There was something desperate, even if it was cloaked in humor and good spirits, about the way in which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke with soldiers and officers of the Yosh (acronym for Judea and Samaria) Division this week. It was as though he was asking their advice on how to extricate Israel from the mire. He urged them to use their brains and come up with new methods of operation against Palestinian terrorism. Effectively, he declared that the senior commanders are not supplying an adequate response to the murderous war of attrition that the Palestinians are waging, and he told them that the fate of the country was in their hands. These were not merely standard words of encouragement spoken by a prime minister to the army; they were also an admission by the commander-in-chief that his ammunition is running out.
A year and a half after coming to power, Sharon is facing the collapse of his plans. The approach he believed in - using force to decide the confrontation with the Palestinians - is not producing the results he had hoped for. Operation Defensive Shield gave way to Operation Determined Path, which was superseded by Operation Maybe This Time (which ended officially this week) - but the cycle keeps repeating itself: for a short time, two or three weeks at most, the military pressure succeeds in containing the terrorist attacks, but they return by stealth, at first in a trickle and then in a lethal wave. The pattern of Israeli response is recycling itself: discussions and consultations that beget solutions that have already been tried in the past and did not generate the needed turning point. The dominant conception now is the same as the one that existed when the intifada erupted, in the period of the Ehud Barak government: to accept its protracted nature, to show determination and to wait for internal processes to unfold within the Palestinian Authority that will ultimately bring about the neutralization of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat.
In the Barak period this diagnosis was called "low intensity warfare"; today it's labeled "war of attrition." Now, as then, the IDF is recommending to political echelons "to contain" the confrontation and prevent it from taking extreme turns. This approach accepts the status quo in Israel's relations with the Palestinians and implicitly forgoes a possible attempt to foment a dramatic shift in them. The previous chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, tried to get the IDF, and the political echelon, to take a more aggressive posture, but the reality of the situation worked against him; and so did the prime minister: it became clear to Mofaz that Sharon, although advocating a military victory in the confrontation, took into consideration both international pressure and constraints that were dictated by the battlefield. The IDF was not given the goal of reconquering all the territories and uprooting the Palestinian Authority, followed by the installation of an Israeli military government.
The upshot is that the Israeli leadership finds itself at a loss and seeking solutions from young soldiers and junior officers. The government is not imbuing the country's citizens with the confidence that it knows where it is heading, that it has a solution to the distresses and that all the public has to do is display forbearance. On the contrary, the government is sending a message of confusion and bewilderment. Sharon is not coming across as a leader of stature who is capable of leading the nation to a turning point. He looks more like someone who is being dragged in the wake of the events: he wants a solution of force, but backs off from a clash in this regard with the U.S. administration; he understands the seriousness of the economic situation in which Israel finds itself and he knows that the key to its resolution is a settlement with the Palestinians, but he declines to pay the price this would entail; and he is ready, perhaps, to take a more flexible stance but fears the challenge posed by Benjamin Netanyahu.
This week there was a growing impression that Sharon is approaching a crossroads. He will have to make a decision because public opinion is starting to show impatience with his performance. And he certainly broadcast signals of edginess: he attacked the media for casting a pall over the public and he did not hesitate to hint that the army's high command is responsible for the failure to eradicate terrorism. He may have been rash - his popularity in public opinion was already being seriously eroded, but that trend did not last long. Somehow his status was rehabilitated, whether because of action he took (removing the Shas ministers from the cabinet) or because of a painful reminder by the Palestinian enemy, which again persuaded the public that there is no one to talk to and that Sharon is the person who knows best how not to talk with enemies.
When the Palestinian cabinet decided on Wednesday to accept the proposal put forward by Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer to reach a settlement with Israel on the basis of the "Gaza first" approach, Ben-Eliezer was prone to believe that there are promising elements in the formula he came up with. He did not make far-reaching demands and he identified practical interlocutors who are relatively free from the shackles of the past. In other words, he is not coming to the Palestinians with a proposal to end the conflict, along the lines of Ehud Barak, but to reach an agreement on a cease-fire that will dampen the flames and create an essential prologue to the opening of political negotiations. Moreover, the interlocutors he chose are Mohammed Dahlan, Amin al-Hindi and Abdel Razek Yehiyeh, who in his view are capable of making decisions without excessive dependence on the position of Yasser Arafat. The days ahead will show whether Ben-Eliezer is not repeating the mistake made by Shlomo Ben-Ami, Barak's foreign minister, who held talks in Copenhagen with representatives of Arafat and believed that agreements reached with them were binding.
In a variation on previous formulations, Ben-Eliezer is proposing to the Palestinians "depth of withdrawal equal to depth of security." That is, to the extent that the Palestinians meet the Israeli expectations in the realm of putting a stop to terrorism, Israel will reward them by easing the suffering of the civilian population. Ben-Eliezer is not demanding that the Palestinian Authority destroy the terrorism infrastructure; he will make do with a halt to the terrorist attacks, whether in the wake of an agreement between the PA and Hamas or persuasive measures or as a result of preventive actions. On Wednesday, a ray of hope was discernible in the defense minister's bureau: maybe the move will succeed and mark the start of a turning point in the confrontation.
