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1. Mystery of the green light

In 1982, Ariel Sharon, then the defense minister, thought he had obtained the consent of the U.S. administration for a military operation that was designed to eradicate the nests of PLO terrorists in southern Lebanon. Sharon relied in part on a number of conversations he held with the then-secretary of state, Alexander Haig. When Operation Peace for Galilee expanded and reached Beirut, some cabinet ministers were surprised and disappointed at the blunt American reaction; they had been under the impression that Sharon and Haig had reached prior understanding about the operation.

This week there were some in Jerusalem who believed that President George W. Bush had retracted an understanding he had reached with Sharon; these observers thought that Operation Defensive Shield was protected by American empathy. How frustrated they were when it became clear that the president was not hesitating to warn Sharon publicly and call on him more than once to obey his order immediately by calling a halt to the operation and bringing the soldiers home. Again Sharon had reason to feel betrayed and reach the conclusion (which he reached decades ago, in fact) that the political world is a cruel, dog-eat-dog place, and again he will have cause to feel that he is bearing on his shoulders the failure of others.

We can only hope that after the operation ends he won't develop the self-righteous reactions of a victim, as he has more than once in the past. This time he is the commander-in-chief and he has the supreme, if not the exclusive, responsibility for the policy he pursued in the past year, the results of which are now being seen in the cities and villages of the West Bank and in form of the political steamroller that is speeding toward him, steered by none other than U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

There are indications that Sharon understands his situation and that he will do everything to avoid a total rupture in relations with the United States. True, speaking to troops in Jenin on Wednesday, he declared that the operation would continue as long as it takes, but he will be very attentive to the proposals of the secretary of state. True, he defiantly told the world, not omitting the United States, to stop pressuring Israel and to remember that Israel is a victim of terrorism; but a concerned array of senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office, the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry labored hard this week to ensure that Powell's visit will be a success from the Israeli point of view.

The task that has been defined is to achieve a cease-fire through Powell, though the evaluation most commonly heard is that there is little chance of this. The tactical goal that has been posited is to beware of a situation in which Israel will be accused of causing Powell's mission to fail.

To this end, Sharon made several gestures of good will toward the secretary of state: He allowed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, trapped in his Ramallah compound, to meet with his advisers; he did not block a meeting between Powell and Arafat (though he called the meeting a "tragic mistake" on the secretary's part); and he ordered the army to pull out of the villages of Kabatya, Samua and Yatta. Sharon also agreed to allow the Egyptian foreign minister to visit Arafat. Israeli officials explained to the United States that Israel was taking these steps in response to the call by the president. Sharon hoped Bush would be impressed.

2. The last chance

Two approaches emerged in the security cabinet meeting on Wednesday ahead of Powell's arrival, one supported by the majority of the forum, the other by a minority led by Shimon Peres, Matan Vilnai and Dan Meridor. The majority holds that Israel should rebuff the American pressure and persist with Operation Defensive Shield until the IDF decides to complete it. This group is drawing on the reports submitted by the defense minister and the chief of staff, who expressed astonishment at the scale of involvement of the leaders of the Palestinian administration in terrorist activity against Israel. According to the emerging picture, Ramallah functioned as the terrorist headquarters, Tul Karm and Qalqilyah as the training and staging sites, and Nablus and Jenin as the operational spearhead. Senior Palestinian Authority officials, from Arafat down (including the head of West Bank preventive security, Jibril Rajoub) took part in implementing the terror campaign. In the words of cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, "They were not engaged in establishing a state but in preparing to destroy the State of Israel."

As of yesterday morning, more than 2,000 people had been arrested, of whom 400 were identified as being on Israel's "wanted list" and about 100 with "blood on their hands." The scale of the weaponry that was found is evidence of a systematic effort and of high capability to attack Israel and disrupt normal life in the country.

In the light of this information, the right-wing camp in the cabinet believes that there is a genuine need to uproot the terrorist infrastructure in full and that the IDF has to be given all the time it needs to complete the task. These ministers say that Arafat must be neutralized because it has been proved that he is the head of the Palestinian apparatus of evil. To accede to Powell's request, this group proposes that Israel reply affirmatively to his call for a cease-fire and that he be asked to obtain Arafat's consent as well.

According to this view, Arafat will have to issue a call to his people to lay down their arms. He will also have to hand over the wanted terrorists who are with him in the presidential compound in Ramallah and those who are hiding behind the monks in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Handing them over will be the first condition Arafat will have to fulfill in accordance with the bridging document drawn up by the U.S. mediator, General Anthony Zinni. In return, Israel will be ready to pull out of both Ramallah and Bethlehem.

The same goes for other points in the Zinni document: practical steps by Arafat to implement the cease-fire, including the liquidation of the terrorist infrastructures in the Gaza Strip, Hebron and Jericho - places that the IDF has not yet entered in the current operation - and a halt to the incitement against Israel. The right-wing ministers also propose that an understanding be worked out with the United States on cooperation between the two countries in the event that a cease-fire is not achieved. Above all, Israel is interested in getting the administration to agree with its conclusion that Arafat is not relevant and is not a legitimate leader.

