Bumbling Toward Bethlehem

Shimon Peres has been making the point, of late, to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel cannot accept a situation in which its relations with the Palestinians are dependent on the suicidal inclinations of some fanatic Palestinian. In other words, the foreign minister is saying that making a dialogue with the PA contingent on a total cease-fire is to play into the hands of the next suicide bomber.

Sharon blinked firstShimon Peres has been making the point, of late, to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel cannot accept a situation in which its relations with the Palestinians are dependent on the suicidal inclinations of some fanatic Palestinian. In other words, the foreign minister is saying that making a dialogue with the Palestinian Authority contingent on a total cease-fire is to play into the hands of the next suicide bomber. That is one of the arguments Peres is putting forward in an attempt to persuade Sharon to forgo his rigid demand for a week of absolute quiet before he is willing to enter into political negotiations.

In an internal consultation held not long ago in Jerusalem, one of the participants asked the foreign minister bluntly whether he himself was not in the same trap in 1996, when the massive Hamas terrorist attacks eventually toppled him. Did he think then, too, that restraint was the order of the day and that talks should be held with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as though nothing had happened? The fact is that Peres called Arafat and hurled such potent threats at him that he brought about a cessation of the terrorist operations.

This week Peres was able to chalk up a victory: His position influenced Ariel Sharon - both as regards a dialogue with Arafat and as regards the brake put on the planned military operation in the Bethlehem area. It was, perhaps a short-term victory (that depends on the behavior of the Palestinians), but there is no ignoring the fact that Sharon blinked first.

After the cabinet meeting, in which Peres' anger and frustration were more than evident, the prime minister behaved as though he recoiled from hurling the relations between them into a state of crisis. He found a way to conciliate Peres, gave him a longer rope to try and bring Arafat to the negotiating table, and even toned down his statements about the duration of Israel's control of Orient House in East Jerusalem. Still, these achievements did not make Peres a happy person: The confrontation with the Palestinians looked this week as though it were moving toward a huge explosion.

The basic assessment of Israeli intelligence has not changed: Arafat doesn't want to calm the conflict. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said this week in closed forums that he is increasingly convinced that the armed clash will continue for a lengthy period and that in light of the positions taken by Arafat, there is no possibility of resolving the issues in dispute between the two sides by means of a political dialogue.

The more knowledgeable Ben- Eliezer becomes about Arafat's worldview, the more readily he concludes (this, at any rate is the message that arises from what he says in internal discussions) that the Palestinian leader is committed to the realization of the Palestinian refugees' right of return on a scale that no Israeli government will be able to accept. According to this version, Arafat, in talks with foreign statesmen, quotes the assurances he gave to his brethren, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria, to return them to their homes, and asserts that he is incapable of retracting what he promised.

Peres, though, has a different opinion about the situation. In two talks he held with Sharon, at the end of last week and on Sunday of this week, he explained to the prime minister why he cannot accept the prohibition on holding talks with top-ranking Palestinian officials as long as the shooting continues. Apart from formal reasons, which have to do with the formulation of the conclusions in the Mitchell report and the document brokered by CIA chief George Tenet, which, in Peres' opinion, allow him to hold talks with Arafat - under the rubric of talks to achieve a cease-fire - he explained to Sharon that he cannot operate in a rhetorical environment that blasts Arafat and thwarts any possibility of renewing the diplomatic process with him. Peres was referring to the prime minister's blunt descriptions of the Palestinian leader and to other declarations he has made, which reflect a conception that rules out from the outset any possibility of achieving understanding with the Palestinians.

Sharon, in fact, is committing himself to public positions that are liable to prove embarrassing for him. He was quoted as saying that the Israeli seizure of Orient House, in East Jerusalem, and of the governor's house in the town of Abu Dis, adjacent to Jerusalem, are irreversible steps; but hardly had a day passed before the official Israeli position was moderated: It now spoke of returning Orient House within six months and drew a distinction between restoring property to its owners and stopping political activity in that property. As for the buildings in Abu Dis, there were hints that in the political negotiations, when and if they begin, those properties will be negotiable, too.

Sharon's declaration that not another shot will be fired at the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo may also prove to be made of sand, as is the impression he created that the seizure of Orient House is a model that could also be applied elsewhere. At least one member of the cabinet concluded from this that one of the next sites for capture will be the Abu Sneina neighborhood in Hebron, which overlooks the Jewish settlement in the city. Is the prime minister capable of meeting the expectations he is generating?

Hold me back

The decision-making process that brought about the plan to capture the Bethlehem area in order to prevent further shooting at Gilo recalled the behavior of the tough guy who asks his buddies to hold him back so he doesn't carry out his threat to smash his adversary's face. On Tuesday morning, after Gilo had come under fire for hours, Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer ordered the chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, to send Israeli forces into Beit Jala - the village across the valley from Gilo - and seize the buildings from which the shooting came. Mofaz requested that the operation be delayed until that night, for operational reasons. Ben-Eliezer agreed, even though Sharon preferred a strike in broad daylight.

That afternoon the defense minister held a consultation in his office. Not all the generals who were there expressed enthusiasm about entering Beit Jala - some proposed massing forces around the town and waiting - but in the end the decision was made to seize footholds there. The preparations began demonstratively and the media soon reported that the capture of Beit Jala was imminent.

That evening, however, a change occurred in Ben-Eliezer's position. He explained afterward that he had received solid intelligence information that Arafat had issued a strict order to stop the shooting at Gilo. Reports also arrived that residents of the town were fleeing. Ben-Eliezer decided to suspend the operation. He told Peres about his decision and later informed him that the operation was canceled. The foreign minister was pleased. The prime minister, too, raised no objections to Ben-Eliezer's position. Sharon was certainly influenced by American importuning, though his bureau denies that any sort of pressure was exerted on him. On Wednesday night Ben-Eliezer said that if the situation in Beit Jala were to stabilize, he would order the Israeli units to withdraw from the Bethlehem region.