The Foreign Ministry also spoke in terms of cautious optimism about the Palestinian agreement. The plight of the Palestinians is so severe and the desire of the Israelis for a return to normalcy so powerful, that Ben-Eliezer's formula may just do the trick. At the same time, Foreign Ministry officials cautioned against illusions: it will not be possible to limit the settlement solely to the Gaza Strip indefinitely; in short order it will also have to be applied to areas of the West Bank as well. In addition, these officials said, Israel will have to accede to the Palestinians' request to extend the talks to the political sphere if it wants to expand the dialogue with them.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said not long ago in an optimistic vein that there is light but no tunnel. What he meant was that there are materials out of which an Israeli-Palestinian settlement can be fashioned, but there is no framework within which to mold the materials. He was referring to the fact that U.S. President George Bush's policy speech on the Middle East offered political benefit for both sides and also marked out a clear course for achieving it, but the military confrontation has shattered the authority of the PA together with the tools of the dialogue that the two sides conducted. The Palestinians' agreement to discuss the Ben-Eliezer approach may signal realism on their part with the intention of connecting to Bush's ideas and extracting the most from them: the end of the occupation, an Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of a state within three years in correspondence with the 1967 lines. The visit of the Palestinians' top negotiator, Saeb Erekat, to Washington this week is apparently related to the Palestinians' announcement that they accept Ben-Eliezer's proposal in principle, and is meant to seek greater understanding within the administration for the Palestinian position.
The true test will be whether Dahlan and his cohorts can deliver the goods: another wave of terrorism such as occurred this week (to which Israel responded with calculated restraint) and the bridgehead that was established in the security meetings that were renewed on Wednesday will collapse again. That is probably what will happen: countering the retail measures discussed by the sides - release of funds by Israel, humanitarian considerations, readiness to hold the elections for the leadership of the Palestinian Authority in the previous format, meaning that East Jerusalem residents will also be able to vote - is the gathering storm of terrorist attacks. Large-scale terrorism will loose the bloody tide and hamper dialogue.
On Sunday of this week the cabinet took its leave of Haim Yisraeli, who was the personal aide to 14 defense ministers. Ariel Sharon lavished praise on Yisraeli and took the festive occasion to appropriate David Ben-Gurion: he implied that he had an open door to Israel's first prime minister and defense minister. At the same time, he linked himself with Shimon Peres in an alliance of old friends both of whom were the disciples of the country's founding father. The foreign minister did not correct Sharon and none of the other ministers took issue with the impression he created. This episode is recounted not so much in order to show Sharon's style but to indicate the situation in which Peres finds himself.
Sharon continues to heap great gobs of flattery on Peres, and Peres continues to swallow the bait. Cabinet ministers describe embarrassing occasions in which the prime minister turns to Peres with excessive politeness "and asks for his advice." Sharon lets Peres be the first minister to speak in cabinet meetings and he scatters remarks that are meant to reflect the long standing friendship between them and their families. There are some ministers who are indeed impressed by all this and treat the two with special reverence, like two old warhorses whose every comment is worth listening to. Other ministers, though, see them as two old men engaged in a mutual clasp with no desire to separate because they know that their fates are interdependent.
In private conversations that Peres conducts in the political arena he sounds realistic about Sharon: he does not rule out the possibility that the prime minister is merely leading him by the nose, though he consoles himself with the thought that he, too - Peres - has learned one or two things about political manipulation. He also relies on the political equation of forces - in Peres's view, Sharon is no less dependent on him than he is on Sharon. That assumption gives him the justification for continuing to stay in the government and for granting Sharon an entry permit to the international salons.
Now Peres is clinging to the recent honorifics bestowed on him by Sharon as the grounds for his continued presence in the government: the prime minister has appointed him to head the negotiating team with the Palestinians and has placed him in charge of the coordinating the talks with them for relaxing the restrictions in the territories.
Moreover, Peres's recent visit to Washington was like a shot of adrenaline for him. Not only did President Bush leap to meet with him, the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, suggested that they meet again next month, during the foreign minister's visit to the United States in order to attend the United Nations General Assembly session. Those are clear-cut signs that Peres is needed in the government, and he is not the person who will ignore them.
That should not be construed to mean that the foreign minister is pleased with the political situation and with the way the government is being run. He and Sharon exchange pessimistic assessments about the state of the economy. Both of them know that the key to change lies in a shift in the political and security situation. Peres is also aware of the crisis in which the Labor Party finds itself and of the forecasts that it will fail in a big way in the next elections. It's a safe guess that he will not sit idly by in the face of that gloomy scenario. He has always believed in his power to foment change, to shake things up, to create a new reality.
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