Corridors of Power /Altered States

1. A possible turning point

Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon tends to think in terms of processes. He is a student of history and when he summarizes the 1000-days' war - something he has been doing a lot of in recent days, sometimes in the presence of guests from outside the IDF - he aims to put it in perspective within the history of the State of Israel.

His conclusion, which could very well produce friction with the political echelon (a consequence that Ya'alon does not at all intend): This war's strategic importance is on a par with that of the War of Independence; it has created conditions for Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state; the changes in the Palestinian leadership could lead to a fundamental change in the how they view relations with Israel - from a "consciousness of struggle" to a "consciousness of agreement."

In Ya'alon's view, the current Israeli discourse does not give Abu Mazen enough credit. And there are some around Ya'alon who believe the Palestinian prime minister may - one day - be ready to cede the demand for the right of return.

Ya'alon's analysis is highly significant because it contains an incentive for the government to do everything it can to assure that the positive political momentum created with the election of Abu Mazen does not come to naught. Of course, the chief of staff is not explicitly saying this; he may not even make this connection between his situational appraisal and this imperative. But anyone who is privy to his evaluations cannot help but get the sense that Israel has come upon a historic opportunity that must not be missed. Given the impression left by the chief of staff's recent assessments, the dispute in the government this week over the size and composition of the group of Palestinian prisoners to be released seemed petty and pointless. Especially jarring and extreme were the statements made by Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman against all Arabs, including the MKs who sit alongside him in the Knesset plenum.

Ya'alon's now sees the Israeli- Palestinian conflict as falling into two periods, with the dividing line falling in June-July 2003. Until just recently, the crux of the struggle between the two peoples was the Palestinians refusal to accept the fact of Israel's existence. As of last month, with the establishment (admittedly, still only partial) of Abu Mazen's authority under the American umbrella, the focus of the dispute has shifted to the conditions of the accord regarding the future of the West Bank and Gaza.

Ya'alon's comments show his belief that after the Oslo agreement, as before it, Palestinian intransigence was fed by the refusal to accept Israel's presence in some of the lands of pre-state Palestine. The turning point evidently came about in wake of the 1000-days' war: A part of the Palestinian leadership, of which Abu Mazen is the most prominent representative, finally grasped that Israel is an immutable fact in the region that cannot be defeated by force. From here on, the dispute between the two peoples will proceed on the basis of this recognition and be channeled into practical efforts to find accords that make coexistence possible.

2. The crowning blow

Remarks made by the chief of staff in private circles show that he considers Arafat more or less a dead horse. People heard him liken the Palestinian leader to someone blithely paddling in the water and oblivious to the waves that are about to come crashing over him. He said that Arafat is making pathetic attempts to undermine Abu Mazen and that he hasn't understood that in the post- September 11 world, the use of terror has become illegitimate and that persisting down that road is a sure ticket to leper status.

As Ya'alon sees it, the replacement of Arafat with Abu Mazen at the head of the Palestinian leadership was the crowning blow of the Israeli response to the violent uprising that erupted in September 2000. He believes the intifada was not ignited because of Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, but that Arafat planned it beforehand, having used the circumstances created by the Oslo agreement to prepare for a terror assault on Israel.

The (as yet partial) removal of Arafat from the center of Palestinian power is the overt result of covert moves that Israel was a part of, and which were preceded by a necessary conceptual shift within the top Israeli leadership. Ya'alon feels that precious time was lost before the political echelon was ready to define Arafat as an "enemy." Previously (during the Barak government and when Labor was a partner in the Sharon government), the head of the Palestinian Authority was considered a "partner" or a partner who was also a "political adversary."

It wasn't until the massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya that the Israeli political echelon placed Arafat squarely under the rubric of terrorist and enemy, and enabled the IDF to make its operational plans based on this determination. This stance also influenced the American administration's attitude toward Arafat and contributed to his isolation in the international arena.

