Dangerous Gimmicks

Sharon's recent directive to build the West Bank District Police headquarters coming on the heels of disengagement declares his intent to expand the Israeli presence in the West Bank.

On June 5, 1982, five weeks after Israel completed its withdrawal from Sinai in accordance with the peace treaty with Egypt, the Israel Defense Forces invaded Lebanon in what was known as Operation Peace for the Galilee. Was the timing coincidental? Not necessarily. The large-scale Oranim plan for the invasion of Lebanon had been ready six months before, but was not implemented until after the complete evacuation of Sinai.

One day after the uprooting of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, the IDF triggered an incident in Tul Karm that ended in the killing of five Palestinians, including two teens. Was the timing coincidental? Not necessarily. The goal of capturing the Islamic Jihad members who were responsible for the terror attack at the Stage night club in Tel Aviv in February had been on the table for the past six months. The effort to hit the Islamic Jihad infrastructure had been the long-standing intent of the security forces. Nevertheless, they avoided doing so during the past weeks in order not to create an excuse to disrupt the disengagement plan. As soon as its decisive moment passed, the finger was back on the trigger.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin did not give the green light to invade Lebanon in order to distract attention from his willingness to give up all of Sinai. He made his decision because the circumstances justified it in his mind (the assassination attempt on Shlomo Argov, Israel's ambassador to London, and the Palestine Liberation Organization's incessant provocations of Israel). Still, the proximity of the events cannot be ignored. On the one hand, the complete withdrawal from Egyptian soil; on the other, a comprehensive military action in Lebanon.

Just as the decision on a military operation in Lebanon had the potential for a major escalation of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and to damage Israel's image internationally, the decision to renew pursuits and assassinations of activists in terror organizations may reignite the area and put the conflict back on a violent track. Whether the incident in Tul Karm was the result of a conscious decision by the government to distract attention from the disengagement or whether that motive was only in the background, it has the power to quickly pull the parties back into another armed conflict.

Recent weeks have shown that when leaders on both sides want to lower the flames, they know how to force their will on the security forces they command. Ariel Sharon, who won deserved praise for the management of the evacuation, is likewise responsible for the operation of the elite undercover forces in Tul Karm four days ago. The major support the public has given the disengagement plan reflects a desire to turn over a new leaf in relations with the Palestinians. For a return to targeted assassinations and the capture of armed Palestinians to be considered legitimate, we must be convinced that it stems from a real, undeniable security need. That was not the case in Tul Karm. Sharon and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz must understand that the public, which has awakened from its illusion of occupation, is more skeptical in its scrutiny of the security motives behind military operations that contain explosives which might destroy the opportunity created by the disengagement plan.

The same is true for provocative decisions that are not military in nature, but whose motives are identical: Ahead of the withdrawal from Sinai, Menachem Begin set in motion the annexation of the Golan Heights in extraordinary legislation that passed in the Knesset in one day. There is no doubt that decision was made to create a balance in the mind of the public (and perhaps in Menachem Begin's own mind) against Begin's willingness to give up all of Sinai.

That is the significance of Ariel Sharon's directive of recent days to build the Judea and Samaria District Police headquarters in the area between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem: Coming on the heels of disengagement, it declares his intent to expand the Israeli presence in the West Bank. This decision appears to be a gimmick in light of the destruction of the settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank.