Right-hand Man

Last weekend, Minister Natan Sharansky was in the resort town of Beaver Creek, Colorado taking part in an international seminar sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. Sharansky was asked to give the conference's opening speech, and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney gave the event's closing address. Inbetween, the two had more than one private conversation.

1. The tail wagging the dog

Last weekend, Minister Natan Sharansky was in the resort town of Beaver Creek, Colorado taking part in an international seminar sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. Sharansky was asked to give the conference's opening speech, and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney gave the event's closing address. Inbetween, the two had more than one private conversation.

This was two days before President Bush gave his speech on the Middle East conflict. Sharansky learned from Cheney that the draft of the president's speech under consideration did not sufficiently emphasize Yasser Arafat' role in fanning the conflict. He urged the vice president to use his influence to sharpen the message to be delivered by Bush. "Any mention of an American aim to establish a provisional Palestinian state would amount to a prize to Arafat for terror," Sharansky argued. Cheney asked him what type of wording he would suggest. The Israeli housing minister replied: The president should either refrain from making a speech at all or phrase his statements in a way that makes Arafat's part in escalating the conflict abundantly clear. When he listened to Bush's speech, Sharansky felt that his efforts had paid off.

Sharansky isn't the only Israeli who took credit this week for the American administration's new approach. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking on Israel Radio, was quick to assert that his appearances in the American media had had an important effect ("along with those of others," he added magnanimously) and of course, the prime minister's aides made sure to play up their boss's role in the achievement.

And Sharon is entitled to congratulate himself on his success: It now looks as though he has managed to forge as good a relationship with Bush as Ehud Barak did with President Clinton. Just as the former prime minister got the White House to go along with his outline for negotiations, the present prime minister has been able to divert American policy onto the track of his choosing, which hinges on a perpetuation of the current situation until such time as sweeping changes are made in the composition of the Palestinian leadership and its methods of operation.

Looking back at the nine years that have passed since the Oslo Accords were signed, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that what we have here is a case of the tail wagging the dog. Successive Israeli prime ministers have managed to enlist the support of successive American presidents for their moves with respect to the Palestinians. Such was the case with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, who believed in the Oslo Accords and its heralding of an end to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Even though the Oslo agreement took the administration in Washington by surprise, it gave its full backing to the Israeli experiment. The same thing happened when Ehud Barak decided to put Arafat's readiness to reach an end to the conflict to the test.

And the same is now true of the Bush administration: It is lending a hand to Sharon's (fairly successful) attempt to delegitimize Arafat in the international community and to totally neutralize his involvement in any talks aimed at resolving the conflict. Some in Jerusalem say that Bush took the line he did because he received reports that the ferment within the Palestinian Authority and among Arafat's inner circle has reached the point that all that was needed to send him toppling was one last push.

The import of the American position must be clear to every Israeli: The administration views Israel as a mature country whose fate is in its own hands. The United States will help Israel realize its political ideas, as long as these do not clash irreconcilably with American interests. But the expectations of some Israelis that the U.S. will always step in to pull its chestnuts from the fire are destined to be disappointed.

This approach places a heavy responsibility on Israeli governments. For better or worse, theirs are the decisions that determine the country's fate. The American uncle is not ready to take on the role of nursemaid.

2. Amos Gilad gets backing

In a week in which the demise of the Oslo Accords was announced, the question arises: Did Israel's leaders behave responsibly when they embarked on the peace process in 1993? Even if it is harsh, and perhaps not quite fair, to use the wisdom of hindsight in judging the assumptions these leaders made and the steps they took, and even if the present point in time does not necessarily mark the end of the process, one factor that played an important part in bringing about the agreement does deserve to be reexamined.

Shimon Peres and his aides based the negotiations with the Palestinian team on the assessment that Yasser Arafat was a worthy interlocutor with whom to seek to obtain a historic turning point in relations between the two peoples. This premise was attacked time and again by various voices in Israel (the first and most consistent critic was Benny Begin) and, this week, President Bush heartily joined in the chorus. He wasn't the only one: The leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia share the view that Arafat is an obstacle to peace and that he is endangering the stability of their regimes. They told President Bush as much.

The chiefs of army intelligence, the Mossad and the Shin Bet Security Services all agree that Arafat is not a tenable partner for an agreement and that he never was. This confluence of opinion is no trivial matter: When the agencies whose job it is to ascertain the Palestinian leader's true position say unequivocally that neither his word nor his signature can be trusted and that his intentions are suspect, it must be asked: Why weren't these views heeded during the decision-making process that led to Oslo?