The minority ministers have a different approach: They desire with all their might for Powell's mission to succeed and they want to exploit it to bring about a concrete shift in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Accordingly, they propose that the following idea be put to the test: to accept the American call for an immediate evacuation of all the territories the IDF entered in Operation Defensive Shield, in return for Arafat's agreement to declare a cease-fire and take concrete steps to downscale the confrontation with Israel. This group recommends not taking a hairsplitting approach to the Zinni document and instead that flexibility be shown in regard to the procedures that will lead to a cease-fire, provided the Palestinian side shows practical readiness to embark on a process of conciliation.

In the view of these ministers, the present international climate has brought about conditions that could enable a responsible Palestinian leadership to embark on the road of peace (the statements by President Bush on the vision of a Palestinian state, the resolution of the Security Council reaffirming this and the declarations of the Arab summit meeting in Beirut). On the other hand, Arafat can be threatened with the loss of his international status if he rejects the proposal.

Alternatively, this school of thought says, understanding can be reached with the United States on cooperation between the two countries in the event that Arafat rejects the offer or fails to live up to his part in it. In that case Israel will expect full American backing for any action it takes if it has to resume the war against terrorism.

Sharon on Wednesday seemed to be speaking in the language of the majority group and acting according to the wishes of the minority ministers. The first group believed that Sharon's gestures were intended to curry favor with the United States while enabling the IDF to complete its task in the West Bank. The second group maintained that the international envelope within which Powell is operating (including the Madrid declaration on Wednesday in which the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia issued a joint demand for Israel and the Palestinians to desist from violence) and Sharon's reluctance to have a showdown with Bush have created the possibility that Powell will act according to the parameters they propose.

3. Beat them into plowshares

The first appearance by the new cabinet minister Effi Eitam (National Religious Party) in the expanded kitchen cabinet did not pass without leaving its imprint on the participants. Shimon Peres was upset: He upbraided Sharon for allowing Eitam to attend security cabinet meetings as an observer, contrary to the coalition agreement. To which the prime minister replied that the discussion was being held within the framework of the kitchen cabinet and not the security cabinet, and therefore Eitam's presence was kosher.

Matan Vilnai disagreed with Eitam's assessment of the situation on the northern border and retuned home with a feeling of satisfaction that commander-subordinate relations continue to exist between the two (Vilnai was Eitam's su perior when they served in the army). Others at the meeting were impressed by Eitam's articulateness and by his analytical ability, though not all of them agreed with his opinions.

Eitam this week expressed himself (though not in the kitchen cabinet) to the effect that he doesn't believe Sharon will yield to the American pressure. His view was that the government is now engaged in a decisive battle for its continued leadership and therefore is not in a position to respond to a demand that would mean ending the military operation against Palestinian terrorism prematurely. Remarks by Eitam suggested that he thinks that halting Operation Defensive Shield or compromising on its original goals will bring about a renewal of the terrorist attacks and spell the end of Sharon's government. Hence, apparently, Eitam's assessment that the IDF will remain in the territories of Area A (under full Palestinian control), though not in all of them. He is also convinced that no Israeli government will be able to bring about the dismantlement of settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.

Eitam awaited Powell's arrival with curiosity. He believes he is more gifted than others at foreseeing developments, and he wants to find out whether he is right in his evaluation that nothing will come of the Powell mission. Even if a process begins in which the intensity of the armed conflict is reduced - a process Eitam favors - he doesn't believe it will prove durable. The roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are so tangled that the conflict is not amenable to a peaceful solution. Only a pownecessarily proportionate to the provocation, will leave its mark on the other side and stop it from launching new provocations, Eitam believes. The same approach is also fitting for the Syrians and the Lebanese, in his view.

4. The true battle

While the security cabinet and/or the kitchen cabinet are dealing with fateful security issues, equally important discussions are being held about the composition of those bodies. In the Labor Party, ministers Dalia Itzik and Shalom Simhon are demanding that Matan Vilnai (a former deputy chief of staff) and Ephraim Sneh (a retired brigadier general) give them their places in the security cabinet. The demand is based on an agreement accepted by Shimon Peres at the time the government was formed. Simhon, the agriculture minister, has a letter that Peres wrote him a year ago, which states ostensibly that he will replace Sneh after the first year, while Itzik, the industry and commerce minister, is relying on a promise in that spirit made to her by Peres when he asked her to give Vilnai her place in the security cabinet (which she held because of her senior ministerial portfolio; Vilnai is minister of culture and sport).

Vilnai shrugs off Itzik's pretensions of replacing him disdainfully. There is no agreement that obliges him to give up his place in the security cabinet, he says, and he wonders what the point is of preferring someone who did not serve in the IDF over someone who was deputy chief of staff. He is convinced that his contribution to the decision-making process in the security cabinet is so clear-cut that no one will understand the purpose of trying to remove him. Labor Party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who, according to members of the security cabinet shifts from one approach to another like a yo-yo, is contemplating his position also on this critical issue.

Ariel Sharon, in contrast, displayed decisiveness by forcing the National Religious Party and David Levy's Gesher party on Labor. Without consulting Labor, the senior coalition party, he compelled it to agree to the presence of the two new NRP ministers in the security cabinet and he unilaterally abolished the kitchenette cabinet (in which the two Labor ministers, Ben-Eliezer and Peres, had a majority over Sharon). The first to pay the price will be Colin Powell: Instead of meeting with the three members of the kitchenette together, he will have to meet separately with each.