Reap the Whirlwind

Two nights ago, after the protests at Havat Gilad subsided, people in the Yesha Council were saying that the outpost was dismantled on the basis of confidential understandings reached with the Defense Ministry.

1. The Yesha Council

Two nights ago, after the protests at Havat Gilad subsided, people in the Yesha Council were saying that the outpost was dismantled on the basis of confidential understandings reached with the Defense Ministry. They did not wish to, or did not know how exactly, to describe the nature of the agreement, but they hinted that it included assurances that a blind eye would be turned to other such outposts in the future, that building permits would be granted to settlements and that military observation posts would be established at the evacuated locations.

When Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer heard this, he made the following statement: "There are no deals and there won't be any deals. I'm pursuing this to the end. I understand the psychological state of the people in Yesha who objected to the evacuation. They cursed me and insulted me and wished me death. They assembled thousands of people in order to prevent the evacuation. I decided that no one would remain at Havat Gilad. I did not agree to any deal. I rejected every compromise proposal that was presented to me in the course of the evacuation."

As happened in the past when illegal outposts were removed, the evacuation this week generated a battle for prestige that the adversarial parties seemed to deem more important than the event itself. The Yesha Council attempted to downplay the significance of the decision to remove the outposts ("We took away a few little grocery stores, that's all") and tried to create the impression that, in behind-the-scenes negotiations, the foundations were laid for an expansion of the settlement enterprise in the territories. Meanwhile, the government (in the person of the defense minister) sought to highlight its dogged adherence to its promise to impose its authority on the rebellious settlers, but also de-emphasized the practical outcome of the decision (that the settlers would continue to work the land).

Past experience shows that confrontations between the government and the settlers usually end with an apparent victory by the government, but with an actual expansion of the settlement map in Judea and Samaria. Yesterday, people in the Yesha Council recalled that during Ehud Barak's tenure as prime minister, agreement was reached on the evacuation of 36 settlements, not including Havat Maon. "All of the outposts that were evacuated have `returned safely to their bases,'" they now say. The conclusion drawn by the Yesha leadership this week: The confrontation with Ben-Eliezer will turn out the same way. After all, NRP leader Effi Eitam is still in the government and Yesha leader Ze'ev (Zambish) Hever, who has close ties with the prime minister, was roving about the Defense Ministry two days ago and pushing all the right buttons.

This week, Ben-Eliezer's staff sought to make the case that the Yesha Council's assumptions are all wrong: Just as the Defense Minister dismantled 11 outposts in July 2001 and another 20 three months ago, he will see to it that all 24 outposts he decided to dismantle now will be gone by early next week (the legality of another six outposts is currently being examined by the High Court of Justice). The minister is proceeding in a very methodical fashion, say his aides. He has collected all available information on the outposts: their location and borders, the ownership of the land on which they stand, the promises that were given to their founders, the official processes they underwent before being established and so on. He has identified 100 outposts, most of them tiny and unpopulated. A third were approved in agreements with the government, a third are of unclear status, so they will not be forcefully removed, but another third are clearly illegal and these are the ones that Ben-Eliezer has ordered evacuated. The minister met previously with the settler leaders and also informed the prime minister of his intentions. Sharon wanted to bring the issue to the cabinet, but Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein said there was no need for a government decision to counter illegal actions. Therefore, the defense minister used his authority to order the IDF to dismantle the outposts.

Despite the Yesha leaders' intimations about secret promises of compensation in return for their cooperation in ending the confrontation at Havat Gilad and with the dismantling of the rest of the outposts, they were not in very good spirits by the end of the week: The violent behavior of the "youth of the hilltops" and the exposure of their own internal disagreements (Daniella Weiss versus Moshe Zar) damaged their image and drew attention to the rifts within the movement. They have reaped what they've sown: A society that based its existence on forcefully imposing its positions on the state has bred a violent population that imposes its will by force and has no respect for the law. But the Yesha leaders do not take responsibility for having produced these thugs and feel no responsibility for their behavior, as Shaul Goldstein, Education Committee Chairman of the Yesha Council stated in an interview with Channel One.

2. The security branches

On the day that Benjamin Ben-Eliezer announced his new "Judea first" plan - a gradual redeployment of the IDF from the Judea region on the basis of local arrangements with Palestinian security officials - Mohammed Abayat, a minor Tanzim activist from Bethlehem, was assassinated. On the day when the defense minister was praising Bethlehem as a model of calm achieved between Israel and the Palestinians, someone set off a booby-trapped phone booth in Beit Jala, killing Abayat. A week has now passed and no one has come forward to take credit for planning or carrying out this execution. Not the IDF, not the Defense Ministry, not the Shin Bet. All the elements that are normally responsible for the planning and implementation of such "targeted preventions" have dodged responsibility for the deed. "We are not commenting on that," was the laconic statement formulated somewhere and repeated word for word by spokespersons from all the security branches.

A knowledgeable source confirmed this week that Mohammed Abayat was not even on the list, previously approved by the cabinet, of terrorists that could be targeted for assassination. According to this source, no one from the Abayat clan is currently in the crosshairs of the Israeli defense establishment. So how did the telephone booth happen to blow up just when Mohammed Abayat was in it? Who gave the order? Who pushed the button? Was this a screw-up on the local, implementation level (the likeliest possibility) or an error in judgment on the part of the decision-makers? And how could such an action take place without the defense minister's knowledge? Did the prime minister and the head of the Shin Bet know about it and fail to inform other security officials who would usually be involved in such decisions, or were they also taken by surprise? What is the chain of command by which such an action is carried out?