From a lenient standpoint, the performance of the political level regarding the proposals for a military operation in Beit Jala seems reasonable. The government proved again that it is not eager to fan the flames of violence and that it is ready to exhaust every possibility to calm the situation by political means. The events also proved the validity of the government's insistence that Arafat is in full control of the violence: at his wish Gilo is attacked (in reaction to the Israeli army's incursion into Jenin) and at his wish the Palestinian terrorists (mainly one family, which has a criminal past) hold their fire. At his command Gilo is quiet for three months (in the wake of the decision to step up the CIA's involvement in supervising the cease-fire) and at his command terrorists are apprehended on their way to perpetrate attacks in Israel (after the terrorist attack on the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem).

In the eyes of the severe camp, Sharon and his colleagues again displayed confusion and contradictions in their behavior: the proposal to enter Beit Jala encountered international pressure (the United States administration), internal political pressure (Peres) and operational limitations (the army seeks to reduce the loss of life in planning its responses). The decision makers should have taken these considerations into account before fomenting the media hullabaloo that heralded an imminent attack.

What he wants

Operational moves come and go, but the roots of the crisis remain strongly entrenched: No one in Jerusalem has any idea how to get out of the quagmire or how to restore the country's rosy cheeks. Cabinet ministers who are closely following the prime minister's moods and trying to figure out his intentions, have formed the impression that he is being carried by the events more than he is influencing their course.

Shimon Peres, speaking this week with confidants about the tension that has arisen between him and Sharon, said that the two of them have a partner that is highly influential: reality. In other words, it's the actual situation that dictates the prime minister's moves, and not the declarations he voices.

According to this conception, Peres believes that reality will force Sharon to compromise and to agree to some sort of formulation that will enable the political dialogue with the Palestinian Authority to be resumed. As Peres sees it, Sharon will afterward agree to a political settlement that will cover a few years and will stabilize the relations between the sides while creating the corridor of time that is needed to bring about negotiations on a permanent agreement.

At the same time, Peres understands that every lethal terrorist attack can disrupt his plan and tilt the balance toward a harsh Israeli response. As far as it's known, Peres' impression is that Sharon is realistic in his expectations concerning the nature of the possible interim settlement with the Palestinians and also with regard to the fundamental outline of the permanent settlement.

However, the impression of other cabinet ministers, mainly from the Likud, is that Sharon believes that the day is not far off when the Palestinian Authority will break under Israeli pressure, or that Arafat will disappear from the scene - either because of opposition to him from among the Palestinians, or because his behavior will legitimize an Israeli decision to remove him from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or because nature will take its course. According to this view, Sharon is playing with the idea of taking steps to establish an alternative Palestinian leadership that will be prepared to reach a settlement with Israel on the basis of more moderate positions than those held by Arafat.

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer doesn't believe that Israel has the capability to influence the composition or the positions of the next Palestinian leadership group. He rejects the view that Arafat can be isolated from his nation and warns against the illusion that classifying him formally as an enemy (as the settlers and the far-right cabinet ministers want) will remove the limitations that are imposed on the Israel Defense Forces in combating Palestinian terrorism.

The defense minister explains that Arafat is perceived in the international arena as a national leader and that the Palestinian Authority is considered a sovereign entity. It is these facts that dictate the character of Israel's military activity against them. This is not to say that the defense establishment does not know that Arafat is the chief fomenter of violence in the region. And that is what is so despairing in the current situation assessments.

The holy wars

Just how skillful the government is in handling sensitive international issues could be seen this week with the election of Metropolitan Irineos I as the Greek Orthodox patriarch in the Holy Land. The government didn't want Irineos, but its actions led directly to his election.

The Israeli intervention in the election of the new patriarch seems to have been initiated by Shmuel Eviatar, the adviser on Christian affairs to the mayor of Jerusalem. He recommended to the prime minister that Israel disqualify five of the 15 candidates for the post of patriarch. Irineos was one of the five, and it's thought that he was rejected because he was considered hostile to Israel and on close terms with the Palestinian Authority.

Uri Shani, the prime minister's bureau chief, was apparently the official who coordinated the government's handling of Eviatar's recommendation. Shani sent a letter to Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit for the minister to sign and then forward to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, apprising it of the disqualification of the five candidates. Sheetrit rubber-stamped the document. The letter caused a holy ruckus in the Greek Orthodox Church and in several international capitals.

The Sharon government found itself undergoing the same experiences as previous governments in this country since the time of the Ottomans: Anyone who meddles in the affairs of the churches in Jerusalem gets burned.

A series of developments - international pressure, the invocation of the High Court of Justice, threats to land interests of the state that are owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, lobbies formed by Israeli politicians and businessmen who have ties with some of the candidates - induced the government to quickly back off. Two weeks ago, Sheetrit signed off on a second letter in which he stated that all 15 candidates were acceptable to Israel. As the election approached, on Monday of this week, the Israeli efforts to influence the outcome continued, this time behind the scenes. The result was total failure: Irineos, whom Arafat wanted, was elected. His election was seen as the defiant response of the electors to Israel's attempts to affect the results.

In retrospect, Sheetrit stated lamely that he had signed the disqualifying letter he received from Shani without examining it because he trusted Shani's judgment and because he understood that the justice minister's signature was merely a technical matter. Shani did not respond to questions put to his office about the subject, and Shmuel Eviatar continues to hold to his belief that the disqualification was justified and also legal, and that if only the government had not changed its mind, a different patriarch would have been elected.