Corridors of Power / Begging America to Flex Its Muscles

1. Positive interim report

The state of the road map is better than it looks. Outwardly, Israel has embarked on a noisy media campaign that paints in black and gloomy colors the way Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is doing his part in the Aqaba process, but in internal discussions in Jerusalem, more balanced assessments are being heard. As the period of the hudna (cease-fire) approaches its mid-point, the interim evaluation is that its benefits are greater than its damages and there is a reasonable chance that it will be extended beyond the three months allotted to it.

In the plus column, qualified sources list the following categories of Palestinian behavior: a dramatic decrease in incitement, zero terror attacks in the north and central Gaza Strip, economic improvement, and a sense of relief among the Palestinian population in the Strip and in the cities the Israel Defense Forces have evacuated in the West Bank. In the Palestinian debit column: activity by rebellious Fatah elements in the southern part of the Gaza Strip (Rafah and Khan Yunis) as well as in Jenin, Nablus and Bethlehem.

Conclusions: At the moment, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are refraining from carrying out terror attacks; Mohammed Dahlan's control of the Fatah is not complete; the Palestinian population is feeling that it is benefiting from the cease-fire and therefore the noncompliant organizations will, in the meantime, refrain from disturbing its serenity. It is true that they are asking themselves until when they have to show forbearance and whether this self-restraint is not harming their interests, but for the moment they will not act contrary to the public will and therefore will take care not to carry out terror attacks so as not to provide Israel with an excuse to respond with force.

This picture of the situation poses a problem for the decision-makers in Jerusalem: How should they act in order to impel Abu Mazen to dismantle the terror infrastructure? In Jerusalem, they admit that the term "terror infrastructure," from the defense establishment language factory, is too inflated. The Israeli demands of Abu Mazen and Dahlan are defined: to stop terrorists on their way to carry out attacks (and not to stop them with mere warnings); to confiscate equipment used to develop and produce Qassam rockets; to stop the flow of money to fund terror activities; to fire preachers who incite against Israel; and to prevent unauthorized people from moving outdoors when they are armed. At present the Palestinian Authority is not carrying out these actions, on the grounds that it fears a civil war.

The main lever at Israel's disposal is the American administration. Israel is telling Washington that without the leadership of a regime in which there is one law, one governing authority and one security force, there is not a chance that in the territories of the Palestinian Authority, a stable and authoritative government will arise. It is begging the U.S. to use its influence, and the pressure it can bring to bear, to spur Abu Mazen to gather his courage and force his authority on the armed organizations; otherwise, it will not be possible to break the current vicious cycle of calm on the surface that conceals governmental weakness and serves as a cover for preparations by the armed organizations for another round of violence with Israel.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his people are explaining to U.S. President George W. Bush and his aides that in the current situation, Abu Mazen is not succeeding in strengthening his position because his achievements, which originate in steps that Israel has taken (for example, the release of prisoners or Sharon's decision to change the route of the separation fence), are being swallowed up in the messages of weakness that he is transmitting and fade away in the long shadow that PA Chairman Yasser Arafat continues to cast on him.

2. Abu Mazen's victory

After the release of the Palestinian prisoners on Wednesday, ministers from the extreme right wing of the government said that Ariel Sharon will have to show a real achievement in the discussions with the Palestinians in order to get the government's approval to release more prisoners. On the background of the difficulties Sharon's request to approve the release of the prisoners this week encountered, both in the ministerial committee dealing with the prisoners and in the government plenum, this threat was not empty. Israel has a fair amount of room to maneuver in order to answer the Palestinians' expectations in this area, and it has already been discussed at the theoretical level, but the trend of thought in the defense establishment and in the government this week did not presage a willingness to carry this out.

Although in contacts with Abu Mazen and President Bush he made it clear that the release of the prisoners is a lengthy process and not a one-time gesture, and even though in Jerusalem they discussed making the criteria for release more flexible (including freeing prisoners who have served only half their sentence, accelerating the trials of more than 2,000 detainees and commuting their sentences, and more) - Sharon can expect many difficulties, if not real barriers, when he tries to get the government's approval of another release.

