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Dozens of Israel Defense Forces officers, state officials and students and instructors from the National Security College will arrive in the U.S. this morning, for a week of meetings with U.S. government officials, and leaders of the American Jewish community. The guests will meet with the entire phalanx of American policy-makers and opinion-shapers who influence the country's policies toward Israel.

This is the first trip of the kind for members of Israel's security college; they are traveling as guests of the Pentagon's National Defense University. The initiative reflects mutual recognition of the sides' importance - while the importance of the Pentagon's institution is manifest, the trip reflects recognition of the National Security College's impact in the formation of Israel's defense policies.

Without any connection to the security college visit, a graduate of its 1979 class, Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, has been in Washington in recent days. Two months ago, Halevy was cited (not at his own initiative) as a possible candidate for the post of Israel ambassador to

the U.S. Such a candidacy seemed logical, in light of Halevy's four years at the top of the Mossad, and his diplomatic experience (as ambassador to European Union institutions in Brussels). Halevy held key roles in Washington (during the 1973 Yom Kippur War he was the Mossad's representative in Washington). Yet he quickly put an end to speculation about a possible bid for the ambassador spot in Washington. Halevy said he wasn't interested in the diplomatic job, and wants to remain at his post at the Mossad for some time. Some skeptics scoffed at these denials, but evidence has mounted that Halevy could carry on at the Mossad.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon originally promised the top Mossad post to IDF Major General (res.) Meir Degan. Though he hasn't withdrawn this promise, Sharon has grown accustomed to relying on Halevy.

Meeting quietly with various foreign leaders and power-brokers, Halevy has served as a kind of secret foreign minister under Sharon. Though Halevy and Sharon update Foreign Minister Shimon Peres about his contacts, the prime minister tends to be selective as to what he tells Peres. Serving as Israel's current ambassador to the world, Halevy has little incentive to accept the spot in Washington.

Last Thursday, Sharon and Halevy were surprised to find that The Times of London had reported about a rift between them. Sharon publicly denied the report, saying that he had just finished a breakfast meeting with the Mossad chief. Sharon didn't serve up the main dish for public consumption - he didn't mention that Halevy was being dispatched that day to Washington, to handle the preparations for Sharon's meeting this week with Bush. Sharon bypassed the Israeli Embassy in Washington, the Foreign Ministry and Shimon Peres, and used Halevy to make back-channel contacts with CIA director George Tenet, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Vice President Richard Cheney's office.

Using Halevy's assistance on this track, Sharon is able to signal to the Americans that he understands their need for quiet in the region prior to an attack on Saddam Hussein. From Halevy and other sources, Sharon knows what Bush also knows - Jordan's and Egypt's attitudes toward Israel and Yasser Arafat are rather different from public declarations made by officials from the two states (retired U.S. army officers, who met privately last week with King Abdullah were stunned by the positive positions he adopted toward Israel and the U.S.).

Using Halevy as his conduit, Sharon can also hint about intentions of showing moderation, including (in contrast to public, political pronouncements) his recogntion of the necessity of evacuating certain settlements.

Until any such evacuation, the IDF remains responsible for security for all roads and areas connected to settlements in the territories. AT the end of Operation Defensive Shield, the main IDF division on the West Bank is commanded by Brigadier General Gershon Yitzhak. His forces will have to re-prioritize assignments. Last week, Yitzhak discussed priority revisions with senior IDF officers on the West bank, and leading security officers. Yitzhak currently has the authority to give orders for IDF operations in Palestinian areas which just two months ago required approval from the IDF chief of staff and the defense minister.

For the time being, towns and cities on the West Bank are still shell-shocked by Operation Defense Shield. These Palestinian communities are quiet, as though residents are under a self-imposed closure.