Who's Calling the Shots?

Ariel Sharon's expression was quite grim at the meeting of the coalition faction leaders on Tuesday evening. He described to those present how he'd felt a few hours earlier at the sight of the carnage surrounding the bus that was blown up on the way from Gilo to downtown Jerusalem, how overwhelming it was to witness the trampled human dignity and helplessness of the mangled bodies.

1. The prime minister issues a statement

Ariel Sharon's expression was quite grim at the meeting of the coalition faction leaders on Tuesday evening. He described to those present how he'd felt a few hours earlier at the sight of the carnage surrounding the bus that was blown up on the way from Gilo to downtown Jerusalem, how overwhelming it was to witness the trampled human dignity and helplessness of the mangled bodies. "It reminded me of pictures from the Holocaust," the prime minister said.

Only a small number of people were in the room: Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was at the Defense Ministry meeting with senior Israel Defense Forces officials to discuss a military reaction to the attack; Finance Minister Silvan Shalom was home sick and Dan Meridor was abroad. No one from the General Staff was present; Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz and his aides had met earlier with Sharon and Ben-Eliezer (and Minister Uzi Landau). The meeting of the faction heads was attended only by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who was tired and irritable after his hasty return from Bulgaria, Natan Sharansky, Effi Eitam, David Levy and Eli Yishai. They were the only ones there when Sharon sought to obtain approval for the plan of action he'd agreed upon earlier with Ben-Eliezer and Mofaz. It wasn't difficult. All were in a gloomy mood, all agreed that Israel could not hold back in the face of such a barbarous act, all were fed up with the dreadful security situation that has been continuing for almost two years now and all yearned for a military response that would put an end to it.

The proposal that Sharon put to them ostensibly went something like this: The IDF will start to occupy the cities of the West Bank one after the other. The IDF will keep a permanent presence in the occupied cities. If the terror attacks continue despite this, the IDF will take control of the territory between cities and thus carve up the West Bank. At least, that's how some of those present understood the prime minister's meaning. The prime minister also interpreted the new decisions this way. An official statement issued by his bureau read: "Israel will respond to every act of terror by seizing Palestinian Authority territory, which will be held by Israel as long as the terror continues. Additional acts of terror will lead to the seizure of additional territory." The announcement went on to say that "As a consequence of the murderous act of terror in Jerusalem, Israel will soon seize PA territory" (meaning Beit Jala, apparently).

It appears that Sharon's proposal did not encounter any real opposition. Peres advocated that instead of declaring a comprehensive battle against the PA, efforts be concentrated on a military operation against Hamas; and Eli Yishai opposed the use of the phrase shehut keva ("permanent stay") regarding the length of time the IDF would remain in West Bank towns and sought to change it to tekufa memushehet ("an extended period of time"), but these were minor reservations. Sharon set the tone and was backed by Eitam and Sharansky. The IDF was thus apparently given the instruction to reenter most West Bank cities with a significant number of troops and to hunker down for the long haul. The prevailing sense at the meeting was that this meant months and not weeks.

However, the next morning, stronger disagreement emerged. Peres and Ben-Eliezer said they were surprised to read the statement from the Prime Minister's Office. They claimed that they did not lend their support to a decision that essentially means the reoccupation of West Bank cities and the seizure of more territory as retribution for acts of terror. Peres insisted on an urgent meeting with Sharon, and Ben-Eliezer quickly went to the media to publicize his own interpretation of Sharon's statement: Looking straight at the cameras, he said that the decision did not mean that there was to be a reoccupation, but rather that the IDF would maintain an extended presence in certain places for as long as operationally necessary, and that there had absolutely not been any agreement to seize territory as retribution for terror attacks.

In his meeting with Sharon, Peres requested that the prime minister issue a clarification saying that it was not the government's intention to bring down the PA or to occupy territory under its control. He again urged Sharon to aim the war on terror at the leaders of Hamas and at that organization's infrastructure.