Major General Amos Gilad, now the Coordinator of Government Activities in the West Bank and Gaza, was a key army intelligence official in 1993. When Peres and his aides were busy concocting the Oslo agreement with Abu Ala and his people, Gilad sat with Elyakim Rubinstein and other senior Israeli officials in the halls of the State Department holding fruitless talks with a Palestinian delegation (that had no formal ties to the PLO) in an effort to formulate a declaration of principles for an agreement. Gilad hadn't the slightest idea what Beilin and company were up to.

After learning of the Oslo agreement, Gilad was in the forefront of those who called it a bad bargain, because Arafat was not asked whether he would forsake the right of return or the Palestinian claim to the Temple Mount. Had these issues been put on the table, it would have been immediately obvious that no accord could be reached, Gilad contended. Since then, Gilad consistently told all of the country's prime ministers that Arafat has certain ideological red lines that he will absolutely never cross and that the PA chairman is not averse to employing terrible violence in order to attain his objectives. When confronted with such intelligence assessments of Arafat, Shimon Peres points out that the Palestinian leader did give up his demand that Israel return to the Partition Plan borders, agreed to disarm the Fatah and, he believes, also tried to lower the intensity of the terror. In Peres's view, Arafat was the only possible dialogue partner with whom the big breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations could be obtained. He continues to believe in the rightness of the Oslo Accords and the historical turning point that they constituted.

Foreign Ministry Director-General Avi Gil says that the sight of Likud members jumping for joy over Bush's speech, which included an announcement of U.S. support for the establishment of a Palestinian state and spoke of the need to end the occupation and to halt the settlement enterprise, is the best evidence of the Oslo process's validity.

Peres, Beilin and the other Oslo creators have often criticized the intelligence community's assessments of Arafat's intentions. Some even accused the heads of the intelligence agencies of adjusting their professional opinions to suit the will of the serving prime minister. Such contentions were confuted this week by none other than President Bush, who put the full weight of his prestige behind the assessments of Amos Gilad and his colleagues when he made it quite clear that Arafat was incapable of being a partner to any agreement.

3. Bush traps the Labor Party

All of those who were quick to deck themselves with laurels upon hearing Bush's speech will have to consider the consequences of the American position: Sharansky, who, a month after the signing of the Oslo Accords, began preaching orally and in writing about the need for democratization of the Palestinian regime; Netanyahu, who made every Israeli concession contingent upon reform of the Palestinian administration; and Sharon, who adopted these demands and hitched them to his aggressive approach against terror and to his efforts to remove Arafat from a position of influence.

Bush's statement apparently signals a perpetuation of the armed conflict; it does not signal pauses to ponder possible political solutions.

The heaviest responsibility lies with Sharon, who must decide what steps to take in the coming weeks and months: Will he keep going full steam ahead with Operation Determined Path and treat it as the main focus in the attempt to extinguish Palestinian terror? Or will he choose to use the period of time that President Bush has given him to try to bring about a real turning point in the situation?

This week, there was near total consensus in political circles that Sharon's aspirations would not extend beyond buying himself some more time. In this view, Sharon has no intention of proposing any innovative ideas for how to resolve the conflict during the time remaining in his term. All he wants is to make it to October 2003 in good enough shape to successfully run for reelection. Until then, he will avoid making decisions that could hurt him with the right, and will deliberately keep his ultimate objectives fuzzy so as not to lose American support. He will devote most of his energy to reducing the terror, a goal he hopes to achieve by way of Operation Determined Path (and its derivatives or extensions), as well as by the security fence that he was dragged into building as a result of the Shin Bet's recommendation and coalition pressure.

This political timetable jibes with President Bush's political calculations (the mid-term Congressional and gubernatorial elections in November), which helps to explain why the two leaders were able to reach such broad agreement, so proponents of this theory say.

A certain minority view was also expressed: Sharon understands that the country cannot be left in its present situation for another 14 months. He will ratchet up the psychological, military and political pressure on Arafat in order to dislodge him from a position of influence. If this is accomplished, a tremendous shift will occur in Palestinian consciousness, and this change will spark processes that will spawn a new leadership. Before the shock of Arafat's neutralization wears off, Sharon will act quickly to obtain an interim agreement. According to this view, Sharon will aim to have an interim agreement and an agreement on security arrangements to show Israeli voters before the next elections.

If the intuition of the majority is correct, i.e., that Israelis and Palestinians are doomed to continue shedding much blood in the coming months, then Bush's speech may be remembered as the deadbolt that blocked the Labor Party's exit from the coalition. When the White House positions itself to the right of the Labor ministers, the party has no pretext for demanding a change in the government's stance.