Will Bush Be Sharon's Defensive Shield?

Like a drowning man at sea clinging to the edge of an oar extended to him by a lifeguard, Ariel Sharon is leaving for Washington two days from now for talks with President George W. Bush.

1. Stopgap measures

Like a drowning man at sea clinging to the edge of an oar extended to him by a lifeguard, Ariel Sharon is leaving for Washington two days from now for talks with President George W. Bush. The prime minister wants to reaffirm that he can in fact make it onto the lifeboat and that the American administration is really ready to pull him out of the water. But it's not clear if he knows to which shore his rescuer intends to sail.

All of Sharon's actions as prime minister have not amounted to much. The security policy he has pursued for the past year has not achieved the hoped-for results; the country's international standing, which was still intact when he took over from Ehud Barak, has deteriorated to an all-time low; the economy is in an ever-worsening crisis; national morale is under continuous strain and his coalition is constantly threatening to break apart.

The hope seemed to be that Operation Defensive Shield would untangle this multi-layered knot with one sharp tug: that it would extricate the country from its grave security situation, with consequent improvements in the political and economic realms soon to follow. At the moment, it appears that the big turning point failed to materialize. Granted, and this is no minor matter, the suicide bombings have so far ceased, but Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer warned two days ago that they will return in full force before long if no political process gets underway. And the military operation only served to intensify the problems in other areas: The recession is deepening and faith in the shekel is dwindling; Israel is even more isolated internationally; the public's frustration over the inability to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians is growing and the tension within the government due to ideological divisions about the future of relations with the Palestinians has increased.

Two days from now, Sharon will set off for Washington aiming to pick up the pieces. He hopes that after Arafat's release from the Mukata, the troubles arising from the standoff at the Church of the Nativity and the UN efforts to investigate the IDF's conduct in Jenin will also be dispelled. Sharon's aides said yesterday that the prime minister expects to have a wide-ranging discussion with Bush about the future of the region, the president's plans to attack Saddam Hussein, the strategic American-Israeli dialogue and, yes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A very transparent effort is being made to portray the hastily arranged trip to the U.S. capital as a relaxed, "business-as-usual" kind of visit - as if Sharon was not compelled this week to break his promise to go to elections if the killers of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi were not handed over to the IDF; as if he hadn't gotten into a wretched confrontation with the UN Secretary General; as if he didn't desperately need the American umbrella to protect him from all kinds of trouble.

Still, the main problem with Sharon's functioning has not changed: He is not a statesman; he remains a military tactician and a political trickster who is always ready to find a way around a pressing problem without considering its significance in terms of future developments. At the beginning of April, when he was publicly on the receiving end of President Bush's anger, which translated into Colin Powell's mission to the Middle East, he tried to deflect it by whipping out the idea of a regional conference. Last week, when he was forced to react to the Security Council's plan to establish a committee of inquiry to examine the IDF's conduct in Jenin, he hurriedly agreed to the American proposal to channel the process toward a fact-finding committee to be appointed by the UN Secretary General. He did not give much thought to the implications his consent could have for the IDF's position, or to the possibility that Kofi Annan would take the narrow opening Sharon gave him and push through a much more sizable international delegation that would roast Israel over a fire fueled by Saudi petroleum.

When faced with President Bush's insistence that he restore Arafat's freedom of movement, he did not hesitate to sacrifice his prestige and credibility to accede to this demand and win a moment's respite. This week, right-wing ministers were saying that Sharon's method of eluding specific pressures only entangles him in much longer-term problems. When he accepted President Bush's invitation to come to Washington, Sharon felt like he'd won a prize complete with political dividends that will come in especially handy with the meeting of the Likud Central Committee coming up. But he fails to realize that he could very well find himself being propelled down a path he doesn't want to take, like a cow sent on its way through the chute in a slaughterhouse (an image he is fond of invoking).

