Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon always made much of his close bond with US president George W. Bush, holding it up as the most dependable component of the special relationship between Israel and the United States. In his rare appearances before his Likud parliamentary faction or central committee, he was wont to cut short any sharp criticism of his government’s austerity program and neglect of social problems by declaring, “…but no Israeli leader has ever before maintained a friendship this close with any American president…” He then chided his party opponents and representatives for forgetting that they owed their jobs to him as “the only leader capable of leading Likud to a landslide victory in two elections.”
The tie-in is clear: Sharon was saying that his party’s hold on power was the outcome of his close understanding with Bush and conditional on it.
This tenuous piece of logic may not have washed anywhere else, but in an Israel battered by terror it sounded too much like a lifeline to be easily dismissed. Even Sharon’s foremost rival for party and national leadership, finance minister and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Benjamin Netanyahu, bought into the line.
The tidal change in Sharon’s perception came about at the June 4 summit in Aqaba.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that, while the epic three-way summit at which the Bush peace plan was solemnly adopted was to have marked a new departure in Israeli-Palestinian relations, the Israeli leader’s sharp eye spotted some worrying backstage maneuvering.
Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, kept on sidling up to Bush and they would then stroll away for private chats. Sharon also was alarmed by the rapt attention White House officials paid to Palestinian internal security minister Mohammed Dahlan. He saw the Americans accepting what Israel regarded as a specious cop-out. Dahlan’s point was that while fighting terrorism was important, the Palestinian Authority would be wiser to aim for an agreed modus vivendi with the terrorist organizations and avoid confrontation. Dahlan assured US officials that he could easily tempt violent terrorists to join his preventive security service and turn over a new leaf as disciplined troops. He also bragged that he held at his disposal a force of between 4,000 and 5,000 men, all willing to fight the terrorists attacking Israel.
All Dahlan needed, he said, was financing. Once that was provided, the job of stamping out terror was as good as done.
Sharon had come to Aqaba cautioned by Israeli security and intelligence experts not to be taken in by Dahlan’s promises. He was shocked to see how senior White House officials were lapping them up. Secretary of State Colin Powell was so impressed that he made Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz sit down for an informal conference with Dahlan and found several hours to join them.
At that moment, Sharon began to question the force of the American commitment to require the new heads of the Palestinian Authority to dismantle terrorist structures – and so implement the opening clause of the road map’s provisions – before moving on to the next performance-linked clause.
Israel had read that provision as the sine qua non of the entire document.
Feeling left out in the cold by his closest ally, Sharon shrank from public view after the summit. It was a bitter pill to swallow. After all, even the late Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the 1993 Oslo Framework Accords, had not accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state and worked actively toward its creation. But if Washington failed to press for a fight to uproot terrorism, how could he accept a Palestinian state that had not renounced terror? The road map suddenly lost its appeal as a medium for Israel to attain a secure future.
Towards the end of the day in Aqaba, Bush commented that something was amiss with the Israeli prime minister. Noting Sharon’s sudden aloofness he began to suspect that the prime minister might also distance himself from his Aqaba pledges.
That was how the wall of mutual suspicion grew up between the two former friends.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s political sources in Jerusalem reveal that Sharon made one final attempt to meet Bush halfway.
On July 20, five days before Abu Mazen set out for his first White House visit and nine days before Sharon’s trip to Washington, the Israeli leader invited the Palestinian premier and members of his cabinet to his Jerusalem office. This time, Sharon, who rarely bothers with formal niceties, personally stage-managed every detail of the encounter so as to award his visitor full ceremonial honors under the glare of a battery of television cameras. He told confidants that the venue of the meeting and the impressiveness of his welcome were designed to showcase the Israeli prime minister’s commitment to an independent Palestinian state.
But away from the cameras, a shouting match ensued, the Palestinians complaining that Israel had offered only grudging confidence-building concessions, while the Israelis held the Palestinians to account for failing to rein in terrorists despite their high-sounding promises two weeks earlier at Aqaba.
Dahlan shouted the loudest, yelling that the dismantlement of terrorist infrastructures was an “Israeli invention that no one in the world had ever heard of!”
Sharon was not surprised by the Palestinian position. He was taken aback by the reaction from leading lights in the White House. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Powell made the right noises in public, affirming that the Palestinians must fight terror. Yet no real American pressure was applied to make the Palestinian Authority do anything about it.
At the same time, there is heavy pressure on Sharon to move forward in the peace process without waiting for the Palestinians to abandon the ways of terror. In fact, both Abu Mazen and Dahlan are careful to obey the wishes and respect the aspirations of the man who invented anti-Israel Palestinian terror, Yasser Arafat.
“Whether or not this is really happening,” said a close prime ministerial aide to DEBKA-Net-Weekly, “Sharon feels he is being bulldozed relentlessly into accepting a Palestinian terrorist state.”
“To make matters worse,” says the aide, “whenever Sharon raises a political or military issue with Washington, he gets the cold shoulder – either an outright no or the runaround. His direct line to Bush is always busy.”
The Israeli prime minister is not only disenchanted with Bush and his team, he blames himself for his greatest political fiasco: over-reliance on a friendship of convenience that has let him down and led him and his country into a dead end at a time of heightened peril.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s political and military sources cite four issues that that Sharon regards as critical to Israel’s security:
Iran’s nuclear arms: Sharon believes, and he told Bush as much when they last talked at the White House on July 29, that Iran will have produced a nuclear bomb much sooner than forecast by US intelligence. The CIA estimates Iran will go nuclear in a little less than four years by 2008. The Israeli intelligence prediction is for late 2004 or early 2005.