The cleverness of the statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office is immediately apparent: It makes no mention of the forum in which the decision to seize PA territory was supposedly made; it speaks of "discussions held by the prime minister with the ministers, party leaders and defense establishment chiefs." The statement implies that the decision was made at one of these meetings, but at which one is anybody's guess. The defense minister - the only one to hold consultations (twice) in a restricted forum with Sharon following the bombing of the Gilo bus - insists that he was not a party to such a decision.

However, the possibility that Ben- Eliezer simply got cold feet after first agreeing with Sharon is not inconceivable. Peres may also have belatedly realized the significance of the resolution reached at the meeting of the faction leaders and subsequently tried to distance himself from it. When this is how the country's leadership looks, it's hard to know.

2. Effi Eitam recycles a dream

A day later came the bombing at the French Hill junction in Jerusalem. There were more consultations between the defense minister and prime minister. As far as is known, these talks did not lead to any changes in the decisions reached the day before. Both men felt that enough assessments and decisions had already been made concerning how to respond to the lethal suicide bombings (there have been 119 suicide bombers since the beginning of the intifada). But one operation - the helicopter attack on Gaza - still came as somewhat of a surprise. Perhaps it was intended to satisfy Peres, who continued to complain to Sharon that he wasn't doing enough to strike at the core of Hamas.

Until the helicopter attack, the prevailing notion among the cabinet ministers was that Gaza should be left alone while it sank deeper into a morass of poverty, hatred and terror. It was in this spirit that the idea of expelling Arafat was discussed and ultimately rejected. At the meeting of the faction heads, a new policy was suggested: expelling the families of terrorists from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. If the idea of expelling Arafat comes up again, his land of exile may well be Gaza and not Tunisia.

The relentless terror attacks are leading the decision-makers in Jerusalem toward a military escalation. They see a reoccupation of the West Bank as an inevitable development and as the only possible means of loosening the noose of terror that is strangling the country. Effi Eitam is calling for the restoration of complete Israeli military control of the West Bank and for the institution of an autonomous civil administration that would operate at Israel's discretion. He and those who share his vision dream of resurrecting the period immediately following the Six-Day War: They would like to see Israel determine its relationship to each of the occupied areas in accordance with that area's degree of cooperation. Israel would refrain from intervening in the administration of municipal affairs affecting residents' day-to-day lives and concentrate its efforts on locating the terror networks and arresting terrorists.

This scenario makes the bold presumption that the international community would harness its energies to rehabilitating the economic infrastructure and employment base of the West Bank while the territory is controlled by Israel. The thinking here is that the increasing number of terror victims won't leave Sharon any choice but to pursue this path.

On the other side are the representatives of the Labor Party, who are at the acme of the decision-making hierarchy and yet were panicked by the interpretation given the government's most recent decisions. Peres was able to squeeze an official statement out of Sharon that served to salvage his dignity: The IDF would not "occupy" territory, but rather "remain there in accordance with operational needs." Ben-Eliezer made a point of saying he is not in favor of an extended stay in Areas A and B and that he believes that the internal, Arab and international pressure being exerted on Arafat and the PA has a chance of bringing about a change in the Palestinians' approach.

3. Political rivalry strikes again

The ridiculous back and forth jockeying done by the prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister in wake of decisions they themselves made just 24 hours earlier is not necessarily a reflection of ideological disagreements; rather, it's symptomatic of a disgraceful bureaucratic culture, of the ambushes these politicians regularly set for one another, of their public cowardice and the deceptions and maneuvers they readily engage in even when making decisions on matters of life and death.

When the meetings ended Tuesday night, Sharon was ready to send the IDF into West Bank cities and keep the troops there for many months. At the very same time, Shimon Peres assumed that the decisions that had been made gave the IDF a green light to launch focused operations against specific targets in Palestinian territory. For such operations to be more successful, the IDF would have to remain in the West Bank for a longer period of time than it had in the past. Meanwhile, Ben-Eliezer understood that he was authorized to order the IDF to take control of West Bank cities and remain there, for operational needs only, for a period of time similar to what he was given in Operation Defensive Shield.

