Corridors of Power / Changing Gears

The following item of information emerged from the defense establishment this week: The technology for manufacturing Qassam rockets is leaking from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. By the end of the three months of the hudna, the armed Palestinian organizations may be able to extend the range of the rockets to 14 kilometers.

1. Oslo, second edition

The following item of information emerged from the defense establishment this week: The technology for manufacturing Qassam rockets is leaking from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. By the end of the three months of the hudna, the armed Palestinian organizations may be able to extend the range of the rockets to 14 kilometers. In other words, by the end of September, these groups may have at their disposal in the West Bank steep-trajectory weapons capable of hitting localities in the center of the country. It was also learned this week that there are those in the defense establishment who dispute the decision to withdraw from Palestinian cities and offer the Palestinians security control over Jericho and Qalqilyah. There are also some who oppose the agreement to release hundreds of prisoners (half of them members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad).

There is nothing accidental about these messages: They signal a shift in the Israeli approach, which is aimed at putting pressure on the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to deliver the goods and start to fulfill his part in the implementation of the road map.

Ahead of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to Washington this week, he was provided with photographs, maps and documents intended to offset the impression created by Abu Mazen in his talks with the administration leadership the previous week. Jerusalem knew in advance that Abu Mazen would get a warm welcome in Washington, and had no desire to undermine it; indeed, Abu Mazen is to some extent a joint Israeli-U.S. project. However, Sharon drew a distinction between the American aim of enhancing Abu Mazen's prestige in the international arena, and the need to persuade the administration to back Israel's demand that he start dismantling the terrorist infrastructure.

The tone that emanated from Jerusalem this week was one of impatience along with a warning, between the lines: The hudna has entered its second month and so far Abu Mazen and his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, have not so much as lifted a finger to neutralize the armed organizations. Israel is not ready to wait another 90 days until the two Palestinian leaders feel confident enough to impose their will on Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The moment of truth has arrived: The new Palestinian leadership must take practical and effective action to collect the unauthorized weapons held by Palestinians and to make it impossible for the extremist organizations to carry out military operations. At the same time, the Israeli demand is not, for the time being, taking the form of an ultimatum. On the contrary - next week will likely see the start of the release of the 520 prisoners the government has agreed to, and two more cities (perhaps Jericho and Qalqilyah) are likely to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority.

From the standpoint of the policy-makers in Jerusalem, Israel is more than fulfilling its part in the implementation of the road map. It is withdrawing from cities in the West Bank, opening roads, removing checkpoints, increasing the possibility for Palestinians to work in and do business with Israel, and is evacuating settler outposts. Israel is also taking steps that are not part of the road map: It is releasing prisoners and making changes in the separation fence. Each of these actions entails sharp internal clashes: within the defense establishment, in petitions to the High Court of Justice and in confrontations with the settlers.

As Abu Mazen and his aides see it, they are proceeding along the route marked out by the road map: There are no terrorist attacks (with the exception of individual incidents perpetrated by extremist marginal groups), the level of incitement has fallen sharply, and they are working to unite the Palestinian security forces under one command.

The danger is emerging that the Oslo syndrome will recur, as both sides are flinching from carrying out the difficult parts of the tasks they are faced with in the road map: Israel, to remove all the settlements established since Sharon was elected prime minister; and the Palestinians, to dismantle the terrorist organizations and collect their weapons.

2. Still in the closet

The new tone in which Israeli officials started talking about Abu Mazen this week, and about the way he is implementing clauses in the road map, is truly confusing the leaders of the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements (in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). So far they have not succeeded in enlisting meaningful support for their contention that Sharon's moves are dangerous, and henceforth that mission looks to be more difficult than ever.

The settlers' leaders are taking stock. They are unable to mobilize the majority of the public in support of their view that Judea and Samaria are an essential part of Israel and must not be abandoned. They are unable to cast doubt on the validity of the hudna, because the government itself is talking about it in cautious terms and publicly warning against false illusions. In contrast to the period that followed the Oslo Accords, Sharon and his ministers are not talking about a "new Middle East," but about a controlled experiment to bring about a respite in the violence.

Sharon's visit to Washington this week did not produce a reason for a sharp reaction from the Yesha leadership: Sharon did not retract his agreement to the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Yesha Council is now discussing ways to cope with the collegiality that has been created in relations with the Palestinians.

What the settlers' leaders fear most is that the public in Israel will become addicted to the security calm. In their view, the cease-fire is no more than a diversionary action under the cover of which the Palestinians are arming for the next violent round - but the cease-fire has a hypnotic effect that makes it difficult for them to recruit resistance to the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Aqaba process breaks down into specific points - prisoners, separation fence, the struggle over the outposts - that prevent the public from seeing the whole picture and make it problematic for the Yesha leaders to inculcate their conception of the dangers the process involves.

Moreover, Sharon, in their view, is a smooth tactician who is maneuvering vis- ?-vis President George Bush and Abu Mazen at the retail level but is causing irreversible damage at the wholesale - the strategic - level. That is their view of the impact of Sharon's readiness to make "painful concessions" and his assertion that Israel's hold in Judea, Samaria and Gaza is an "occupation."

The Yesha Council most regrets that Sharon's moves are not generating sufficient incentive for the National Union and the National Religious Party to leave the government, a move that would impel the opposition figures in the Likud to come out of the closet.