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1. By the well in Za'atara

Early this month, bulldozers arrived in the area around the village of Za'atara, near the Herodion archaeological site south of Jerusalem. Six or seven bulldozers are now working relentlessly, day after day, on an eight-kilometer stretch of land, leveling hills and filling ditches in the course of building a new bypass road that will run from the settlement of Nokdim to the new south Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa.

The cost of the project is about NIS 65 million. The work has been divided among three contractors, who are competing to see which of them can complete his part of the job first, as the winner will get another job.

This is not the first time that heavy machinery has been brought to the area around the village of Za'atara. Israel sought to build this road twice before (the last time in January of this year) but the Palestinians were able to get the work stopped by invoking serious international pressure. Now the project is proceeding with great momentum. Dump trucks carry away the dirt nonstop and at night soldiers and civilian guards from a nearby settlement patrol the area.

Salah Ta'amri, a Palestinian public figure from the area of nearby Bethlehem, says that Israel is making a strategic mistake in building the road, because it will generate trouble in a region that has been quiet. The new road runs from south to north and intersects roads on which Palestinians travel from east to west. How will the encounter between the two nations be prevented under these conditions? Will the Palestinians be prohibited from using the east-west routes?

Ta'amri also wonders what the logic is of building a new route that runs very close (at some points no more than 50 meters away) to Za'atara. Is this the way to go about effecting the separation everyone is talking about?

Ta'ayush Arab-Jewish Partnership has additional objections: There is already a road that connects the area with Jerusalem, so why is so much money being spent on a new road? Why is the work being carried out without coordination with the Palestinians who live in the area? The road has been declared a project that aims to solve a regional problem and under that description land is being confiscated from Palestinians and their property is being invaded for the day-to-day construction work. But if only Israelis will be permitted to use the new road, why is it being called a regional project?

On the ground, the Israeli decisions are translated into a brutal presence, which runs roughshod over Palestinian rights and status. The mukhtar (headman) of Za'atara waits with deferential trepidation for a representative of the coordinator of government activities in the territories, in order to try to explain the situation from the villagers' point of view. A few of the village leaders gather around the ancient well, which the bulldozers will soon reach, and ask what its fate will be. They express feelings of a deep affront to their dignity, of humiliation and helplessness, in the face of the untrammeled Israeli power. The building of the road proves that Ariel Sharon is seeking to create a situation that will render mutual coexistence impossible, Salah Ta'amri says.

Nokdim is the home of MK Avigdor Lieberman, head of the National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu party. The Palestinians are convinced that the entire road project was initiated so he can get to Jerusalem faster. They believe that his public status played a decisive role in the decision to implement the project. MK Mussi Raz (Meretz) says he did not see anything to indicate that Lieberman had a hand in obtaining the financing for the road. The Defense Ministry says that Prime Minister Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer decided to authorize the building of the road based on a "combination of land and security considerations." The ministry adds that the road is intended to enable residents of the eastern part of the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements to get to Jerusalem more safely, without encountering Palestinian localities.

Lieberman also denies having been involved in the process of getting the project confirmed. He maintains that the new road will set right a wrong that was done to the residents of Nokdim and another settlement, Tekoa, who since the start of the intifada have not been able to use the existing road to Jerusalem (which runs very close to the route of the new road). They have to go by another route, which adds 40 minutes to the trip. It is Palestinian violence that caused the change in the status quo, Lieberman says, and the Nokdim-Har Homa road is part of the lesson that Israel is teaching the Palestinians: that they will gain nothing by terrorism.

2. Misreading the map

The Nokdim-Har Homa road is a concrete illustration of the connection between political processes and the situation on the ground. The bulldozers arrived at the village of Za'atara at the same time the prime minister received the American "road map," which reflects the administration's present conception for resolving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

The road, on which construction is proceeding intensively, would seem to undermine one of the cardinal elements of the American plan: assurance of maximum territorial continuity for the Palestinians. The road is an expression of the Israeli approach that has so far been dominant: an attempt to base an agreement with the Palestinians on the separation of the populations of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip through the creation of a network of bypass roads, tunnels and bridges.

