Return of the 'Constraints Ministers'

The difference between the old "constraints ministers" and the new ones is that Sharon, Levy and Moda'i coordinated their efforts, whereas Shalom and Mofaz are staking out positions for a future battle over the leadership of the Likud.

More than a decade ago, Ariel Sharon led the troika known as the "constraints ministers" in Yitzhak Shamir's last government. Sharon and his partners, David Levy and Yitzhak Moda'i, wanted to constrain their prime minister from pursuing the path of concessions advocated by Shimon Peres and George Bush Senior's administration. They therefore erected various roadblocks to the diplomatic proposals of those days.

U.S. envoy William Burns, who visited Jerusalem this week, can report upon his return to Washington that the "constraints ministers" have reappeared, in a new incarnation. Burns, who heads the State Department's Middle East desk, came to discuss implementation of the road map and prepare the upcoming visit by his boss, Colin Powell, who will arrive this weekend. His Israeli hosts met him with lists of their reservations and the difficulties entailed in implementing the international plan for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom's constraint is his insistence that the Palestinians waive their demand for the refugees' "right of return" to Israel in exchange for Israel's agreement to the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders, which is slated to occur during the second phase of the road map. Burns, trying with diplomatic courtesy to avoid the issue, suggested that Israel discuss this directly with the Palestinians and promised that Israel's comments "would receive attention." But Shalom would not give in - and for 25 minutes he explained to Burns how important this issue is and America's responsibilities as the drafter of the road map.

From Jerusalem, the American official traveled to Tel Aviv to hear the security constraints of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz - first and foremost his insistence that Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) actively fight terror, as opposed to merely arranging a truce with the terrorist organizations. The defense minister warned of a second Operation Defensive Shield if terrorism continues and the terrorist infrastructure is rehabilitated.

The difference between the old "constraints ministers" and the new ones is that Sharon, Levy and Moda'i coordinated their efforts, whereas Shalom and Mofaz are staking out positions for a future battle over the leadership of the Likud. The defense minister invited representatives of every conceivable agency to the steering committee he established for the talks with the Palestinians - except the Foreign Ministry. Shalom got the message, and he will presumably now set up a task force of his own.

Like Shamir, Sharon has no need of constraints from his ministers in order to avoid making concessions to the Palestinians. His advantage over his predecessor lies in the White House: The current President George Bush, unlike his father, has so far refrained from pressuring Israel. He promised British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he would publish the road map as written, and he kept this promise.

But what initially appeared to be a diplomatic defeat for Sharon actually merely strengthened his position. Had Israel's reservations to the road map been accepted before it was published, he would have had to implement it immediately - which means he would have had to bring it for approval to his right-wing cabinet. But publication of the plan without changes created an opening for more negotiations and more delays. No one feels any sense of urgency. The Americans are speaking about a "contributory" process in which Sharon and Abu Mazen will negotiate over the plan's implementation. At the same time, Sharon's bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, has been invited to Washington for further discussions of Israel's reservations.

Washington is aware of the danger that the road map will implode and is therefore lowering expectations. Burns refrained from causing friction with the Israelis; he made no mention during his visit to Jerusalem of evacuating settlement outposts or freezing settlements. His principal message was that instead of fussing over the wording, what matters is progress on the ground: The Palestinians must fight terror in earnest and Israel must ease life for Palestinian civilians and make other gestures.

Sharon heard a similar message from the two White House envoys, Steve Hadley and Elliot Abrams, who visited him last week. Sharon took them on a helicopter tour of the West Bank - an honor reserved for his most important guests - so that they could see for themselves how small the country is and how complicated a solution will be.

After they landed, the two promised that Sharon has nothing to worry about. The administration is sticking to its phased plan, which begins with the liquidation of Palestinian terror, and will not demand that Israel withdraw under fire. In other words, the U.S. will sit on the sidelines while Sharon and Abu Mazen trade constraints and excuses.