Corridors of Power / On the Road to Nowhere

Dov Weisglass, the prime minister's bureau chief, gave this rationale to U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice for the attempted assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi: "He placed himself at the vanguard of instigating terrorism against Israel," Weisglass told her, adding that Rantisi had declared war on the Aqaba process.

1. Declaring war on Hamas

Dov Weisglass, the prime minister's bureau chief, gave this rationale to U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice for the attempted assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi: "He placed himself at the vanguard of instigating terrorism against Israel," Weisglass told her, adding that Rantisi had declared war on the Aqaba process. According to the information in Israel's possession, Rantisi promoted the most radical line in Hamas that ruled out any dialogue with Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Which makes Sheikh Ahmed Yassin sound like a moderate for being willing to have any conversation with the Palestinian prime minister.

Rantisi angered Ariel Sharon and Shaul Mofaz: He defiantly rejected the road map, called for the killing of Israelis wherever they may be and vowed not to back down from his struggle until Israel is supplanted by an Islamic state. Ariel Sharon and Shaul Mofaz decided to shut him up once and for all and, in so doing, teach those who share his views a lesson. Rantisi's statements alone did not put him in Israel's sights, but their consequences did: The attack at the Erez checkpoint in which four Israel Defense Forces soldiers were killed showed cooperation between the three Palestinian terror groups; and members of a suicide bombing cell captured in Tul Karm acknowledged that their group, too, was comprised of representatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah. The decision-makers in Jerusalem saw that Rantisi's call for a united militant front against Israel was taking real shape, so they resolved to try to quash the trend by eliminating Rantisi.

Even though the anticipated reactions of the United States and the Palestinian Authority were carefully analyzed when the idea of assassinating Rantisi was discussed, the general impression is that cool reason was not the sole guiding force behind the decision, that anger also played a part in the process. Israel's leaders could not remain impassive in the face of Rantisi's contemptuous declaration of war on the road map and his provocations that sought to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state's existence in the eyes of the whole world.

Sharon and Mofaz, at the urging of the Israel Defense Forces' top brass, wished to make plain to the entire Palestinian leadership that anyone who holds these views and works to fulfill them is doomed to disappear from the scene. The rationale given for this aggressive tack was: Instead of waiting for the terror attacks that Rantisi says are coming, better to try to create a momentum that will lead, perhaps, to their prevention. If the political leadership of Hamas is made to feel the long arm of the IDF, maybe it will reconsider its plans to use terror to torpedo the diplomatic process. The political and security echelons have not forgotten Hamas' input in derailing the Oslo process with its lethal terror attacks in March, 1996.

The approach taken this week is based on the premise that only Israel has any deterrent capability vis-a-vis Hamas. Rantisi and friends have no fear of Mohammed Dahlan or Abu Mazen. But they are - perhaps - wary of the IDF and its ability to strike at them personally. In the power equation on which the Aqaba process depends, one chip that Israel has to offer is an end to the pursuit and killing of militant leaders, including those from Hamas. By striking at Rantisi, Sharon and Mofaz wished to illustrate Israel's bargaining power, and the carrot and stick that it can use if it so chooses.

But Hamas doesn't seem to have taken the hint. Its rhetoric has only become more strident and its actions are escalating as well. The defense establishment believes that the bombing in Jerusalem two days ago was planned some time ago and did not come as a response to the assassination attempt on Rantisi. The same goes for all the other attacks that Hamas has in the pipeline. The main thrust of the meeting of the security establishment two nights ago was a declaration of war on the Hamas leadership. It stemmed from the knowledge that Abu Mazen is not ready to seriously confront Hamas and so is essentially inviting Israel to fight terror as it sees fit.

This is a literal description of events from an Israeli point of view. More suspicious types may interpret things differently: The Israeli leadership, at Sharon's behest, latched onto Hamas' behavior as a justification for torpedoing the road map, to which it is ostensibly totally committed. The attack on Rantisi was designed to start a cycle of reactions that would do in the American initiative.

A week after the Aqaba summit, the road map does not look to be leading anywhere. The hope that sprang from the summits in Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba has already dissipated into the violent routine that has colored life here for the past two and a half years.

2. The Israeli map

The attempt on Rantisi's life did not help the ministers in Jerusalem get inside Ariel Sharon's head any more than before: They don't know where he wants to lead the country and they feel confused by the contradictions they see in his expressed positions. The more moderate ones find it hard to understand how someone who last week publicly committed himself to the road map could have decided on such a radical step that threatens to torpedo it; the hawks are wondering what Sharon's red lines really are and how much his decisions concerning the war on terror are influenced by his desire to distract attention from the significance of the diplomatic commitments he made to the U.S.

