Focus / Another Big Snare: Sharon Traps Ben-Eliezer

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made a big catch yesterday, a man with the wiles of an alley cat, who by virtue of the violence since September 2000 was transformed from a mid-level politician into a pretender to the throne in charge of armies, and the head of a large party.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made a big catch yesterday, a man with the wiles of an alley cat, who by virtue of the violence since September 2000 was transformed from a mid-level politician into a pretender to the throne in charge of armies, and the head of a large party. B., who tried to evade Sharon, is now imprisoned and will not find it easy to escape. His full name: Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Public attention yesterday may have been directed at the capture of Marwan Barghouti, but in Sharon's private accounting books, the significant development was the initiative for an international conference, meaning the Likud-Labor government won't break up - yet. The initiative buys Sharon some time. By the time the conference convenes - if it does - at the end of May or early June, and, in effect, until it ends in a failure that will be blamed on Sharon, Ben-Eliezer and the Labor Party are trapped in the government. After all, the defense minister can't claim that Sharon is continuing to block out the political horizon.

That's political time; and there is also strategic time. In any event, perhaps an American operation against Iraq will go ahead, and overshadow events on the Palestinian front.

Only a desperate customer borrows at outrageous interest rates, making himself out to be a buyer of something he doesn't need and knowing how much he'll have to pay on the due date. Israeli governments - and more than any other, Sharon's wing of the Likud - have always opposed Arab, Soviet, or American proposals for international conferences. Years were wasted on terminology. Not a conference, but an "umbrella," or "auspices;" and if there was a conference, it was only meant to "launch" bilateral negotiations between Israel and each separate Arab delegation.

A general conference, Israel claimed, would send the moderates of the Arab states into the arms of the extremists, to Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Israel would be isolated and would be forced to choose between a bad formula and being blamed for the failure. Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin began their contacts to circumvent an American-Soviet plan for a Geneva conference, and Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin's moves were to outflank the deadlock in the talks that began at the Madrid Conference.

Yitzhak Shamir was forced to go to Madrid, because then U.S. secretary of state James Baker promised the Soviets, the Saudis and the Egyptians, ahead of the war on Iraq, that in exchange for their help to the Bush (pere) administration, the Americans would impose a conference on Israel along the lines of UN Security Council Resolution 242.

The real debate inside the current Bush administration is between Colin Powell's officials, who warn that without such an advance payment to Israel, the Arabs will make it difficult to secure a victory over Saddam Hussein, and Bush's combative aides, including the vice-president and defense secretary, who turn the formula around to try to give an incentive to the Arabs: Help us get Saddam - if you want to get paid later, in shekels.

The connection between the two arenas, the Iraqi and the Palestinian, will be obvious at a conference at which the hosts can invite anyone they choose, even without Israel's consent. And like inside Sharon's cabinet, those who aren't invited as full participants, can appear as "observers"- a more powerful position since they have the right to speak without the responsibility of the vote.

When he was pressured to initiate something (irrespective of what, as long as he could call it an "initiative") to protect his reign, Sharon chose a management initiative, in the form of a conference (with applause from the left), over a content initiative (with protests from the right) - at least so it appears.

In effect, this is the end of Israel's opposition to the internationalization of the conflict with the Palestinians. Sharon may have believed that with internationalization becoming inevitable, a diplomatic conference is the lesser of the two evils, when the other option is a peacekeeping force.

If Sharon's proposal has a diplomatic price, the intelligence and operational success in Ramallah could have a price in blood, not much different from the price Barghouti extracted when he was free. Last night, only a few hours after the army surrounded the house in which Barghouti was hiding, army units throughout the territories were put on high alert. The forces were on alert against terror attacks, and particularly attempts to kidnap soldiers, out of fear that Barghouti followers would try to avenge his arrest or take hostages with which to bargain for his release.

Hostage situations are always on the list of threats, but when Marwan Barghouti, Ahmed Barghouti, Nasser Awis, Ali Zipori and other top terror leaders are sitting in Shin Bet interrogation rooms, the temptation to try to free them in exchange for Israelis, whether dead or alive, grows.

During his interrogation, presumably, Barghouti will meet A., head of interrogations for the Shin Bet, and considered a smart, witty man. A.'s nickname is derived from the Wild West, but the reality is very Middle Eastern. Someone, like Jibril Rajoub, for example, who was in jail two days ago, yesterday headed a security service, and today it's not clear at all what he will do. Someone else, like Barghouti, for example, was a mid-level politician, then an education officer who turned into a commander of terrorist cells; and now he is in jail.

Barghouti, said a senior IDF officer, was quick to realize that the path to the Palestinian leadership went through violence against Israel. Even if he didn't pull the trigger himself, and hence, as the cliche goes, does not have "blood on his hands," at the very least, he has "money on his hands," because he paid for them. The conclusion, in any case, is identical: He is responsible for the killing of Israelis - "one of the heads of the snake," as one officer said last night.

But now Israel will be giving him one more important notch on his resume if he wants to be a Palestinian leader - time in jail as a security prisoner.