Was this just a simple misunderstanding? Only the most gullible would believe that. Was it yet another example of the power struggles among the three in which the wording of decisions is subordinated to fit each one's primary stance? Perhaps, but this possibility does not fully explain what happened. This pathetic and maddening display was also a result of political considerations and personal temperaments that get in the way of sound decision-making. Sharon's conduct was deliberately showy: He chose to announce to the world (including the Israeli public) that a decision had been made on a change of the response policy to terror attacks. In doing so, he sought to demonstrate leadership and project an air of resolve and forcefulness - just as he did when he fired the Shas ministers. But at the same time, he got himself in trouble by committing to a position that he won't be able to stick to for long: The world will not allow him to install the IDF in West Bank cities for months on end, the terror will continue despite the new operational approach and the public's frustration and disappointment with the prime minister's performance will increase. Two days ago, there was talk in political circles that Sharon acted as he did because he already has his eye on the next elections and wishes to be seen as outflanking rival Benjamin Netanyahu on the right.

Ben-Eliezer is not above suspicion, either: His conduct this week is being interpreted in political corridors as largely guided by his ongoing contest with Haim Ramon for the Labor Party leadership. This would help to explain his newly passionate support for the construction of the security fence as well as his public disavowal of the prime minister's statement concerning the new response policy.

Peres is also suspected of having ulterior motives: Some say the dismay he expressed at the prime minister's reading of the latest decisions was really meant to justify his continued membership in the government despite the direction in which Sharon is leading it.

4. President Bush dodges a decision

As all of this played out, the security fence began to go up and anticipation of President Bush's speech on the Middle East continued to grow. This week's terror attacks served the cause of the right, which views the American diplomatic activity and the construction of the fence as a recipe for pushing Israel out of the territories. The suicide bombings also served the purposes of the Palestinian militant organizations that seek to torpedo any initiative aimed at alleviating the conflict. Over the past 20 months, the terror organizations have sprung into action whenever a possible turning point in the situation (such as the visits of Zinni and Powell) appeared on the horizon.

At the cabinet meeting on Sunday, the ministers learned that a good part of the proposed security fence will lie on the Green Line, with buffer zones to the east and west. In wake of comments made at the meeting, the possibility of building the fence to the east of Tul Karm and Qalqilyah rather than to the west, as presented to the ministers, was scheduled to be discussed. The construction of the fence is putting Sharon in a political corner: He must convince the right that it does not have any political significance. On the other hand, he must convince the general public that the huge expenditures needed to build the fence are justified, that it will be an effective dam against the waves of terror and that its completion in Jerusalem - a very sensitive issue politically - is also necessary.

Sharon has acknowledged to some ministers that he does not know what Bush will say in his speech, but that he expects that the speech will not seriously harm Israel even though it may include a declaration of intentions regarding the recognition of a Palestinian state to be established within a short period of time on Territories A and B. Sharon knows that American support for such a plan would be contingent on a cessation of terror, so therefore it would not have any practical significance. Some right-wing ministers suspected that Sharon had essentially given Bush a green light to present this position. The bombings in Jerusalem led the president to postpone his speech and again delayed American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The more moderate members of the government do not have any great expectations for the speech. In their view, the American administration has not grasped the reins of leadership as it could have to compel the parties to enter a process of dialogue. They say that Bush appears to be guided to a large degree by internal political considerations (one minister said this week that the president is torn between Arab oil companies and the Jewish vote) and that he is trying to tiptoe through the raindrops without angering either side too much. The result is repeated delays in the presentation of the American position, which leaves the field open for terror to wield exclusive influence.

Even after Bush makes his speech, the administration does not, for now at least, appear to be prepared to translate his vision into genuine political moves: There has been no word of a mandatory timetable, of a proposed agenda or of a mechanism that would work to bring the parties to the negotiating table (in the context of a regional or international conference, as has been proposed). The other day, some in Jerusalem were saying that the bombings were like gifts from heaven for the Americans.