Tightening the Screws

A week after Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon was criticized for mixing political views with his professional opinions, the prime minister was looking to the Israel Defense Forces to explain his decision to permit the Palestinian Legislative Council to convene.

1. Sharon's kashrut certificate

A week after Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon was criticized for mixing political views with his professional opinions, the prime minister was looking to the Israel Defense Forces to explain his decision to permit the Palestinian Legislative Council to convene. When the Tuesday morning consultations at his office ended, Sharon announced that he had agreed to let the PLC meet in accordance with the defense establishment's recommendations. He even asserted that defense officials had offered political justifications for these recommendations. Sharon needed to use Ya'alon as a cover to protect himself from the criticisms of right-wing ministers who consider the decision a concession to Yasser Arafat.

The truth is that the IDF was not speaking in one voice in these consultations, some of which took place in the office of Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. The coordinator of activity in the territories, Major General Amos Gilad, was in favor of allowing the PLC to convene, while the Chief of Staff stuck to the position he'd expressed the previous week, that the government ought to adhere to President Bush's outline by refraining from any gesture that would serve to rehabilitate Arafat's legitimacy.

Ya'alon believes that Arafat's neutralization must be completed and that no concessions ought to be made in this area. Gilad, meanwhile, had to support the convening of the council; he had promised its leaders that Israel would not keep putting obstacles in the way of this happening. Gilad wishes to implement the Israeli outlook formulated after President Bush's speech on the Middle East by demanding that the Palestinian Authority institute reforms, including administrative ones. The key to this is the holding of elections and the introduction of new forces into the Palestinian leadership.

The convening of the PLC in Ramallah was theoretically meant to accomplish these goals: approval of a newly appointed cabinet that includes Interior Minister Abdel Razaq Yehiyeh and Finance Minister Salam Fayed - both of whom are seen by the Sharon government as desirable interlocutors - and the adoption of a plan to hold elections for the PA leadership.

Disagreements among the IDF's top brass were also evident at the meeting with Sharon. Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Gaby Ashkenazy represented Ya'alon's views, while Gilad spoke in favor of granting permission for the PLC to convene. Ben-Eliezer affirmed that the defense establishment said the PLC should be allowed to convene and he called upon the prime minister to accept its recommendation. Foreign Ministry personnel also supported the idea, pointing out that such a process on the Palestinian side coincides with Israel's declared interest of seeing a significant restructuring of the Palestinian leadership. In accordance with the rules of the game set down by the U.S., this administrative reshuffling is to be achieved through a democratic process, namely, elections, and thus Israel cannot be perceived as torpedoing it. There was also a sense that Sharon was under pressure from the U.S. and Europe to give the go-ahead for the council's meeting.

The right-wing ministers are not concerned with such considerations. As soon as the decision was announced, Minister Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party (NRP) derided the prime minister for zigzagging, noting that, at the cabinet meeting just two days earlier, Sharon had unequivocally opposed Ben- Eliezer's recommendation. Sharon had promised the ministers that a discussion would be held on the issue before any decision was taken, but then only invited the faction leaders (and not the cabinet) to a meeting on the subject after the decision had already been made.

Afterward, the right-wing ministers also complained that the decision was misguided, because it would ultimately serve to restore Arafat to center stage. These ministers do not believe in the validity of the reforms and reject any dialogue with the current Palestinian leadership. They view the whole idea of reform carried out by Arafat as a trap into which Israel is walking headlong. In their view, the military pressure on Arafat and the Palestinian Authority should be kept up, with the aim of causing their total removal from the public sphere. They believe that an agreement can only be reached once new Palestinian leaders are in control, a new guard in which Arafat and his coterie play no part.

The right-wing ministers have reason to believe that Sharon shares their view. They see his readiness to allow the convening of the PLC as a tactical step designed to ensure the continuation of American support for Israel as well as the continuation of the unity government. Natan Sharansky said the other day that when he looks back on the past year, he can see that the various moves that Sharon made - many of which he himself objected to at the time - did indeed serve to keep the unity government intact. He still believes that the unity government is a key factor in Israel's success in repelling Palestinian terror and in gaining the world's understanding for its actions.

2. `No shortcuts to peace'

The noticeable decline in the level of terror attacks over the past month and the more vocal expressions of desperation and regret coming from some top Palestinian leaders have got Israeli leaders gloating - we taught them a lesson, they say. This week, Ariel Sharon spoke about glimmers of dissent among the Palestinians that offer hope for reaching an accord. Right-wing ministers, who are not bound by the same constraints as the prime minister, talk about a military victory that is being achieved and that must be thoroughly pursued so that the Palestinians will lose any desire to try to mess with Israel again.

This optimistic mood is worthy of note because it is emblematic of a recurring phenomenon: On previous occasions, the prime minister has promised that he's found the way to extricate the country from this crisis and that he sees signs of a sobering up on the Palestinian side. There have been lulls in the violence before now, none of which lasted very long. But what's most interesting is the satisfaction expressed by the decision-makers and where it appears to be leading them: They feel that Israel has triumphed, but rather than emulate Winston Churchill and be magnanimous in victory, they want to keep turning the screws on the Palestinians as tightly as possible.