A man is mistakenly executed - and no one in Israel takes responsibility for the tragic blunder. Nor does anyone take an interest, seek to investigate or demand an explanation. In the past, when innocent Palestinians were harmed in the course of assassination attempts, Israel bothered to apologize, as well as to pin the blame on the behavior of the terrorists for creating the circumstances that led to such unfortunate results. This time, there is only absolute silence, which seems to derive at least in part from an arrogant attitude that anything goes and that there's no need to account for one's actions.

3. The Shin Bet

At the cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Ariel Sharon found himself in the minority: Four of the seven ministers present opposed his proposal to adopt the Shin Bet's recommendation of relieving the organization of responsibility for guarding political figures - with the exception of the following seven, whose position makes them symbolic of Israeli sovereignty: the president, the prime minister, the defense minister, the foreign minister, the leader of the opposition, the president of the Supreme Court and the Knesset speaker. Sharon urged the ministers to accede to the Shin Bet's request, but only Eliyahu Suissa (Shas) and Natan Sharansky (Yisrael b'Aliyah) were willing to go along with him. Silvan Shalom (Likud), Eli Yishai (Shas), Shlomo Benizri (Shas) and Dalia Itzik (Labor) objected. They had some tough questions about the Shin Bet's position: On what basis were all the ministers guarded by the Shin Bet up to now, and on the basis of what intelligence information can the organization now be relieved of responsibility for protecting them? If monetary considerations are the main factor, entrusting their security to private security companies would only cause the costs to multiply several times over. Does the Shin Bet believe that the vulnerability of public figures to assassination attempts derives from their being national symbols, or do the terrorists operate according to other considerations (such as the degree of animosity they feel toward figures from the extreme right, for example). Is the Shin Bet saying that there is no longer any threat to the ministers, apart from the prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister?

Sharon was mightily displeased with the mood that prevailed at the meeting and was expressed in the vote on the proposal. He told the ministers that he had originally thought to bring the issue up before the ministerial committee for matters relating to the secret services, but chose to come to the cabinet instead, and this was the dismaying result. He explained that the Shin Bet has a heavy security burden, one that consumes a considerable amount of manpower and resources. And he cited the State Comptroller's report, which recommended that the Shin Bet be relieved of the task of providing security for the ministers. Dalia Itzik warned that he was taking a grave responsibility upon himself by saying which ministers are at risk and which aren't.

Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter declined to respond to the question of whether, in his opinion, government ministers are no longer under threat. He attributed the organization's recommendation primarily to financial considerations: Since the assassination of Rehavam Ze'evi, the number of public figures the Shin Bet is charged with protecting has risen to more than 40; no equivalent organization anywhere in the world has to contend with such a large burden; it should rightly be the job of the police, not the Shin Bet, to provide security for these people. The Shin Bet has been compelled to cover these security assignments out of its regular operating budget, which detracts from its ability to fulfill some of its other responsibilities. When Silvan Shalom saw how upset Sharon was about it, he changed his vote and tipped the balance in favor of a compromise version of the Shin Bet's recommendation, which says that the organization will provide security for the ministers in specific situations when deemed necessary.

Afterward, the cabinet members said that the meeting left them with a bad taste in their mouths: Out of the fear of being portrayed as worrying only about themselves, they volunteered to relieve the Shin Bet of responsibility for providing them with security, despite the fact that after every targeted assassination by Israel, their bodyguards go into high gear and seriously restrict their movements. In other words, the ministers could certainly be targeted by extreme elements, either Israeli (see the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin) or Palestinian (see the assassination of Rehavam Ze'evi). The next assassination of a government figure is just a matter of time and the Shin Bet just wants to cover its ass and avoid the scrutiny of the next fact-finding commission, one cabinet member said this week. Whether or not this assessment is accurate, it certainly shows how vulnerable at least a few of the ministers feel.

4. The Treasury

In his speech to the Knesset this week, Ariel Sharon sent a not very subtle signal to the Labor Party when he said that whoever doesn't demonstrate responsibility and vote to approve the state budget will not have a place in the government. Sharon needn't have bothered. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer appears to have no intention of leading his party into the opposition. Even the dispute that erupted two days ago following the Likud MKs' support for a bill declaring the Oslo Accords null and void won't change that. And even if Ben-Eliezer is defeated in the elections for the Labor Party leadership, it's doubtful that his successor would be so bold as to incur opprobrium for showing a lack of national responsibility by voting against the budget.

The Finance Ministry and a team from the Labor Party headed by Minister Shalom Simhon are currently negotiating the adjustment of the budget to conform more to the party's expectations. Knowledgeable sources say that the ministry isn't prepared to make significant changes in the state budget or in the order of priorities it sets forth; at most, it will accede to the secondary demands of a few of the ministers having to do with their particular ministries, as long as the budget framework is not broken.

Former finance minister Avraham (Beiga) Shochat, who is not part of the Labor negotiating team, believes that the government is largely responsible for the terrible economic situation, mainly because of its policy toward the Palestinians. Shochat has consistently said that without a sharp change in the security situation, the negative economic processes will only gain steam and keep leading the country toward a collapse that will be quite difficult to emerge from. Shochat predicts that if the present trend continues, within a few years, Israel will have a drastically reduced standard of living - a situation that will spur an upper-class exodus. Nevertheless, Shochat says that Labor cannot afford to vote against the state budget. He suggests that his faction either support the budget on the first reading, or abstain from the vote, and then leave the government.

Meanwhile, people close to Finance Minister Silvan Shalom warn that if Labor persists in its budget demands, it will bear responsibility for the economic crisis that is sure to ensue. Shalom's people say that he is fighting tooth and nail to keep the economy from deteriorating further and that this is an exhausting effort whose results are not self-evident.