Here's one of the ideas currently being batted around, with utter seriousness, by the political and military decision-makers: The countries of the European Union, in coordination with Egypt, will convince Yasser Arafat to leave the region and to let his successor, whoever that may be, run the affairs of the Palestinian people. Europe and Egypt will vouch for Arafat's welfare, while also ensuring that he refrains from active involvement in what happens in the territories.
Knowledgeable sources say that this is neither an Israeli initiative or mere wishful thinking, but the germ of a proposal that was recently discussed in unofficial talks between government representatives and international organizations that have been involved for years in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Here is another possible development that is being reviewed with equal seriousness in consultations in Jerusalem: If, 10 days from now, on November 4, Abu Ala goes through with his resignation as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, it's not inconceivable that Abu Mazen will return to the post. If that happens, the dialogue that was created with him during his previous stint as prime minister could be revived, on the basis of his readiness to abjure the use of terror as a means of extracting concessions from Israel. This scenario presumes that, this time, Arafat will consent to hand Abu Mazen control of all the Palestinian security forces.
When our most senior civil servants, who are entertaining these thoughts, are asked why Arafat would now supply the goods that he was unwilling to give Abu Mazen two or three months ago, they have no good answer. "Maybe because his international status has worsened so," they venture.
To a casual observer, this all seems like further proof of the delusional syndrome with which the country's leadership has been stricken as a result of an overwhelming sense of helplessness. It has tried nearly everything to rescue Israel from the deep existential crisis it has been stuck in for the past three years - all to no avail. The closures and the blockades were no help, nor were the assassinations and the occupation of Palestinian cities; the decision to adopt the "road map" and the behind-the-scenes support for Abu Mazen's appointment also led nowhere. Israel continues to wallow in blood and despair, and to perpetuate the status quo. Only one solution has not been tried - willfully abandoning the territories and letting the Palestinians establish a state of their own making there.
In the absence of agreement to pursue such a path, the political and military leadership are improvising responses to ever-worsening problems, but the situation remains as intractable as ever. The separation fence, bypass roads, the ever-increasing use of military force - all are not changing the situation. On the contrary, they are exacerbating it: As each of these plentiful "solutions" disappoints in turn, frustration grows and the violent dynamic intensifies.
The upshot is that the general staff and the government find themselves having to deal with major terror attacks that have the public in an uproar, and their responses are guided primarily by anger: as in the rash decision to bomb a site near Damascus, the reckless destruction of buildings in Rafah and missiles salvos fired on Gaza. The media damage that these actions cause put the decision-makers under pressure, which they, belatedly, try to dispel by means of photos taken from military drones. But viewers in Israel and elsewhere are not convinced: If the Palestinians are lying about the number of casualties caused by the air force bombings, why isn't a drone sent to film the mass funeral procession in order to refute their version of events?
The escalatory nature of the armed conflict fuels the desire for vengeance and feelings of despair and, in Israel at least, prompts scathing questions from bereaved parents about the justification for sacrificing their soldier sons. If such sentiments keep being heard, the senior command could find itself contending with a problem similar to the one it faced with the Four Mothers movement in the final years of the IDF's presence in Lebanon.
Which is another reason why Israel's political and military leaders continue to grasp at solutions that often seem illusory. And why anticipation has been growing that a breakthrough in the situation will occur in just a few weeks, or months.
2. Abu Ala
The latest political target date is November 4, when Abu Ala's resignation is slated to go into effect. Assessments given the prime minister by military intelligence and the Shin Bet outline three possible scenarios:
The first is that Arafat backs down and accedes to Abu Ala's demand that he be given charge of all the Palestinian security forces. If this occurs, Abu Ala will seek an immediate cease-fire. Israel will agree and open a security dialogue with the Palestinian government that will lead to an alleviation of the violence and an improvement in the economic situation of both sides.
This process will proceed even without the elimination of the terror infrastructure and the disarming of the militant organizations, and it will more or less follow the track set down during discussions with Abu Mazen's government (including handing over control of Palestinian cities) - as long as it is not disrupted by terrorist attacks. In other words, Israel would apparently not insist at the start on the fundamental demand that the terror organizations be disarmed before any improvement in relations between the two sides can occur.
But this condition would be reinstated when the Palestinians wish to start political negotiations. At that point, Israel will make clear that there can be no political process without the elimination of the terror infrastructure and the concentration of all the armed organizations under the sole command of the Palestinian government.
Scenario number two: Abu Ala goes through with his resignation because Arafat refuses to cede control of all the security forces. Arafat appoints another prime minister (Nabil Shaath, perhaps). Neither Israel nor the United States will do business with him. The probable result: a continuation of the status quo.
Scenario number three: Abu Ala resigns and Arafat does not appoint a replacement, and instead runs the Palestinian Authority on his own. In this case, his isolation will deepen, and Israeli military pressure will increase, as will international pressure. A possible outcome: Arafat's removal, or neutralization, with international consent.