The ministers, including some cabinet members, are in the dark because Sharon does not bring his goals up for discussion, arguing that such caution is necessary for fear of leaks. In the past, when he was just an ordinary minister, Sharon heard this same excuse from other prime ministers who were in the midst of sensitive diplomatic contacts. This way of handling things gives him much more room to move: Even the ministers who disagree with him are leery of clashing with him. Some are very aware that he has it in his power to fire them. After the cabinet's approval of the road map, an ideological opposition to Sharon seemed to be emerging in the Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Uzi Landau and Yisrael Katz, but only time will tell if this group's positions will be translated into a practical political opposition.

The ministers who disapprove of the road map are venting their frustration by complaining about how Sharon conducted the negotiations on it with the American administration. In their eyes, Dov Weisglass is most to blame for what they construe as a disastrous result. They argue that Sharon and his aides (primarily Weisglass) were too slow to grasp the need to reach a long-term understanding with the U.S. about the nature of the interim and final status accords envisioned in the road map, and that they fell victim to an American maneuver that deleted the 14 Israeli comments from the plan and imposed an overly rapid timetable for its approval.

Minister Tzipi Livni publicly criticized the fact that Israel did not make its willingness to recognize a Palestinian state contingent upon a declaration from the Palestinians that the establishment of their state in effect resolves the refugee problem and negates the demand for the right of return.

When he was still a minister, Dan Meridor recommended that before accepting the road map, Israel should reach binding understandings with the U.S. on the extent of the withdrawal, the future of the settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the refugee issue.

The response to the American initiative was handled by an inter-ministerial panel headed by Weisglass, that included representatives of Military Intelligence, the Planning Branch, the Coordinator of Activity in the Territories, the Mossad, the National Security Council, the Shin Bet security service's research division, the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry. The Israeli positions were consolidated in frequent meetings attended by all the panel members (guests from other ministries were sometimes invited, too). The first draft of the road map was presented to Israel on October 14, 2002, after having been discussed with the U.S. in a more limited forum, and the second draft was submitted on December 20 (also after some secret meetings with a smaller group of Israeli officials). The exact wording of both drafts was not revealed to the ministers even after they were completed.

The meetings of the inter-ministerial panel led to the 14 comments that Israel sought to insert into the final draft of the document. This objective was not achieved because of Tony Blair (or so the Prime Minister's Bureau says) who, in March of this year, facing stiff opposition in the British Parliament for his support of the U.S. war in Iraq, pressed President Bush for the immediate presentation of the road map.

This constraint prevented the inclusion of Israel's 14 comments, but the alternative procedure that was adopted - government approval of the road map with the 14 comments - was enough to satisfy Sharon. As he sees it, his government approved the Israeli version of the road map and the White House was quick to praise this development. It was no coincidence when, at Aqaba last week, Sharon announced: "We accept the road map as it was adopted by the government of Israel."

3. A dream come true

People close to Sharon say that he accepts the road map because it offers a plan of action that he has always advocated: an outline that offers a chance of alleviating the conflict, that makes all diplomatic progress contingent upon the cessation of terror, that leads to a temporary accord in which Israel hardly has to pay anything aside from replacing the term "Palestinian Authority" with "Palestinian state," and a final status agreement that will not be reached for years (at least five) and be influenced by the benefits that both peoples see in the interim period. And in any case, the process can be halted at any time without surrendering any vital assets. This is also the explanation that the prime minister's people give for the seeming reversal in his approach to the Palestinians.

One can quibble about the details of this description, but the main point is how Sharon is justifying his position and why his commitment to it is becoming stronger: Others are basically doing the work for him - President Bush has declared an unstinting war on terror, including Palestinian terror. He gave both sides a plan of action that, even without the 14 Israeli comments, is a dream come true in that it answers Israel's security needs, calls for the elimination of terror and the dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure, the replacement of the Palestinian leadership, the reeducation of the Palestinians toward acceptance of Israel's existence, and for an interim period in which the parties' ability to meet their commitments will be assessed.

Behind the public outline is a series of understandings with the American administration: A final status accord will require Israel to withdraw, but not to the 1967 lines; Israel will not be obliged to absorb a single Palestinian refugee; the currency, customs and telephone systems of the Palestinian state will be established in parallel with those systems in Israel. As far as the interim accord, Jerusalem and Washington agree that the Palestinian state will be demilitarized; that it will have a police force but not an army (the caliber of the weapons that its officers will carry has also been determined); that Israel will have control over the airspace and broadcast space of the Palestinian state and over its points of entry.

But those around Sharon acknowledge that no understanding was reached with the U.S. regarding the status of Jerusalem or the future of the settlements, though they contend that dealing with these issues now would have completely torpedoed the inherent potential of the road map. This is why, at the Aqaba summit, the Americans instructed Sharon and Abu Mazen to refrain from referring to the final status issues in their statements.

A few months ago, Nir Gilad, the treasury's accountant-general, informed the government that Israel Bonds were not selling well in the U.S., and that this could spell losses of NIS 15-20 billion per year. This week, the demand for Israel Bonds was already five times greater. In Jerusalem, they saw this as the first bit of glad tidings to result from the Aqaba process - but that was before the latest escalation of the conflict with the Palestinians.