The "road map," though, takes the opposite approach; it envisions the reduction of the Israeli presence in the territories to a minimum and the granting of maximum living space and room for movement to the Palestinians.

After Sharon found the time to study the new plan, he was reported to have serious objections to it. In consultations held this week in Jerusalem, concern was expressed about the American approach as it is reflected in the document and in the additions presented by the U.S. envoy to the region, William Burns. Some officials described the plan as the State Department's translation of President Bush's speech of June 24. At that time Bush presented his vision for a settlement in a manner that extracted from Sharon readiness "in principle" to accept it. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his staff have now injected their well-known approach into the new six-page document while depicting it as embodying the ideas that Bush expressed in his speech. According to Jerusalem, the document departs in its fundamentals from the position outlined by Bush.

In the first place, the Israeli officials will tell Washington, the "road map" does not insist on the basic condition the president laid down: that the start of the political process must be preceded by the cessation of Palestinian terrorism. The American paper outlines a course of negotiations that will be conducted concurrent with acts of terror. There is no demand on the Palestinians to put a stop to terrorism and disband terrorist organizations, only to preach this. Israel, however, is called upon to accept an immediate international presence that will work to implement the recommendations of George Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Israel must also remove the sanctions that have been imposed on the Palestinian population (they were imposed because of terrorism) and ensure freedom of movement for Palestinian leaders without making this subject to security considerations, as called for in the plan drawn up by former senator George Mitchell.

On another subject, the document directs the Arab states to move toward cutting off funding for extremist organizations, without naming names. This is sure to provoke a debate over whether Hamas is an "extremist organization."

On top of this, the "road map" would have Israel complete the withdrawal of its forces to the lines of October 2000 before the Palestinian Authority holds its elections. That is an unequivocal directive, whereas the Palestinians are not called upon to take concrete steps in combating terrorism and stopping incitement. Only at the end of the first stage posited by the document (May 2003) will the sides sign a practical plan for the cessation of terrorism. The Palestinian Authority will then have to collect the weapons now in the hands of the rejectionist organizations.

Israel will also put forward additional objections: There is nothing in the preamble to the document about the purpose of the proposed plan being to bring about the end of the conflict and the renunciation of mutual claims. In other words, the dispute over the right of return of the Palestinian refugees remains unresolved and the conflict will therefore continue to simmer and poison the relations between the two nations.

The preamble cites the international plans and resolutions on the basis of which an Israeli-Palestinian agreement has to be created - among them the Saudi initiative, as adopted by the Arab summit conference in Beirut. Israel will argue that the Saudi initiative never received the status of an international document, will remind Washington that the Arabs are a side to the conflict and that in Beirut the right of return was inserted into the Saudi plan.

The emerging Israeli response indicates that the "road map" has seriously frightened Ariel Sharon. It also proves how wrongheaded his approach was - to play for time and not engage seriously in formulating an Israeli political initiative. Dan Meridor was one of the few cabinet ministers who argued in cabinet meetings in recent months that Israel should come up with its own proposal and reach an understanding with the United States on the subject, before Washington presented its own plan. In contrast to Sharon, Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer was this week heard to say that he advocates the American document and supports its implementation. His position is apparently part of a different agenda.

3. Hold me back

On Tuesday of this week, three Labor Party ministers - Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (the party chairman), Matan Vilnai and Shalom Simhon, along with Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shiri - sat down with Prime Minister Sharon. They had come to discuss with the prime minister the party's demand to remove - "Yes, to r-e-m-o-v-e," another Labor minister, Dalia Itzik, said two days earlier but then didn't bother attending the meeting - National Infrastructure Minister Effi Eitam (leader of the National Religious Party) from the government. The meeting ended on an upbeat note: Labor remained in the government. And so did Effi Eitam.