The Sharon who will arrive in Washington the day after tomorrow has not decided with whom on the Palestinian side he is prepared to conduct negotiations, and over what. Does he agree that Arafat will be his interlocutor in talks about stabilizing a cease-fire or putting together a regional conference? And if he does not agree, then whom does he propose that Israel deal with? At the cabinet meeting this week in which he announced his readiness to lift the siege of Arafat's compound, Sharon repeated that he still did not see Arafat as a partner for anything. Does he think that the time has come to rehabilitate the Palestinian Authority or to keep trying to weaken it? Is he still willing to consent to the establishment of a Palestinian state or has he reneged on that? What political plan is he ready to put on the negotiating table? The Saudi plan? The conclusions from the Arab leaders' summit in Beirut? Would he prefer a direct dialogue with the Palestinian leadership (whomever he thinks that is), or with a group of Arab leaders? Sharon's goal as he leaves for the United States is to obtain coordination with the American administration, but coordination on what?

2. Department of wishful thinking

Things seem to be booming in the wishful thinking department, at least. Government spokesmen sum up Operation Defensive Shield as follows: The operation stunned the PA and made its leaders recognize once and for all that Israel is serious about not allowing terror to continue unchecked. A process of soul-searching is going on among the Palestinian leadership that could spawn new centers of power more amenable to dialogue with Israel. Yes, Arafat will remain the Palestinian national symbol, but his real influence will diminish. There will be an organizational change in the structure of the PA that will lead to greater transparency, a concentration of responsibility for security matters and a certain degree of democratization in its functioning. The United States will supervise this process with the help of organizations from the donor countries that will eventually allocate funds for the rehabilitation of the Palestinian economy. Concurrently, a diplomatic effort will be made to enlist the leaders of the moderate Arab states to persuade Arafat to rein in the terror, halt the incitement and soften his positions so that it will be possible to reach an accord with Israel.

According to this portrayal of affairs, Israel did its part by releasing Arafat from the siege, withdrawing its forces to the locations where they were situated before the start of Operation Defensive Shield and proposing the regional conference. Now it is Arafat's turn to supply the goods. In any event, the United States does not disagree that the IDF is still free to respond to Palestinian terror even after the conclusion of Defensive Shield. And if President Bush asks Sharon to bend very far in his positions in order to meet Palestinian expectations, the prime minister will explain how limited his political power is in terms of getting government and public approval for such decisions. Sharon is hoping that Bush will be understanding.

3. What happened in Jenin?

The country's leaders were so caught up in the maneuvering to get out of the trap set for them by Kofi Annan that they neglected to ask themselves the necessary question: What actually happened in the Jenin refugee camp? True, there was no massacre; even the Palestinians now admit this, but was the IDF's conduct in the camp really a shining exemplar of the concept of purity of arms? What about the reports from international organizations and foreign journalists concerning unethical fighting methods and a profusion of hindrances to the delivery of medical and humanitarian aid? Are they all completely fictitious, the product of malicious Palestinian incitement? Or is there something to them?

Dan Meridor was apparently the only minister to raise such questions at government meetings this week. He told the cabinet members that the government needs to know what really happened in the camp. Not because of the UN's curiosity or the journalists' questions, but because of the government's responsibility for the morality of the IDF's conduct during warfare. The ministers are totally in the dark: The IDF keeps giving them changing data about the number of Palestinian casualties in the camp and their identities. The latest casualty count is seven civilians (four women and three children) and 43 armed men. This week, the IDF finally had a list of names of all those killed, but at the cabinet meeting, one general could not say with total certainty that all of those classified as non-civilian casualties had in fact taken an active part in the fighting.

Some international aid organizations and foreign journalists claimed that, during the fighting, there were soldiers who used Palestinians as human shields, that clear notice was not always given before buildings were demolished and that there were instances in which ambulances were not permitted access to evacuate the injured. According to the IDF's latest information, the number of houses razed was 97 (out of a total of 1,100).

