Corridors of Power / Separation Anxiety

On Monday night a small group of government ministers and officials met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and made the decision to arrest 15 heads of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, among them the charismatic leader Sheikh Ra'ad Salah.

1. Sharon gives the green light

On Monday night a small group of government ministers and officials met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and made the decision to arrest 15 heads of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, among them the charismatic leader Sheikh Ra'ad Salah. Again and again Sharon asked whether the evidence in the hands of the prosecutor's office was firm enough to stand up in court. The answers he received were affirmative, even unequivocal, and the various bodies that dealt with the issue - the Shin Bet security service, the police, the Israel Defense Forces, the prosecution and the Mossad - were of one mind: The time had come to teach the Islamic Movement a lesson. Sharon gave the green light.

Three months after he placed himself at the head of the ministerial committee on the Arab population, and after he created the impression that he was personally engaged in helping this sector, Sharon proved what his intention was: to work in a bullying way, unprecedented in its extent and force, against the Islamic Movement. Sharon appointed himself to follow closely what is happening in the Arab sector not out of humanitarian motives, but rather because he perceives developments in the Arab sector as a national danger of the first order.

Sharon came to power only half a year after the events of October, 2000. The shock of that confrontation accompanies the administration in Jerusalem to this day, as it does the Arab public and its leadership; the mutual suspicion has only increased since then. Sharon saw the Shin Bet's assessment and the figures indicating a consistent increase in the involvement of Arab Israelis in abetting Palestinian terror (from eight people three years ago to 74 one year ago). He was shown quotations from remarks by Sheikh Salah, who said, among other things: "We are working openly to build a society that stands on its own ... an autarkic society that manages its everyday affairs on its own, that has its rights and that creates them and that does not live under the threat of punishment by the other ... We are aspiring to an autarkic society that links all the members of our Palestinian people and that links all the homes of our Palestinian people" (from a speech at an Islamic Movement rally in Ilut, June 8, 2001). Sharon also heard recommendations to declare the Islamic Movement illegal.

Sharon authorized the police, the Shin Bet and the Mossad to gather evidence to back the suspicion that the Islamic Movement funds, in roundabout ways, terror activities against Israel. This effort picked up momentum after the Al-Qaida attacks on the United States: The uncovering of extremist Islamic action networks in cities around the world made it easier to trace the contributions of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

2. A new limit of tolerance

The decision-makers in Jerusalem are convinced they have evidence to prove that the money raised by the Islamic Movement is directed, in part, to strengthening the infrastructure on which acts of terror against Israel grow and that this cash flow has been instigated by Sheikh Salah. They believe that they will succeed in refuting the suspects' claims that the donations were directed to humanitarian efforts only. The secret investigation of these suspicions began more than two years ago and has ripened only lately. The transition to an open investigation was postponed from time to time because of demands by the State Prosecutor's Office to provide it with additional evidence. The timing of the arrests this week took into consideration the distance from Land Day (but not Nakba Day, May 15, which commemorates the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948).

The state intends to interrogate the people who have been arrested, locate additional suspects if any are discovered and press charges against them (the drafts have already been prepared, against the background of the sense that prevails in this government (and in the professional level that feeds it) that strong action must be taken against the separatist elements in the Arab-Israeli public.

According to the Shin Bet assessment, the Islamic Movement is leading the separatist trend among the Arabs of Israel. Its aspiration - to create independent institutions for the Israeli Arabs and give their life in the state the character of a separate enclave with a clear national-religious identity. The movement is split between two organizations - the southern branch, which accepts the rules of the democratic game, and the extremist northern branch, which is connected to international Islamic elements. In fact both the factions are aiming for the same result: to organize all the Arabs of Israel under a single autonomous structure with the goal of separating them from the state.

In the past, the northern branch also refrained from making connections with the Palestinian terror organizations and respected the request of the Israeli Arabs not to get them involved in violations of the law. However, since the events of October, 2000, the Shin Bet has discerned an effort by terrorists to exploit opportunities to hide among the Israeli Arab population or even involve it in acts of terror. In general, states the Shin Bet, the Arab public is law-abiding, but individuals among it, whose numbers are increasing, are supporters of terror.

This development has ripened against the background of the government's policy toward the Arab sector, the strong feelings of oppression that reverberate within it, the disappointment at official promises that have not been kept and the strengthening of their Palestinian identity. Fuel for the flames is provided by the Islamic Movement in its incitement against Israel ("Al-Aqsa is in danger") and the incendiary messages it transmits to its students and disciples.

The action against Sheikh Salah and his aides was intended to remove them from the circle of legitimacy and thereby establish a new limit of tolerance on the part of the Jewish majority and its leadership for the separatist and rebellious tendencies running through the Arab public. The arrests were also intended as a signal to the Arab Knesset members that to the present government they represent an extremist line, which is also separatist, that is not, in the government's opinion, congruent with the mainstream of the Arab public.