Sharon argues that relying on diplomacy to solve the issue is a recipe for disaster. Tehran itself has made no bones about its tactics of dragging the issue of international inspections on for another two years, by which time the world will discover that Iran already has the bomb.
Given the Islamic republic’s unbridled enmity for the Jewish state and its proximity, Israel regards a nuclear weapon in Iran’s hands as a threat to its very existence.
Palestinian terrorism: Sharon and his security chiefs see little but a nightmare scenario for the near future. The ceasefire declared by certain, not all, Palestinian groups, may run full course up to late September – unless it is interrupted earlier. But then, Israel’s main cities will be subjected to an unprecedented onslaught from new and more potent weaponry deployed much nearer than ever before, such as short-range surface missiles imported to the West Bank under cover of the truce, coupled with a threat of large-scale chemical or biological terrorist attacks against population centers around the country.
Until this week, Israeli public opinion polls showed more than half of all Israelis generally satisfied with the truce and hoping for its continuation.
The sentiment shifted sharply under the influence of this week’s spate of deadly suicide bombings – one at Rosh Ha’Ayin, in Israel’s population and industrial heartland; the second outside the Jewish West Bank town of Ariel. Many Israelis began asking where Sharon’s efforts to support and work with Abu Mazen and Dahlan were leading the country.
The prime minister had no answer. Held back by Washington from deploying the full might of Israeli forces to crush Palestinian terror, he was yet unable to persuade the American government to push the Palestinians into meeting their Aqaba commitments to do so.
Syria and Hezbollah: The same quandary confronts Israel with regard to Syria and the Hizballah, both wholesale suppliers of illegal weapons, explosives, bomb experts and funds to Palestinian terrorists on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has failed to cut off these contraband supply lines. Furthermore, in the last week, northern Israel sustained two painful Hizballah attacks: A heavy barrage that devastated part of a military command center on Mount Dov, or Shebaa Farms, followed by the shelling of the northern border city of Shlomi, killing a 16-year-old youth. Sharon counted on a green light from Washington to strike back at Syrian military targets in Lebanon. He was wrong; the White House said no.
Al Qaeda: Top Israeli political, security and intelligence officials are convinced that the Muslim terror network is still plotting a mega-strike in Israel to rival or even surpass the 9/11 attacks in the United States. A senior Israeli security source told DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “If Iran was willing to help Al Qaeda’s operations commanders set up and carry out a major terrorist attack in the Saudi capital, why wouldn’t the Islamist theocrats in Tehran render aid for an attack staged by the network in Israel.
Iran commands an embarrassment of terrorist riches for activation against Israel: Not only al Qaeda, but also the many Palestinian cells in the West Bank towns of Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm well-greased with Iranian funds and Hezbollah sleeper cells planted in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and inside the Israeli Arabs community.
Israel has frequently sounded the alarm against all four threats. The Bush administration has acknowledged they are serious but accuses Israel of blowing them up disproportionately.
Ever since he was cut out of the White House loop, the Israeli prime minister has locked himself away in his office. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s political sources report no one is allowed near him, not even his closest aide and main go-between with the White House, his chef de bureau Dov Weisglass, whose frequent trips to talk to Condoleezza Rice have stopped abruptly. No one but Sharon himself is trusted to talk with officials in Washington. Foreign minister Silvan Shalom is not considered capable of handling high diplomacy; neither is the Israeli ambassador Danny Ayalon.
Sharon also stays aloof from his ministers. Even the most senior, defense minister Shaul Mofaz and finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, complain that the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem might as well be vacant for all the decision-making that is conducted there.
Sharon’s refusal to come to grips with key decisions was manifested most tellingly when Hamas and Fatah crews were discovered fire-testing the new Palestinian surface-to-surface missiles with extended range from the Gaza coast out over the Mediterranean Sea in early July, days after the ceasefire was declared. Senior Israeli officers asked the defense minister for urgent action to stop the violations of the first key clause of the road map peace draft. They were told the matter had been referred to the prime minister.
Nothing has been heard since.
No decision was forthcoming either in regard to the appropriate response to the Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist attacks in the past week in which three Israelis were killed and dozens injured.
The bomb blast in Rosh Ha’Ayin was carried out in a supermarket patronized by the Israeli police commissioner who lives a few hundred yards away.
The bomb attack opposite the Jewish West Bank town of Ariel underlined Israel’s diplomatic defeat in Washington over the anti-terror security fence route still under construction. The Bush administration objected to the fence including Ariel and got its way. The point the Palestinians made by that strike was that Ariel will remain unprotected, yet Washington has not interceded strongly enough to arrest their suicide campaign.
Israeli ministers and army chiefs knew that the prime minister had informed Washington that Israel, to retain any deterrent power, must make adequate response to these attacks. When they heard nothing more, they understood that Sharon had been warned off. The Israeli public was not given the true picture but allowed to deduce that the government in Jerusalem had decided independently to refrain from any further “escalation of violence.”
The Israeli prime minister by his silence and indecisiveness has got officials guessing in Washington as well as Jerusalem. They are wondering if he is displaying the symptoms of a leader who has run out of options. Or one who is pondering deeply about ways and means of regaining the initiative. The consensus of DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s political sources in Jerusalem is that Sharon understands that he has failed in his primary policy objective and worked himself into a blind alley.
The US President is reported by our Washington sources as voicing resentment against the Israeli prime minister for not being more forthcoming with concessions to the Palestinians that would boost the popularity of the Abu Mazen-Dahlan government. Bush does not accept the predication of such concessions on the termination of terrorism.
The President is reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources as confiding to advisers that he is baffled by Sharon’s inexplicable inaction and getting worried that the Israeli leader may go off on a tangent and take an unexpected course that will take the administration by surprise.
Time will tell which of the two theories is correct.