IDF policies concerning press coverage contributed in large measure to the confrontation with the UN. Even though the battle in the camp was recorded by television cameras, the army reacted as if it had something to hide. Afterward, when Kofi Annan's moves appeared to pose a serious political threat, Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz was most prominent in declaring his refusal to cooperate with any international investigation. Sharon quickly echoed him, giving some ministers the impression that the prime minister did not want to be seen as lagging behind Mofaz on this issue.

Not all the generals felt that Mofaz had behaved wisely. Privately, some said that once the accusation of a massacre was successfully refuted, the IDF had nothing to fear. At most, a few irregularities in the soldiers' conduct might be discovered, and these could be attributed to the turmoil of the fighting. Overall, the IDF campaign could be favorably compared to the conduct of other armies fighting in built-up areas, they said. In contrast to Mofaz's position, these officers also maintained that having soldiers testify before the committee would be the most effective way of exposing the truth and disproving the blood libel about a supposed massacre in the camp.

Meanwhile, Minister Natan Sharansky said that international efforts to have the IDF investigated are an expression of contemporary anti-Semitism and that every battle in World War II involved civilian suffering and severe property damage. In his view, the whole intent of these efforts is to blacken Israel's image and to instill a wariness of military service in its citizens. Members of the legal team that was sent to negotiate with Kofi Annan's aides came away with the impression that the UN meant to try Israel in a kangaroo court.

The bulk of the government's energy was devoted to defusing the threat posed by Annan's fact-finding committee once Sharon belatedly grasped the potential international implications the process could have. He accepted the assessment that it was worth it to sacrifice his demand for the extradition of the suspects holed up in Ramallah and Bethlehem for the sake of coordination with the U.S. to neutralize plans to put the IDF's actions in Jenin under a microscope. Even after Annan's decision to disband the fact-finding committee, it remains to be seen if such coordination was really obtained and, if so, how long it will last.

4. Effi Eitam smells a plot

Effi Eitam has his own interpretation of last week's developments. He warned the other cabinet members that it wasn't Annan's fact-finding committee that they should be concerned with, but the American plot behind it. According to Eitam, the effort to establish a committee of inquiry to investigate possible Israeli "war crimes" is just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is a larger American plan designed to impose on Israel an accord that would force it to withdraw from the territories.

The National Religious Party's new leader believes that the United States compelled Israel to release Arafat in order to appease Saudi Arabia. Now it will pressure Sharon to accept Arafat's presence at a regional conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict (When he first proposed the conference, Sharon said he was opposed to Arafat's participation) in exchange for its willingness to save Israel from the UN's vise. Eitam predicts that the U.S. administration will try to assuage Israel by saying that Arafat's presence at the peace conference will be mere window-dressing and that a new Palestinian leadership will actually be acting in his stead. Eitam will go to the United States to try to avert this danger.

5. The prime minister's representative

The Rothschild Prizes were awarded two days ago. They were given to six important scientists: Prof. Yaakov Ziv (engineering); Prof. Nahum Kedar and Prof. Haim Rabinowitz (agriculture), Prof. Elhanan Helpman (social sciences), Prof. Zvi Selinger (life sciences) and Prof. Alex Lubotzky (mathematics). The Yad Hanadiv advisory council, which established the Rothschild Prize Organization in 1959, is composed of a chairman and seven members, who serve for four years.

Naturally, the composition of the advisory council is just as impressive as the list of prizewinners. The current chairman is Prof. Ilan Chet, the new president of the Weizmann Institute (he was appointed by Yad Hanadiv), and the members are: Prof. Menachem Ya'ari (Lord Rothschild's representative), Prof. Joshua Jortner (the education minister's representative), Prof. Eli Keshet (the Hebrew University's representative), Prof. Chaim Gutfinger (the Technion's representative), Prof. Leo Sacks (the Weizmann Institute's representative) and Prof. Ezra Fleischer (the National Academy of Sciences' representative). There is one more member of the advisory council - the prime minister's representative. And who is he? Mr. Avraham Appel of the Likud Central Committee, the father of contractor David Appel. And who appointed him to this lofty position? None other than Benjamin Netanyahu. How's that for breaking the monopoly of the elites?