Ariel Sharon’s shock announcement of plans to evacuate 17 of the 21 Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip has damaged the standing of his government coalition and credibility without netting any of the diplomatic rewards he hoped for.
A revolt is brewing in his own Likud party together with threatened legislative action to force a national referendum before a single red roof shingle is removed from the heavily fortified and guarded Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip. Pro-settlement coalition partners threaten to quit and take the government’s majority with them.
Labor’s 80-year-old newly-elected leader Shimon Peres promises Sharon a parliamentary safety net to make up for a lost majority. But the senior opposition party is sorely fragmented on this as on every other issue and may decline to fall in behind the new leader.
Sharon, for his part, as erstwhile godfather of the settlement movement, faces hard questions. He is ducking them by whispering to his confidants, who are spreading the word, that actual evacuation is not imminent. Bringing the issue into the open, he explains, was designed to achieve three modest goals:
To force diplomatic momentum on the Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia and draw him into talks in the teeth of Yasser Arafat‘s obdurate objections. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Palestinian sources point out that even if a meeting can be set up – possibly next week – it will get nowhere because Abu Ala will show up empty-handed and is powerless to offer even the smallest steps to rein in Palestinian terrorists plotting suicide attacks on Israelis from their Gaza Strip and West Bank bases. Instead, Quriea hopes Sharon will come up with goodwill gestures for shoring up his tenuous hold on the Palestinian premiership.
Sharon is anxious to present the White House on his thrice-postponed next trip with a substantial step showing he is working hard to initiate diplomatic movement to break the stalemate with the Palestinians. His meeting with Qureia may not amount to much, but it may let the Palestinians off the Clause One hook of the stalled Middle East “road map”, which requires the dismantling of terrorist organizations as the pre-condition for progress towards the next clause, Israel’s military withdrawal to positions held on the West Bank and Gaza Strip prior to the confrontation launched by the Palestinians in September 2000.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Jerusalem sources confirm that for the first time Sharon is willing to move on to circumvent the insuperable hurdle of Clause One, accepting that the Palestinian prime minister is powerless to implement a crackdown on Palestinian terrorism and Israel and the US have got exactly nowhere by cracking the whip over his head.
Therefore, the Israeli prime minister has confided to close associates, his initiative on the Gaza settlements appears to present the only hope for a return to the peace track. He also foresees a much smaller evacuation of Jewish communities – no more than 10 – on the West Bank, but only in the framework of a final-status peace accord with the Palestinians.
Sharon badly needs a diversion from the bribery scandal hanging over his and his sons' heads. Legal experts do not see enough evidence in the hands of the public prosecution to indict the prime minister, unless new facts come out. However, he is working under a cloud of suspicion and innuendo that severely damages his credibility and places all his actions in question.
The current of mistrust blowing in from Washington since the Iraq war in place of President George W. Bush’s warm friendship is even more damaging. It means that Sharon has lost one of his proudest assets as prime minister, mutual understanding and backing to the hilt from Washington.
Jewish leaders in the United States have told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that the US president is concerned that Sharon will take moves that put him in an untenable diplomatic and military position. Israel’s controversial security fence in the West Bank is a case in point. Bush and his close advisers and cabinet ministers stand firmly against the project. They don’t believe it will stop suicide bombers because too many Palestinians – especially in the Jerusalem area – live west of the fence near Israeli population centers. In any case, the Palestinians will simply lob mortars or missiles over the barrier.
But more importantly, Bush is certain Sharon is exploiting the fence’s route to annex large chunks of the West Bank marked in the road map as the territories of a future Palestinian state.
Sharon, deferring to this concern, has pretty well halted construction on the barrier at the northern end, despite the loud outcry at home that the gaps leave the population exposed to terrorist infiltrations. Only 120 km (70 miles) of the planned 600 km (360 mile)-route is standing.
But the Israeli leader is hurt and affronted by the change of face in the White House. He feels he deserves better after adjusting his key policies to the wishes and interests of its current tenant. On the vital issue of the war on terrorism and on foreign and economic policies as well, Sharon has kowtowed to Bush rather than Israeli opinion. In deference to Washington, he has left Yasser Arafat unharmed and refrained from meting out the punishment accorded Hamas to Arafat’s personal terrorist militia, the Tanzim and its suicide arm, al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
Now, three years and a half years into the Israeli-Palestinian war, Sharon finds the Brigades aligning with the extremist Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizballah, groups that take their orders from headquarters in Damascus and Teheran. The result: even if Arafat is gone tomorrow, his life’s work, a network of suicide killers, will go on, perpetuating a trail of death and destruction that diplomatic initiatives and military action alike are powerless to halt .
Israel appears to be condemned to living with suicide terrorism for a very long time.
This model is replicated in Iraq, where the Americans are not acting to stem the influx of Arab fighters, weapons and funds entering from Syria and Lebanon to fight US troops in Iraq. The same thinking prevents Israel from striking at the men ordering mass killers to attack Israeli population centers or uprooting their strongholds.
Israel’s economic policies are likewise circumscribed. Directives from the World Bank and the US Treasury force Sharon and his finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to slash spending mercilessly, hitting lower-income Israelis – the Likud’s core constituency – the hardest. The income differential between Israel’s top and bottom earners is the widest in the world. Tens of thousands of municipal workers and other civil servants have not drawn wages for between 6 to 10 months and are closing down essential services with countrywide strikes. This kind of US pressure is also deeply resented.
In the current climate of distrust between Jerusalem and Washington, some US officials appears to suspect Sharon of releasing his Gaza evacuation plan to cash in on progress on the Palestinian track as an economic lever. They think Sharon is looking to Washington to foot the bill for resettling evicted settlers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington and Jerusalem describe this climate as the background for the frequent postponement of Sharon’s visit to Washington.
Our sources report that several of Sharon’s close advisers are also critical of the tactics behind Sharon’s initiative on Gaza and above all its timing. “Had you put this on the table at the right moment, you might have induced the Hamas to accept a ceasefire. Now it is a huge concession for nothing and Bush has again delayed your visit. It won’t take place before late March.”
But Sharon is pinning his future strategy on the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as the arch-stone of his disengagement initiative. He believes that once American leaders are fully apprised of his plan and its potential for releasing the clogged diplomatic flow, understanding and friendly relations will be restored. Deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert was dispatched Wednesday night to outline the initiative to secretary of state Colin Powell. Thursday night, he was due to call on vice president Richard Cheney. His next briefing stop will be at 10 Downing Street, London.