These scenarios are ostensibly based on intelligence information and learned analysis. They rely on Israeli intelligence's gauging of the mood in, and interpretation of statements made by, the Palestinian leadership, and on the streets of Ramallah and Gaza. The picture that emerges from these reports is of growing internal unrest among the Palestinians, caused by the military pressure applied by Israel; American backing for Israel's moves; a sense of having been abandoned by the Arab world; the recognition that if no breakthrough occurs soon, the international community will leave them to fend for themselves; and the conclusion that Arafat is not likely to save them.
Supposedly, dismay with the situation has grown so much that the question of who will succeed Arafat in the Palestinian leadership is starting to be discussed openly. This is a new phenomenon that is also influenced by reports about Arafat's poor health.
Israel does not have any concrete information in this regard: There are discrepancies in the assessments of the Shin Bet and military intelligence. There are signs that Arafat has been recovering his strength lately (He directly oversaw the diplomatic campaign waged by his relative, Nasser al-Kidwa, in the UN General Assembly over the issue of the separation fence), even though he apparently does have serious medical problems.
The belief in Israel, therefore, is that the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is currently in an interim period that is due to end in a couple of weeks with a turning point of one sort or another: Either a Palestinian government with real power, with which it will be possible to start a new relationship; or a return to Arafat's solitary rule, which will cause the situation to deteriorate and soon lead to his removal or to a neutralization of his influence.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had these assessments in mind when he addressed the Knesset this week and spoke of "a real chance that in the coming months we will be able to break the deadlock and to resume real progress toward an agreement." Even if this statement wasn't calculated to throw sand in the public's eyes and plant the hope of a better future, it was yet another demonstration of our leaders' tendency to get caught up in illusions.
Ariel Sharon's actual political conduct indicates that he has no intention of altering his policy and thus it reinforces the suspicion that his promises about an imminent breakthrough are just empty words.
Sharon is trying mightily to resolve the crisis between Shinui and the National Religious Party and is not calling on the Labor Party to join the coalition.
In his speech to the Knesset this week, he made do with entreaties directed at "the responsible elements in the Labor Party, to do some soul-searching and to join in supporting the road map with the reservations approved by the government."
The prime minister contrasted the road map with the Geneva initiative and urged the main opposition party to support his policy, but without inviting it to join him in the government. Perhaps this explains the angry tone with which Shimon Peres responded to him from the Knesset podium.
One minister who is practiced at deciphering Sharon's moves said that the prime minister feels that his standing among the public is still strong and so he intends to persist in his present policy toward the Palestinians. According to this analysis, a majority of the public accepts the prime minister's contention that there is no partner for an agreement on the Palestinian side and that he, Sharon, did what was asked of him in order to stop the bloodshed, including accepting the road map and helping Abu Mazen establish his authority.
This week, associates of the prime minister bolstered this assessment. They said that the Israeli public is not alone in feeling that Sharon fulfilled his part of the bargain in the political processes aimed at reducing the bloodshed, that the American administration agrees, and that President Bush has become well-acquainted with the nature of the Palestinian leadership and the credibility of its promises, and with the ugliness of the political culture guiding it.
This atmosphere portends an unyielding policy toward the Palestinians in the coming period as well, and to keep pursuing that kind of policy, Sharon will have to maintain the right-wing coalition he has now.
The Supreme Court's decision a few days ago to allow publication of some of the information regarding the circumstances of Elhanan Tannenbaum's abduction introduced all the government ministers to certain details of the case for the first time. Some were surprised, and also offended: Why had this information been kept from them up to now, while they were supposed to decided the fate of a potential prisoner swap with Hezbollah? After the court's decision, some ministers said that they would now demand to be given all of the information on the case, including that which has remained censored.
The court's decision will not make it easier for the government to make a decision, if and when the parameters of the deal are brought to it for approval. It adds a populist component - the unsavory circumstances that led to Tannenbaum's captivity - to the array of considerations that the ministers will have to ponder. Evidently, the ministers will have enough time to deliberate over the issue: Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was informed on his visit to Germany this week that the negotiations for a prisoner exchange are far from at a conclusion.
Yesterday, the search committee for candidates for attorney general met for the first time. The day before, outgoing Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein issued his decisions regarding the investigations of key activists in Ehud Barak's nonprofit organizations (NPOs). In doing so, Rubinstein affirmed the seriousness of his desire to conclude all of the major investigations against political figures before he leaves his post - which means the investigation of Ariel Sharon on suspicions related to the funding of his election campaign is that much closer.
Rubinstein's decisions the other day indicate that exercising the right to remain silent proved to be a rewarding tactic; those who did so were not charged in the end. This lesson will naturally be kept in mind by all those who are investigated in connection with Ariel Sharon's election campaign.
The search committee, which will give the prime minister its recommendation for a candidate for attorney general, is a new entity that was established in wake of the Bar-On-Hebron affair and which is supposed to ensure that the appointment process is not tainted by inappropriate influences. The committee's authority and composition - the members are (chairman) Gavriel Bach, Ruth Gavison, David Libai, Alex Hartman and Gideon Sa'ar - seems to promise an independent and objective selection process. Nevertheless, in political corridors, attorney Eli Zohar is considered the odds-on favorite.
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