Washington does not consider Arafat a legitimate leader because he sponsors terror and seeks to use it to attain political goals. In this sense, he is similar to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The Americans place Hezbollah leader Sheikh Nasrallah in the same category, and, realizing this, he has been careful not to heat up the northern border and has even refrained from instigating provocations in Har Dov. The Hezbollah leader immediately grasped the change in the rules of the game after September 11, which is why he referred to the attacks as a "catastrophe."

Syrian President Bashar Assad, on the other hand, has apparently failed to grasp this change and only claims to have abjured terror, while the offices of the Palestinian militant organizations continue to function in Damascus (Their announcements are really made from the Syrian capital under the pretense of being publicized in Beirut). Senior IDF officers believe the United States has its sights set on Syria and that the pressure on that country is likely to increase.

The American approach to terror-supporting regimes has been applied to Arafat and is the key to the big changes that have taken place in the Palestinian leadership and in the Israeli leadership's attitude toward it. Bush and Sharon both consider Abu Mazen's denouncement of terror and his outlook in regard to Israel to be genuine. This is why Israel and the U.S. were deeply involved in the behind-the-scenes moves that led to the appointment of the Palestinian prime minister just before the American invasion of Iraq.

The United States is now sitting on both the Israeli and Palestinian governments - dictating their agenda and the pace of the road map's implementation. After the "quiet revolution" (Ya'alon's phrase) in the Palestinian leadership was accomplished, Washington was willing to give Abu Mazen some time to get organized before he had to begin dismantling the terror infrastructure. The Palestinian prime minister asked for a grace period ranging from six weeks to a full year. The IDF urged the political echelon in Jerusalem to object to this and to warn the American administration about the perils of creating a void that would immediately be filled with terrorist activity.

And in fact, after the Aqaba summit, Israel was hit by a wave of terror attacks inspired by Arafat, the militant groups in the West Bank and Gaza and external elements (Hezbollah, Iran and the terrorist headquarters in Damascus). This assault did not achieve its full intended impact because a number of attacks were thwarted by the Shin Bet and the IDF. The Israeli response consisted of a series of assassination attempts (six in four days) on the Hamas leadership and more exhortations aimed at getting the Americans to insist that Abu Mazen take responsibility immediately. Consequently, security agreements were made between Israel and the Palestinians, and the hudna was declared. The person who led this last drive was Abu Mazen, not Marwan Barghouti or Arafat.

3. Patience required

The events of the past week illustrated to what extent the road to paradise is paved with bad intentions: The implementation of the road map and the resultant cease-fire are running into serious problems. On the Israeli side, the prime minister endured no little discomfort when his proposal for a prisoner release did not receive government approval; only after the wording was toughened to make demands on the Palestinian side as well was the necessary majority scraped together.

The apparent existence of a chance of alleviating the conflict and directing it into onto the path of diplomacy was enough to bring the lava bubbling in the depths of the government up to the surface: The right-wing seemed to rule out any dialogue with the new Palestinian leadership, indicating that it does not trust it, is not interested in it and rejects outright any agreement that might threaten its ambition of continuing to hold on to the territories. On the Palestinian side, the opposition went beyond mere words to actual violence - more attempted terror attacks against the IDF in the West Bank, an acceleration in the production of Qassam rockets by Hamas and the suicide bombing in Kfar Yabetz - as well as political moves meant to hem in Abu Mazen, which led him to resign from the Fatah leadership and to threaten to resign as prime minister.

The IDF leadership is observing with a degree of patience the manner in which the Palestinian side is implementing the security agreements. They realize that Arafat has not given up trying to dictate the Palestinian position, as demonstrated again this week at the Fatah central committee meeting, and that Mohammed Dahlan also has his own agenda (his ambition of succeeding Arafat in the national leadership) as he goes about asserting his authority over all the terror organizations.

Despite the fragility of the security understandings and the hudna, Major General Ya'alon is inclined to think that they will last. Some people have even seen him remark, half-seriously, that the IDF may soon have to shift from combat to operational employment.

Though well aware of the difficulties involved in implementing the agreement, the IDF leadership appears willing to show some patience regarding the behavior of the new Palestinian leadership - a trend that has not been so evident in the public statements of the political echelon.