Sharon opened with conciliatory remarks and urged Ben-Eliezer to make do with the tongue-lashing Sharon gave Eitam at the cabinet meeting in the wake of Eitam's verbal abuse of Ben-Eliezer on the radio. The Labor ministers said no. They wanted action. Sharon suggested a letter of reprimand and the ministers agreed.

They explained that they didn't want to give Eitam the power to disband the coalition. They added that their readiness to be satisfied with a reprimand was valid "at this stage." They stated that "Sharon understands that we will not tolerate that kind of behavior any longer." In other words, if Eitam shoots his mouth off again, Sharon will chuck him out of the government. That is Labor's understanding.

Ben-Eliezer remains in the government but has intensified the pose of the person who says, "Hold me back." Until next month's election of the party leader he will want to give the impression of being tough and determined, and to counterpose his approach to that of Sharon. As he accepts the U.S. "road plan," he also emphasizes in closed forums that he believes the army has in effect run the gamut of what it can do in the face of the Palestinian revolt and that his conclusion is that it cannot be quelled by force.

Effectively, Israel's defense minister is saying that there is no military solution to the intifada and that a political process is needed very soon in order to extricate the two sides from the morass they are mired in. He also understands now that Israel's efforts to prevent terrorist attacks - by "targeted assassinations" and closures - have the effect of producing more suicide bombers. In recent days he has been asserting the insight that came to him: namely, that Israel needs a political initiative now, if the conflict is not to become an unceasing river of blood.

The Labor leader is trying to show a dynamic, dovish approach in the face of the passivity and hawkishness of the Likud leader; and to sharpen the differences between them even more, he is threatening to leave the government over the dispute relating to next year's state budget.

In fact, the behavior of the Labor Party's leaders this week reinforced Sharon's assumption that it's all smoke and no fire. He had good reason to be more upset at remarks spouted by his party rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. Although it is difficult to know which camp emerged victorious in the Likud internal elections this month (because essentially they reflected the power of local leaders and "vote contractors," whose loyalty to either of the pretenders to the crown is not clear), Sharon knows that Netanyahu poses a genuine threat to his leadership of the party.

At the same time, Netanyahu has no guarantee of victory. The agreement of the two to hold the primaries suggests that Sharon is relying on his popularity among the 300,000 registered party members, while Netanyahu is unsure that he has the support of the majority of the members in the new Central Committee. Both of them looked askance at the rowdy behavior of the members of the far right at the opening session of the Likud convention on Wednesday evening in Jerusalem, as though grasping that they both face a new - common - problem.

4. Chain of command

A two-person committee, one from the Shin Bet security service and the other representing the chief of staff, is in charge of coordinating the list of Palestinians who are candidates for "targeted preemption" (liquidation). It's a changing list, not only because from time to time someone is rocketed out of existence, but also because new names crop up and old names are reviewed.

There are standing criteria according to which new candidates are added to the list, including his past, the potential threat he represents and the information on his future plans. There is also another list of terrorists, who are defined as "ticking bombs," for whom the procedure authorizing their liquidation is rapid, as is obliged by the immediacy of the danger they represent.

A recommendation by the two-person committee to assassinate one of those on the list is passed on to the chief of staff. If he gives his authorization, it is presented to the defense minister, and if he okays it, the decision goes to the prime minister. This procedure exists by virtue of a decision of principle that the security cabinet took after the terrorist attack at the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv: to authorize the prime minister and the defense minister to implement a policy of targeted attack against the leaders of the terrorists and "ticking bombs."

The upshot is that, contrary to what I wrote in this space last week, the list of candidates for liquidation was not presented to the security cabinet; it made do with authorizing the policy in principle.

Mohammed Abayat, from Bethlehem, was executed two weeks ago as a result of mistaken information supplied by the Shin Bet, which put into motion the procedure described above and received the go-ahead from the prime minister, who acted on behalf of the defense minister, who was on a visit to Paris.