim Sneh are convinced they could easily rebuff any proposal in the central committee that calls for leaving the coalition), the risk to his government's stability was made clear this week.

Basically, Sharon is caught in a vise that keeps growing tighter the more the conflict with the Palestinians escalates: The need to make a strategic decision about where he wishes to lead things is becoming more and more pressing and forcing him to face the contradictions that were built into the coalition from the start. The choice is between trying to quash the Palestinian revolt by means of a crushing military campaign, or pursuing a political dialogue that would eventually mean forgoing the dream of a Greater Israel. So far, Sharon has maneuvered very skillfully between the right- and left-wing factions of his government and evaded any definitive decisions, but reality is now intruding to the point that he will soon have to come down unequivocally on the side of the one of these two alternatives.

While the decisions taken by Sharon this week would seem to indicate what choice he has made, they actually point more to a general inclination than to a clear resolution of where he stands. His bombastic statements about stepping up the military pressure on the PA were not meant to suggest a full-scale war (the statement from the prime minister's office two nights ago, which came in response to Powell's comments, also adhered to this interpretation); rather, they expressed a fiery mood and a desire to appease public opinion more than any solid viewpoint. Sharon still behaves like someone wary of making a clear-cut decision. Though he is certainly leaning rightward and pressing ever harder on the trigger, he has not completely cut off the option of dialogue with the Palestinian leadership.

Sharon's handling of the situation may well be a deception. He may have already resolved to forcefully put down the Palestinian uprising, impose a bantustan-like arrangement and continue to hold onto all the territories. He may be be pursuing these goals gradually and cagily, without publicly declaring his objectives. All of his moves during his year in office can be interpreted this way, though they can just as well be seen in a different light: that they have all been direct responses to terror attacks and the motives behind them are purely security-related. In any case, the instructions that the IDF received this week indicate that, for now, Sharon is refraining from waging all-out war on the Palestinian people and their leadership.

As intensive as IDF actions were this week, they are still defined by the defense establishment as limited operations and not war (although, during his visit to the Tarkumiya checkpoint two days ago, Sharon told the soldiers: "This is a war, but a war of a different kind."). Some even described the military measures as surgical operations. In consultations with the defense minister, the question of how to proceed, should the military moves fail to achieve the desired results, was also discussed. Four days after the new military approach was put into action, no signs of capitulation were evident on the Palestinian side. On the contrary, the terrorist attacks increased. In the defense establishment, there was doubt as to whether the military pressure brought to bear this week would be sufficient to induce the PA to surrender.

If the terror attacks continue, the IDF will most likely recommend that the political echelon approve a further ratcheting up of the military campaign. Then the differences of opinion that became apparent this week will come to the fore once again: The cabinet will ask itself to what extent Yasser Arafat is personally involved in the terror attacks (the heads of army intelligence and the Shin Bet gave conflicting answers to this question, based on the same intelligence source); the right-wing ministers will demand a full-scale war against the Palestinian terror and the left-wing ministers will argue that without the presentation of a political objective that contains some hope for the Palestinians, there is no chance of effecting their surrender, or even of gaining some breathing space for Israel's citizens.

The right-wing ministers will call for the toppling of the PA (Sharon said recently that it was a mistake to declare that this was not Israel's objective, since this gave the Palestinian leadership immunity) and the left-wing ministers will assert that without a central focus of control on the other side, Israel will have to wage a war against thousands of individual terrorists "and there won't be anyone to vanquish," as Dan Meridor succinctly put it. The right-wing ministers will advocate the assassination of Palestinian leaders on the level of Marwan Barghouti, and the left-wing ministers will point out that the targeted killings policy has only led to an increase in terror attacks and that, since the start of the intifada, Israel has already arrested 1,800 suspects. At the cabinet meeting this week, Housing Minister Natan Sharansky said that this government is incapable of reaching agreement on a political objective, but the current reality is imposing agreement on a military objective. Powell's attack on Sharon and the Labor Party's growing dismay with Sharon's policies may go to prove Sharansky wrong: There is no agreement in the government on a military objective either.

3. Barak's brain

Ever since he had to relinquish the prime minister's chair, Ehud Barak has been flirting with public life like a bashful suitor: He supposedly retired from public life, but he still occasionally reaches out for a quick touch. He has a spokesman who keeps track of every word that is spoken or written about him, and who responds on his behalf every so often. He offers his views on what is transpiring here (especially to the media abroad) and has come up with a neat explication of the advantages of the unilateral separation plan and the construction of a security fence, which he laid out Tuesday night at the Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI) in Jerusalem.

Barak's tone of speech and self-assurance haven't changed. But anyone whose despair over the country's present leadership is so deep that he is tempted to pin his hopes on Ehud Barak again

should bear in mind that the man is offering an unconvincing solution, which is based on an unwillingness to give up the territories and a wariness of dealing with the settlers.

The unilateral separation plan being preached by Barak proposes the creation of no less than seven settlement blocs that would be attached to the areas within the Green Line by means of fences. It also calls for the construction of a fence, and the posting of a military presence, in the Jordan Rift Valley, along the Jordan River. In fact, Barak proposes annexing 25 percent of the West Bank and 80 percent of the settler population. As is his wont, he has set a specific time frame in which the plan is to be accomplished - three years. Barak's keen, not to say twisted, mind, continues to percolate: He isn't proposing a simple plan, such as a withdrawal to the 1967 borders or something close to them, but a complicated idea designed to perpetuate Israel's grip on a significant part of the West Bank.

It's hard not to notice the attitude behind the proposal: the anger at the Palestinian rebellion and the arrogance of a general whom the enemy has had the audacity to challenge. Barak talks like Sharon: He urges resolve, insists that victory must be achieved in the conflict with the Palestinians and completely dismisses the Saudi initiative. On the way to reaching these firm conclusions, he also said some nice and true things about the importance of gaining international backing for Israel's moves, the need for internal cohesion and the imperative of convincing the public that military force is being used because there is no other option at this point. But he conveniently ignored the fact that his plan does not have what it takes to produce any such responses.

4. Sharansky's lesson

The decision by the ministerial committee headed by Natan Sharansky, which received government approval this week, to move the construction site of the mosque in Nazareth away from the Church of the Annunciation plaza was received with surprising silence on the part of the Muslim public. Predictions of a furious reaction had led to more than a thousand police officers being concentrated in the Arab sector at the beginning of the week. As of now, in Jerusalem, they're knocking wood and praying that the present quiet is not the calm before the storm.

Members of the ministerial committee learned some interesting lessons as they became acquainted with the Muslim-Christian dispute and the way that earlier governments handled it. They came to believe that the source of the trouble lay in the weakness of the Netanyahu and Barak governments and in the vacillations in their positions. They learned that the more the Islamic Movement smelled weakness, the more bold and extreme its demands became. They found that the dispute made the moderate leaders in the Christian and Muslim communities fearful and caused them to retreat in the face of the Islamic Movement leaders' growing assertiveness.

So great was the fear that, during the committee hearings, a number of well-known figures from the Arab sector declined to appear before the full panel and preferred to present their positions to the chairman, Sharansky, alone, in one-on-one conversations that were not recorded in the protocols. The lesson Sharansky learned from this experience: An aggressive governmental approach liberates the discussion from the intimidation imposed by extreme elements, alters the outline of the necessary compromise and makes intelligent decisions possible. Sharansky recommends that this lesson be kept in mind when it comes to the government's handling of the confrontation with the Palestinians in the territories.