For example, the IDF has refrained from taking action against the Palestinian groups that agreed to the hudna, even in areas that it has not withdrawn from - which somewhat contradicts Sharon's statement before the Likud faction committee meeting last week that the restraint employed by the IDF during the cease-fire will apply only to territories that have been returned to Palestinian control.

And the general staff also appears more sanguine about weapons still in the possession of Palestinians who are not part of the official security forces, as long as these arms are kept at home and are not in use. In the IDF, they explain that the demand for the dismantling of the terror infrastructure hinged on the collection of heavy weaponry and a halt to its production, and on the organizational structure of the fighting wings of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other armed groups.

One might infer from the Chief of Staff's remarks that his opposition to the release of terror leaders like Marwan Barghouti applies to the current stage of the road map's implementation, but not necessarily to the stage in which the final status accord is discussed.

The IDF will wait about six weeks to assess the results of Abu Mazen and Dahlan's actions. Then, only if they appear to be seriously working to dismantle the terror infrastructure, will the Chief of Staff recommend that the government transfer more areas to the Palestinian Authority. The last cities to be given over will be Jenin and Nablus. As Israel sees it, it is in the interests of the terror organizations to fully comprehend that the era of terror is over because Israel has proven - ostensibly - that it will not surrender to terror and because the U.S. will otherwise consider the PA leadership illegitimate.

The fact that Abu Mazen condemned the terror attacks that occurred after the declaration of the hudna and that his Minister of Information, Nabil Amr, said that Palestinian discourse must change so that "yes" is heard more often than "no," indicates to the IDF command that the new Palestinian leadership is altering its approach and adapting itself to the scale of priorities set by the United States. How well Abu Mazen and company succeed in making this happen depends on their leadership ability and on how Israel chooses to behave: how many prisoners it releases, how many outposts it evacuates, how many gestures it makes to give the Palestinians the sense that a genuine change is occurring and that Abu Mazen is really bringing about a substantial improvement in their situation.

4. Coalition options

After the cabinet meeting this week, in which the right wing of the coalition made the potency of its opposition apparent, Minister Yosef Paritzky of Shinui wondered how any progress could be made with the road map if Israel has so little willingness to make even minimal concessions. The rapidity with which the crisis passed could be misleading: Sharon has a problem in his government.

The right-wing group, which ranges from the Likud to the NRP to the National Union, will give him trouble whenever it thinks he is crossing a red line in his keenness to please the United States. The prime minister supposedly doesn't have to worry about such things because he could always form an alternative coalition with the Labor Party. But this is not such a sure bet. Benjamin Netanyahu is breathing down Sharon's neck. He is getting increasingly active in the Likud branches and is going about his business as finance minister while trying to curry favor with the ultra-Orthodox public.

This week, some in the Likud leadership were saying that if the NRP and the National Union leave the coalition, Sharon could run into a surprise: Netanyahu may consolidate a power base within the party strong enough to constrain Sharon to prefer Shas and United Torah Judaism over Shimon Peres and his friends.

5. Replacement materials

Members of the general staff have to suppress a smile when they think about the committee established by Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Yuval Steinitz to review the IDF's preparedness before the American assault on Iraq. They know for certain that on the eve of the war, Iraq had chemical weapons and was preparing to launch a long-range aircraft equipped to transport weapons of mass destruction.

The IDF does not know where Iraq's arsenals of unconventional weapons have disappeared to, nor does it know where Saddam Hussein and the fortune he amassed before the war have gone. The two Iraqi scientists who turned themselves in to U.S. forces admitted that Saddam's regime had chemical and biological weapons, but professed to have no knowledge of where they are hidden. It's not inconceivable that Saddam ordered the execution of all those who took part, at his command, in destroying evidence of the existence of the forbidden weapons.

IDF leaders expect President Bush to hold the Syrian president to account for the assistance he extended to Saddam Hussein. The intelligence on this is not clear-cut, but the IDF has reports of a "transfer of materials" from Iraq to Syria on the eve of the Amreican assault, and is checking into reports that Saddam Hussein found a hiding place in Syria for a while after the fall of Baghdad. But this could also be disinformation that the IDF has an interest in disseminating.