Corridors of Power / Beating a Path to Bush's Door

At the meeting earlier this week between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the Palestinian prime minister expressed the hope that he would soon be able to host the Israeli prime minister in Ramallah. Sharon replied that he hoped conditions would make this possible.

1. A balance of fear

At the meeting earlier this week between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the Palestinian prime minister expressed the hope that he would soon be able to host the Israeli prime minister in Ramallah. Sharon replied that he hoped conditions would make this possible. In Sharon's bureau, they were saying the other day that this idea could become a reality with respect to one of the men's upcoming meetings.

Next week, both will meet separately with President Bush, and then they will meet each other again in Jerusalem. The frequency of the contacts derives from a surprising degree of mutual trust. Sharon and his close aides - the defense minister, foreign minister and chief of General Staff - do not doubt the sincerity of Abu Mazen's statements signaling his desire to reach an accord. Unlike in the period of Arafat's exclusive rule, the present Israeli government trusts the word of the Palestinian interlocutor and does not consider him a devious enemy. "It's a new era," those close to Sharon say.

And Abu Mazen's moves are also being guided by another surprising motive: The Palestinian side is very interested in maintaining the calm; not just the official Palestinian leadership, but the main militant organizations as well. An understanding has evidently been attained between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and Islamic Jihad - as long as they refrain from being involved in any terror attacks. Should they violate the agreement, the PA's security forces will come after them. If this is so, then an effective balance of fear has been created: Israel is not the only party afraid of terror attacks; Mohammed Dahlan and the heads of Hamas and Islamic Jihad do not want them either.

Abu Mazen is telling Sharon that the longer the hudna, or truce, lasts (and some in Jerusalem are now saying with confidence that it will not be broken when three months are up), the more the Palestinian populace will want to keep it going. Hamas and Islamic Jihad won't dare to buck the will of the public and so they will maintain the cease-fire. Abu Mazen is asking Sharon to let the circle of support for the security calm have a chance to widen and thus neutralize the motivation for the Palestinians' identification with the violent operations of the militant organizations.

Officially, Israel does not accept the Palestinian prime minister's approach, but it was interesting to see this week that there are people in Sharon's vicinity who were inclined to listen to it. Officially, Israel asserts that Abu Mazen must fulfill his part of the road map and take immediate action to dismantle the terror organizations and uproot their infrastructure. The Palestinian prime minister responds that, like any leadership in a secular Arab state, the Palestinian government also will not tolerate an armed and radical Islamic organization within it, but that the way to achieve this is through embrace, not confrontation: He wants to bring Hamas sympathizers back into the bosom of the PA.

This week, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom had a chance to experience the weight of the new Palestinian leadership in the international arena. Shalom found himself in competition with Abu Mazen and his ministers both in Europe and the United States. Shalom expects that President Bush will roll out the red carpet for the Palestinian prime minister in order to elevate his prestige in the Palestinians' eyes and to implant him in the world's consciousness as the No. 1 Palestinian leader. Sharon will also be given a warm reception, though he will also have to tangle with his hosts over the issues of the separation fence, prisoner releases and the dismantling of illegal settlement outposts. Most of the pressure will revolve around the proposed route of the fence: U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will apparently be the one to grapple with this dispute. She wants Israel to alter the route of the fence or suspend its construction or halt it altogether.

Bush and his people will probably urge Sharon to comply with Abu Mazen's wishes on the matter of the prisoner releases. Sharon will inform them of Israel's decision to release 400 security prisoners, to which about 100 more prisoners affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad will be added. The opposition to their release, which was spearheaded by Welfare Minister Zevulun Orlev at the ministerial committee meeting two days ago, is based on a formal argument (a lack of clarity in the wording of the government's decision) that Sharon hopes to overcome at the next government meeting. However, it's worth recalling that when he presented his first proposal for a prisoner release, Sharon found himself without a majority in the cabinet.

Sharon will present the prisoner release to Bush as a first step in a process whose scope and frequency will depend on the way in which the PA meets its obligations in implementing the road map. And he will likely ask Bush what the U.S. is doing to ensure that the Palestinian side fulfills its commitments.

2. Vicki Knafo is no gimmick

Vicki Knafo says that she just got up one morning and decided to walk to Jerusalem. She wrapped herself in the flag that she had at home from Independence Day, took some food and water and set out toward Be'er Sheva. She didn't expect to become the leader of a protest movement. She says that at a conference in a Jerusalem hotel this week, she didn't know where to hide when she saw that the crowd was giving her a standing ovation.

But there's a little question mark hovering over this seemingly simple and poignant tale: From the very beginning, all of Knafo's moves were documented - the preparations for the journey, the first kilometers, her lone march in the blazing heat. Channel One did a report on her even before she began her trek, and this has led some in the finance minister's office to wonder whether Knafo's public activism really erupted spontaneously, or whether there is a guiding hand behind it. Benjamin Netanyahu would be willing to pay a lot to identify a political patron behind Knafo's exploits and the protest movement that has sprung from them. Treasury officials find the fact that her every move has been recorded by Channel One somewhat suspicious.

Vico Atwan is the Channel One reporter who first brought Knafo's protest to public awareness. Three weeks ago, a woman name Rina from Mitzpeh Ramon called him and said: "You love tears, so come to Mitzpeh Ramon." Rina was referring to a moving report that Atwan had broadcast a few days earlier. The next day, Atwan was in Mitzpeh Ramon, where he learned of the agitation of the single mothers. He observed a meeting that they held and spotted Knafo's leadership ability. He saw her hanging up posters in the town calling on women to join her, and heard her talk about her plan to go to Jerusalem. Atwan broadcast a report about it and suggested to Elisha Spiegelman, editor of the Channel One weekend magazine program, that he prepare a report that would give a portrait of Knafo. Spiegelman consented. And so Vicki Knafo became a media hero.