The Israeli regime is not asking itself how, if that is the case, these were the people who got elected to represent the Arab public in the Knesset; for the government, it is enough to hear the veteran generation of Israeli Arabs grumbling about them. This, apparently, is also the reason for the impression fostered yesterday by the decision-makers in Jerusalem that the arrest of Sheikh Salah and his associates has not stirred up the Arab population. According to this analysis, the government has succeeded in drawing the line between most of the Arab public and a fringe group within it (key activists in the northern branch of the Islamic movement) that got carried away in the fervor of its faith and broke the law. Tomorrow night it will be seen whether this assessment is still valid.

3. Bush does not want a confrontation

A few hours after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell departed from Ben-Gurion International Airport, Israel informed him that it was reimposing a closure on the Gaza Strip because specific warnings had been received of plans for new terror attacks. Powell, according to the impression in Jerusalem, evinced understanding. And if he was the least bit skeptical, said senior government ministers yesterday, upon his arrival in Saudi Arabia he encountered the fatal results of Arab terror, and undoubtedly his understanding of the security steps Israel is taking increased.

Powell's visit reinforced the impression among Israelis who met with him that the administration of President George W. Bush is not heading for a confrontation with Israel over the implementation of the road map. At the prime minister's residence, the guest met with a group of ministers and heard from some of them (Housing and Construction Minister Effi Eitam, Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman and also Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) definitive words about the place of the Jewish settlements in the territories in the Israeli vision. The secretary of state learned first hand that the government's survival depends on parties and individuals who see all the "legal Jewish settlements in the territories" as a national asset and a permanent sight. His hosts recommended that he not be very impressed by the public debate about the future of the settlements beyond the Green Line (1967 borders) and the media coverage of a handful of outposts that are defined as "illegal." He was told that there is already a second and third generation of people living in the Jewish settlements, and nobody seriously considers removing them from there.

Powell responded cautiously. He said that the future of the Jewish settlements in the territories is one of the difficult questions that constitute the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he agrees that the prelude to dealing with them is an end to the terror. This was his answer to the position put forth to him by Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz - that Israel would not agree to a truce (hudna) as a substitute for uprooting the terror infrastructures. After he left the country, both security sources and ministers said that in order to fill Israeli expectations, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) must go to war against his fellow Palestinians: kill hundreds of them, arrest thousands and in this way break down the ability of Hamas, the Tanzim and Islamic Jihad to perpetrate terror.

No one really believed this week that this was the intention of the Palestinian prime minister and the security minister, Mohammed Dahlan; at most, they will achieve the agreement of the terror organizations to a temporary truce. In Israel they realize that a winding down of terror will, in the nature of things, involve a truce agreement. The position that is emerging is to agree to this on condition that it last 10 days at most; if, in its wake, there is no real Palestinian effort to get rid of the terror networks of the armed organizations, Israel will renew its actions against them because it is afraid that they will exploit the truce to rearm and prepare for attacks.

Powell's visit left his hosts with the impression that no difficulties are expected for the prime minister at his planned meetings with President Bush next week. Ostensibly, the American administration is working in a calculated way: After eliminating the threat to Israel from the east (a by-product of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq), it has begun to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad to carry out Israel's demands on the Lebanese border. Powell reported to his hosts on what he had told the rulers in Damascus and Beirut and said that they liked what they heard, but the secretary of state was wary enough to say that it was necessary to wait and see to what extent these demands are carried out.

After he left Israel, people who heard his reports said that possibly the younger Assad will pay lip service to shutting down the offices of terror organizations in Damascus, but there are no signs he will do anything concrete to eliminate the threat of the Hezbollah rockets positioned on the Israeli border and allow the Lebanese army to deploy there instead. However, they did form the impression that Bush will continue to apply pressure to Syria and might even go so far as to initiate sanctions against it. As Washington sees it, Hezbollah is part of the Islamic terror network led by the Al-Qaida organization.

In any case, the administration looks as though it is aiming to eliminate Israel's security worries (on the eastern front and the northern border) in order to make it easier to demand that Israel come to an agreement with the Palestinians. However, these good intentions are coming up against a hostile reality: The Syrians are still not delivering the goods and the Palestinians are proving that the way to Paradise is paved with bad intentions.

4. The month of May is passing

In the Israeli version of things, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat is the main obstacle on the road to a better future. The policy echelon and the professional echelon (the IDF and the Shin Bet) share the assessment that the Palestinian leader is intentionally thwarting Abu Mazen's plans and preventing him from reaching any achievements. Not only has he created a center of power that is competing with his prime minister, he is inciting against him and terrorizing him. Abu Mazen's meeting with Colin Powell was relocated from Ramallah to Jericho because near the Muqata (Arafat's headquarters) placards disparaging him were prepared for distribution. According to information piling up in Jerusalem, Arafat is inciting against Abu Mazen, calling him and his people "Israeli agents" and threatening Mohammed Dahlan's subordinates that if they do not report directly to Arafat, they will suffer. He was also involved in expediting recent terror attacks. Arafat's behavior is affecting the ability of Abu Mazen and Dahlan to fulfill their promises (to the Quartet) to take action against terror.