Natan Sharansky gave voice to such feelings this week. He is convinced that Sharon's tenure as prime minister brought about a turning point in the conflict with the Palestinians. Not only has Palestinian aggression been weakened, but so has Arafat's standing - in the eyes of his own people, as well as the region and the world. It has reached a low point and thus a new reality has been created. Fortunately for Israel, the struggle with the Palestinians is taking place against the backdrop of September 11 and perceived, at least by the American administration, as part of the world struggle against fundamentalist terror. Sharansky rejects any dialogue with the current Palestinian leadership, including Mohammed Dahlan, with whom Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has met, and Saeb Erekat and Yasser Abed Rabbo, who head the official Palestinian delegations with which Israel holds contacts. Sharansky also rejects the "Gaza and Bethlehem First" idea, believing that it amounts to throwing Arafat a life preserver. He is opposed to any steps in which Arafat is given any responsibility for ensuring Israel's security.

Like other right-wing ministers in the coalition, Sharansky believes that the "Gaza and Bethlehem First" idea will collapse, just as previous initiatives based on cooperation with Arafat and his regime have. And that once it fizzles, the conflict will get right back to mutual bloodletting - until it ends with the Palestinians' full surrender. Only then will it be possible to reach credible agreements. "There are no shortcuts to peace," Sharansky said a few days ago, with the violent Palestinian uprising nearing the end of its second year.

The leftist camp counters that whether or not the government follows the path advocated by the right, certain basic constraints will not disappear: the shifting demographic balance, the desire to preserve the state's democratic character, the recognition by a large part of the public that the occupation is not an endlessly tenable situation, the negative implications that the occupation has on national morale, on the values that the state purports to uphold, on the country's international standing and on its economic vigor. The left-wing ministers assert that, if the positions of Sharansky and company are adopted, the Palestinian public will never be primed to come to terms with Israel and accept it as a neighbor. The present downturn in terror attacks is only temporary: Serious alerts about planned attacks continue to pour in; there is tremendous hostility toward Israel in the territories; the militant groups are not disarming and there is no political process to neutralize all the negative energy on the Palestinian street. Moreover, say the Labor ministers, even if the quiet that has been achieved thanks to the IDF does last, where is it leading us? To a need to maintain army divisions in West Bank cities and to enlist reservists to patrol the streets of Nablus? Is this really where Israel envisioned itself being in its 55th year of statehood?

3. A trap for the Labor ministers

Try as he might, the prime minister could not wipe the satisfied grin off his face: The ambush he had laid for the Labor ministers had succeeded. It happened at the cabinet meeting this week during the debate on the composition of the plenum of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Sharon pulled out a list of recommended candidates and asked the cabinet to approve it. Ministers Dalia Itzik and Matan Vilnai objected, saying it was a political list. They demanded that the IBA portfolio first be returned to a Labor minister, as stipulated in the coalition agreement. Sharon licked his lips: He explained that the list he'd presented had been prepared by Ra'anan Cohen - the minister who until recently was in charge of the IBA - and that he, Sharon, was only playing a technical role in bringing it up for the government's approval. In response to the demand that the IBA portfolio be turned over to Labor, the prime minister pulled out a written explanation that he had readied beforehand and read it to the ministers.

Sharon maintained that the coalition agreement only applied to this matter if the cabinet members upheld its other clauses. When they protest the government-approved state budget and announce that they will not vote for it, and when the Labor Party secretary declares that he will not negotiate with the finance minister over disagreements about the budget - then they have no right to demand the implementation of the clause concerning responsibility for the IBA. Sharon noted that he had expended more time and energy than most on forming unity governments and asked Peres if he remembered how the two of them worked all through the night to put together such a government in 1984.

The prime minister concluded by reciting this familiar slogan: When the choice comes down to national responsibility or political expediency, he chooses the former. As he used to do at Likud Central Committee meetings, Sharon chose just the right moment to ask for a show of hands: Who's in favor of approving Ra'anan Cohen's list? Most of the hands in the room went up.

4. When the nation understands

Last week, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was asked when he would break up the coalition. "When the nation will understand the reason," he replied. The Labor Party leader increasingly appears to be struggling to escape the net in which Sharon has him caught.

This week, Ben-Eliezer placed the controversy over the IBA portfolio at the forefront of his efforts to slip free of the coalition trap. This seemed a somewhat ridiculous pretext for a coalition crisis, but Ben-Eliezer stuck with it. He gave it high priority at his public appearances and refused to dispatch Labor's economic team to negotiate with the Finance Ministry over the state budget until the IBA portfolio was returned to Labor. He also demonstrably stayed away from a meeting that Sharon called two nights ago (Eli Yishai also sent word that he was busy at that hour), as a way of expressing his dismay over the fact that Sharon had taken this portfolio for himself.

Ben-Eliezer realizes that he'll have to find a convincing reason to leave the government, which would cause elections to be moved up. He won't be able to pin his departure on disappointment with the government's handling of the security situation, since that is his area of responsibility. He won't be able to ascribe it to the government's political position, since Sharon has acceded to many of his demands in this area and since Shimon Peres is a principal participant in the shaping of foreign policy. He may try to spark a coalition crisis over the government's economic policies, but he could find himself at odds with many Labor voters who feel that Sharon and Silvan Shalom have taken the right tack. In the coming days, Ben-Eliezer's insistence on the dismantling of illegal outposts will likely serve as the pretext for a potential coalition crisis. He senses that this is a vulnerable point for Sharon, who is wary of how the right-wing ministers will react. Ben-Eliezer is relying on the Attorney General: He expects that Elyakim Rubinstein will not give his backing to a violation of the law.