Quiet, They're Shooting in Iraq

Since the outbreak of the war in Iraq, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been running the country as though Israel were on a distant planet, and the crisis has nothing to do with us. After a declaration of support for the American attack, and a few words of reassurance to the public, the prime minister turned to other matters. He has refrained from late-night sessions and from meeting with the cabinet, and has made do with quiet work sessions with the defense minister and the foreign minister who is going to the United States. Saddam's Palestine speeches and the British calls to put pressure on Israel did not disturb Sharon's peace of mind. Even his spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, who at ordinary times makes the rounds of the studios of the foreign networks, has during the past few days been maintaining his right to remain silent.

Not only in the corridors of power is the Israeli silence in evidence. Israel Defense Forces actions in Gaza have been frozen, and the Palestinians are also maintaining restraint. Everyone understands that now is not the time to ire the White House. "The sounds of silence are the best assistance for President Bush," says one of Sharon's advisers. "In any case, we can't say anything, and any show on our part will only give rise to claims that the American prisoners of war were captured because of Israel."

Sharon met the American expectation that Israel keep its distance. In his last meeting with Bush, in October, he presented the conditions under which Israel would respond to an Iraqi attack: If Israel is hit by chemical or biological weapons that cause a large number of casualties, or by mega-terror. Sharon promised that even if Israel decides to react, it will first consult with the United States. In so doing, he handed the Americans a de facto right of veto. But he insisted on Israel's right to self-defense, and refused to commit himself to restraint as did former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.

After the fact, it turned out that the understanding was not complete: Three weeks ago, CIA chief George Tenet came to Jerusalem and told Sharon that the United States understands that whatever happens, Israel will refrain from reacting. The prime minister rejected this statement, and promised only that he would remain in close consultation with the United States.

From the day he became prime minister, Sharon has set down a clear order of priorities in relations with the United States: The Palestinian issue comes first and everything else is secondary. The prime minister needs American support in the conflict with the Palestinians, and is willing to pay for it in areas where American interests differ from those of Israel. A year ago, the United States asked Israel to postpone the sale of Phalcon AWACS reconnaissance planes to India, because of the tension between India and Pakistan. The Americans are also opposed to the export of Arrow missiles to the Indians. These are transactions that can bring in billions to the security industries. But Sharon didn't argue, and the Defense Ministry accepts his decision.

Sharon sees coordination with the White House as his main asset, and he can point to quite a number of achievements, from the call to replace Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, to the freedom of activity enjoyed by the IDF in the territories and the silent acquiescence to the building of a separation fence. These were his main goals, and the United States accepted them with understanding. A spokesman for the U.S. State Department sometimes makes comments to Israel, but in Jerusalem this is not taken seriously, and they don't sense even a hint of the type of pressure common in the past.

Now the moment of truth is approaching, in which President Bush will decide whether to intervene seriously in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, before he becomes preoccupied with the presidential election campaign. Sharon is holding on to his understandings with the president, and will do nothing to undermine them. No superfluous talk about the war in Iraq, no operations in Gaza and not even an Israeli political initiative. The prime minister prefers to go along with the "road map" and to change it, rather than presenting an alternative initiative, which would expose him to pressure in his cabinet as well as creating an opening for a counterplan by the Europeans and the Arabs. And when the waves get too high, Sharon will embark on his eighth meeting with his friend in the White House, and will try to win the president over, as on previous occasions.