The extreme right in the government is, in fact, creating an equation: an Israeli gesture in return for the fulfillment of a Palestinian commitment that appears in the road map. Thus, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Zevulun Orlev, Minister Uzi Landau and Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman are contributing to the improvement of Sharon's bargaining power with Abu Mazen: The Israeli prime minister also has constraints on his moves. They are relying, among other things, on the assessment by Shin Bet security service head Avi Dichter that the release of the prisoners does not strengthen Abu Mazen, but rather accustoms him to evade keeping his commitments. He is joined by Amos Gilad, advisor to the defense minister, who said this week that Abu Mazen and his people are not doing what they know they are supposed to be doing. For quite a while Gilad has believed that the way previous governments accepted infringements of the Oslo agreement by Yasser Arafat were interpreted by him as a weakness; this error nourished the process of the crash of the agreement. His remarks to the government imply a warning against repeating this mistake.

The head of Military Intelligence, Major General Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash, judges the behavior of Abu Mazen and his people less severely and gives a greater chance to the survival of the hudna.

Official Israel has changed its declared attitude toward the way the new Palestinian leadership has been implementing the road map in order to pressure it and to shake the U.S. into wielding its influence on them. Abu Mazen acted in a similar way when he raised an outcry against the route of the separation fence.

The result, as of now - a victory for the Palestinian prime minister. Ariel Sharon has given in to Bush's pressure and has decided to change the route of the fence in a way that will not look like an act of annexation. Sharon justified his decision by the supreme need to keep the support of the U.S. at this sensitive time and Israel's dependence on the American guarantees.

3. The race for the constitution

For 55 years the concept of a constitution was rejected in the Israeli political arena. Suddenly last summer it enjoyed the spotlight and became like the "Altalena" after the rise of the Likud to power: an abandoned ship onto which everyone jumped in retrospect.

This past Sunday, Likud MK Michael Eitan, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, declared that within a year at most he will place before the committee a summary document for voting. Eitan meant to say that he would bring his colleagues a draft of a proposal for a complete constitution for Israel. He had an interesting justification: When he was chosen to head the committee (after the elections to the 16th Knesset), he paged through the books, went to the archives and discovered, wonder of wonders, that the committee has owed a debt to the state since 1950: to formulate a constitution. Eitan decided that he would be the one to pay this debt.

Every other Sunday, the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee convenes and devotes a special meeting to discussion of the formulation of a constitution for the state. Attendance is impressive: Most of the committee members take the trouble to show up for these meetings, which are held, it must be recalled, not on the usual working days of the Knesset. Eitan said yesterday that that he sees the interest that the committee members are evincing in the constitution as evidence that they see the matter as important. He noted the high costs involved in advancing the matter - inviting experts, putting research teams to work, logistical expenses - all in order to make a convincing case that he intends to keep his promise and propose a formulation for a constitution within a year.

Eitan knew, of course, even before he was chosen to head the committee, about the legacy the temporary state council of 1948 left for future generations. Presumably he was familiar with the course of events that led from the inclusion of intention to legislate a constitution in the Declaration of Independence, and ended with the "Harari decision" (after MK Yizhar Harari, the chairman of the House Committee at the time), which stated: "The First Knesset delegates to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee the preparation of a constitution for the state. The constitution will be made up of a serious of articles [formulated in] such a way that each of them will constitute a basic law in its own right. The articles will be brought before the Knesset, to the extent that the committee completes its work, and all the articles together will be combined into the constitution of the state."

Since that decision, the Knesset has passed, with the active involvement of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, 11 Basic Laws - but no one, before Michael Eitan, ever took it upon himself to use his position as chairman of the committee to stitch together a constitution for the state and to justify this as the fulfillment of an obligation that the Knesset took upon itself 53 years ago.

Eitan is an original political creature and sufficiently determined to cause those around him to take his declared intention seriously; he is indeed likely within a year to declare that the work is done. Not only are his personal ambition and his persistence on his side and giving him a reasonable chance to realize the vision of a constitution, but also political circumstances and the preparation of theoretical ground unparalleled in the past.