Rice Plays Musical Chairs with Sharon Government

What did the US President’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice really come to the Middle East for? To get the Abu Mazen-Dahlan team started on the war against Palestinian terror? Not a chance. They presented her with a list of demands a mile long when she met the duo in Jericho on Saturday, June 28. They also informed her that a partial, temporary, conditional truce was their limit. If that would not do, the Palestinians would turn to the international community for guarantees and a large buffer force to take over Washington’s role as go-between. What about the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem? That package was neatly tied up well in advance of the presidential adviser’s visit – as debkafile reported on June 16.
debkafile‘s political sources have discovered that Rice had quite different fish to fry during her day in Israel – Sunday, June 29, namely the remaking of Ariel Sharon’s government.
Foreign minister Silvan Shalom was handed the first pink slip.
In a private conversation at the Aqaba summit on June 4, we are told of a remark Bush made to Sharon suggesting that, in keeping with Israel’s new relationship with the Palestinians and the onset of a new Middle East, it might be a good idea to rid his government of its right wing coalition partners and replace them with the more amenable opposition Labor party. The ministers he was referring to come from the pro-settlement National Religious Party and National Union: Effie Eytam, Yitzhak Levy, Zvi Handel, Benny Eylon and Avigdor Lieberman.
This sensitive chat had its corollary in Washington, taken forward a step at a time during subsequent trips the Israeli prime minister’s chef de bureau Dov Weisglass paid to the White House for settling the details of Israel’s troop pullback.
Weisglass was given to understand that the Bush administration while not necessarily a fan of Israel’s Labor party was keen to have Shimon Peres, Labor’s interim chairman and popular figure with the Palestinians as a peace negotiator, back at the helm of the foreign ministry. The reckoning in Washington is that a Sharon government made up of biddable Likud ministers, Labor and Change would quickly freeze the right-wingers out, including the few Likud ministers who would be uncomfortable with the new setup and its policies.
Without them, the Israeli government would be more amenable to the next stage of the Bush blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian peace that will come up some time during the presidential election year of 2004. Then, an Israeli government will be needed in Jerusalem with a guaranteed ability to execute evacuations – not only of fringe outposts, but of thriving Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip and West Bank to make way for a Palestinian state. The White House does not want to risk this plan going awry.
Before leaving Jerusalem therefore, Rice met Shalom privately to broach a delicate request: Would he mind vacating his ministerial seat in favor of Peres? (Only a few months ago Shalom was moved sideways out of the finance ministry to make room for Binyamin Netanyahu). If he acceded, she said, he would be deemed in Washington to have made an invaluable contribution to a historic process and the future would hold rewards.
For obvious reasons, no hint of this maneuver was published. The only content officially leaked from the Rice luncheon meeting with Israel’s inner cabinet was the ministers’ solid resistance to her criticism of the security fence under construction along the Israel-West Bank border. She repeated the Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas’s complaint that the fence provided a pretext for grabbing West Bank land. Sharon rose to declare it was an essential device for protecting Israeli locations against terrorist incursions and there would be no compromise on the safety of Israeli citizens.
Change minister Avraham Poraz added: “If the Palestinians fail to prevent terrorist attacks, the fence will be there to hold them back.”
For the first time in military history, a defense line was thus called up to serve both as a red herring and a substitute for military action to eliminate terrorists. The Sharon government has clearly bowed to the Bush government’s demand to give up fighting terror. Under assault now is a poor substitute, the partially built static defense line that is no proof against continuing terrorist incursions.

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