Even those (especially in the IDF) who had pinned hopes on the appointment of Abu Mazen said this week that as long as Arafat exists, there is no chance of extricating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the current tangle of violence. In the eyes of the Palestinians, Arafat remains the leader, the seal of legitimacy, and he continues to believe in terror. Europe, whose representatives in the Middle East have come to know him well, are backing him and subverting the American (and Israeli) effort to shun him and neutralize his influence. Thus, there is no possibility for progress. In any case, Abu Mazen and Dahlan had no intention of acting forcibly against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but wanted to reach an understanding with them. Arafat's stance, however, is diluting even further their ability to meet Israel's expectations and the conditions for the road map.

Israel still intends to hand over the northern Gaza Strip to Palestinian control in order to test their ability to neutralize the armed organizations. The decision as to when this experiment will begin depends on Abu Mazen and Dahlan: They must inform Israel of their willingness to pick up the gauntlet. Presumably this move will not occur before Sharon's return from the United States and before the security talks between the two sides are renewed.

Powell's visit left behind a sense that the U.S. administration will not force Israel to implement the road map in a way that would harm its security. The Israelis came out of the meetings with him under the impression that he rejects the Palestinians' demand for an Israeli withdrawal to the lines of September, 2000, as a condition for fulfilling their part in implementing the road map. In the meantime, the month of May, the deadline set by the road map for completing the first stage of the process is passing without there having been any real change in the situation. The initial condition on which the American initiative rests - the cessation of terror - has not been achieved and therefore there is little chance that its subsequent stages will be realized.

In the defense establishment they are pointing out that in recent days Hamas has begun to fire Qassam rockets on its own initiative and not necessarily in response to IDF actions. They are also saying that if, heaven forbid, these rockets should cause many casualties, Israel will have to react sternly, and thus the violent conflict is likely to escalate to dimensions that will put a definitive end to the implementation of the road map. This is not Israel's intention, declare the defense people, but circumstances could lead to this result. They believe that this is exactly Arafat's aim.

5. A receding vision

Not only journalists but also senior government ministers are wondering what Sharon is up to. Within the space of a month Sharon has performed an impressive acrobatic loop-the-loop: from a declaration of readiness to withdraw from Bethlehem, Beit El and Shiloh in return for a peace that will last generations he arrived at the declaration (to The Jerusalem Post) that he cannot imagine that Jews will not be living in those places under Israeli sovereignty. The prime minister asked Powell whether the United States expects them to perform abortions in the Jewish settlements in the territories in order to avoid population growth.

These somersaults may be seen in terms of acceptable political constraints, as an attempt to please various audiences in sequence. This was the thesis of Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, who emerged from a long conversation with the prime minister this week believing that Sharon was heading for an agreement with the Palestinians. Effi Eitam had a different opinion: He too has periodic meetings with Sharon and his impression is that the prime minister has no intention of taking any steps that would compel the National Religious Party and National Union to resign from the government. In Eitam's analysis, there is no chance that the road map will be implemented because it has no support in the Israeli government; there is no one who will fulfill the conditions on the Palestinian side; and the U.S. administration doesn't seem willing to dedicate itself to pursuing it, either.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told the secretary of state that the United States has to take into account that in the present government, there is no majority for the road map. The prevailing assumption among the ministers this week was that even after he returns from Washington, Sharon will not present the road map for authorization by the government.

Thus, it seems that Sharon has made a contribution to the disappearance of the road map, but he takes care not to appear so: He received Powell respectfully, provided him with a series of gestures toward the Palestinians to demonstrate good will and did his bit to bring about the meeting with Abu Mazen, which is supposed to take place on Saturday night. Sharon is taking care to make it appear that he is continuing to support the road map; for this reason he scolded Tourism Minister Binyamin Elon for having been involved in lobbying activities in the United States against the American move. Silvan Shalom is adopting the recommendations of the professional echelon at the Foreign Ministry, working toward improving Israel's diplomatic standing and encouraging Sharon to act in a way that will not cause displeasure in Washington. But the extent of his influence remains to be proved.

The Bush vision, which was translated into the language of the road map and was the catalyst that brought about the appointment of Abu Mazen as Palestinian prime minister, seems like a fading dream right now. The optimism that was sparked for a moment after the changing of the guard in the Palestinian leadership is making way for a familiar disappointment: On neither side have conditions ripened for cooling the conflict. On the Palestinian side, there is no critical mass to bring about the expulsion of Arafat or self-liberation from his destructive influence. On the Israeli side, no lever has been constructed to lift Ariel Sharon out of his trench. A government that says of itself that it is not "able" (i.e.: willing) to approve the road map is saying, in effect, that it does not intend to resolve the conflict and that it prefers to perpetuate the existing situation. The forecast by Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon a few weeks ago, that within a short time the violent stage in the current round of hostilities will end - this week looked like another wish exploding on the cliffs of reality.