Atwan said a few days ago that he is convinced that Knafo's initiative was spontaneous; yes, political elements tried afterward to "hitch a ride" on her, but her distress was authentic and the decision to walk to Jerusalem was her own. Knafo explained this week that she chose to march to the capital because she felt like a warrior: Like the soldiers, she wanted to experience the hardships of the road, the thirst, the blisters. "I love the country, even though I've sometimes thought that it would be better to run away from here, and that's why I wrapped myself in the flag," she said.

Rina, the one who invited Vico Atwan to cover Knafo's march, is nowhere to be seen in the protest tent. Atwan does not believe that she is connected to any public entity; he says that the women who joined Knafo pushed Rina away because they didn't find a common language with her. Hearing this, Knafo wants to correct the record: She, not Rina, was the one who interested Vico Atwan in her plan to march to Jerusalem; Rina was involved in other social protests that have been reported on in the local press in the south of the country. Rina did not join the protest tent in Jerusalem because she is caring for a sick child.

Vico Atwan emphasizes that before Knafo's campaign acquired media momentum, she was walking alone, without any escort whatsoever, hauling all the provisions herself. Only after she reached her first stop - Be'er Sheva - did others jump on the bandwagon and extend their sponsorship.

3. Netanyahu looks for signs

At the protest tent in Jerusalem, there are a number of women who, out of the goodness of their hearts, have taken it upon themselves to assist the 35 women (the number as of Tuesday evening) who have settled there with their children. They are representatives of philanthropic organizations, and trying to identify to which political parties they are connected has become something of a detective game. There are volunteers from various organizations like Shatil, Yedid, the Center for Jewish Pluralism, the Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Jerusalem branch of the Community Centers Association and the Rape Crisis Center, to name just a few. There are also some who are affiliated with political entities: Na'amat, the Kibbutz Movement, Hanoar Haoved and the Jerusalem workers' council. Have they joined the assistance efforts so as not to be left behind, or are they playing a leading role in fanning the protest? In Netanyahu's office, they're certain that an interested, political shadow is hanging over the single mothers' protest.

But the activity in the field rebuts this. Nava Hefetz, Mazal Goshen and Peggy Sidur say that the protesting women have been warned not to fall into the trap of being identified with any political party (though there were a few stumbles, as when Ilana Azoulai leaned on Shimon Peres and he gave her a bear hug). They even maintain the connection with Danny Ben-Sheetrit, secretary of the Jerusalem workers' council, by remote control (though he is often seen near the protest encampment): They are prepared to accept the logistical assistance that he is offering, but have turned down his proposal to have his organization join in their struggle across from the Finance Ministry. They know that if their struggle acquires a political label, that will be the end of it. Netanyahu knows this as well and so he is on the lookout for any signs of this.

In his office, they say that Yoel Marshak, the secretary-general of the Kibbutz Movement, presented himself as "Vicki Knafo's helper" and that the New Israel Fund, which has a leftist image, is giving the single mothers political assistance in their contacts with the authorities. Netanyahu and his aides wonder how every step of Vicki Knafo and friends is documented and broadcast in all the media (for example, the taking of food products without paying from a grocery store in Dimona to demonstrate how great the need has become). In other words: None of this is random; someone is organizing everything behind the scenes. If at first Netanyahu and his people thought that Knafo had fomented a spontaneous movement that attracted various political interests, this week they were asking suspiciously if the whole thing wasn't the result of some calculated planning by the government's rivals.

At the protest tent, the involvement of public organizations is viewed as a contribution to the cause by professionals who have a social ideology: Their activism is aimed at guiding the single mothers in their contacts with the authorities to prevent the protest from fading. It's not politics, but a consequence of their worldview. The activists say that there has been an impressive flow of material assistance and good will from public and private organizations for the residents of the encampment (from kibbutzim, the Mahaneh Yehuda committee, physicians and businesses, among others), and that any political presence in the protest movement is of a marginal nature: MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) has stopped by every day, and MK Yuli Tamir (Labor), who was filmed one time alongside the women demonstrators, has since made sure to come by only at night or on Saturdays, when there are no journalists around.

Netanyahu won't be convinced by this depiction. He has become increasingly convinced that a hidden political hand is fanning the social agitation and he is searching for evidence.

4. No conflict of interest

This medical miracle occurs every so often: The hospitals whose directors were appointed directors-general of the Health Ministry for a period of several years, experience a rapid development push when the directors return to their home grounds. So it was with Tel Hashomer and with Ichilov, whose directors - Prof. Mordechai Shani and Prof. Gabi Barbash - answered the health minister's call to serve their country. Last week, it appeared that such a lofty position could benefit not only a single hospital but an entire health maintenance organization.

MK Avraham Hirschson (Likud) issued a press release in which he announced the decision to merge the Leumit HMO with the Meuhedet HMO. Up until six months ago, Hirschson was the chairman of the Leumit HMO. Since being elected to the current Knesset, he has been the chairman of the Finance Committee. The announcement he made about the anticipated merger of the two HMOs sparked a furious reaction from the Meuhedet HMO. Its administration published large newspaper ads clarifying that it is opposed to the merger.

Hirschson was asked this week if there wasn't a conflict of interest between his association with the Leumit HMO and the key position that he now holds. He replied that there is no connection between the two: He settled the Leumit deficit with the treasury before being elected chairman of the Finance Committee. And he says that the HMO's deficit is not unusual: All of the HMOs are in a similar situation (so he says) and this is the result of a deliberate policy on the part of the government. He pointed out that within Leumit, there are also some who oppose the merger, but says he will persist in his efforts to bring about the merger of the two HMOs because it will save a lot of money and the public will benefit in the end.