Sharon Besieged by Opponents

Ariel Sharon doesn’t want to take “no” for an answer. But that’s precisely what the Israeli prime minister is hearing from President George W. Bush before he presents his detailed unilateral West Bank/Gaza disengagement and settlement evacuation plan to a reluctant US administration.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington and Jerusalem report the White House wants to hear Sharon state clearly that the uprooting of settlements in the Gaza Strip is only stage one of a broad plan that entails also the scrapping of settlements in the West Bank.

The Bush administration is also unsure whether now is the best time to discuss the prime minister’s far-reaching proposal with no real Palestinian negotiating partner in sight.

Sharon’s objective is to draw a temporary border for eastern Israel along the line – approved by Washington – of the security barrier going up between Israel and the West Bank. He believed for a time that the United States and Europe too would recognize the interim frontier, enabling the two powers to agree on joint steps on the Israeli-Palestinian track and so pave the way for an understanding on Iraq.

At this stage, the Bush administration is willing to hear Israel’s proposals and study them without commitment. It has more pressing border-related vexations on its plate, such as determining the outer lines of autonomous Kurdish and Shiite enclaves in Iraq, and marking out the line of separation in Sudan between the territories controlled by the Muslim government in Khartoum and John Garang’s former rebels in the south.

(See the latest development in Shiite affairs in item further down this issue.)

Bush is also deeply engaged in his Greater Middle East Plan which he intends to unveil at NATO’s June summit in Istanbul. He also hopes to outline for America and its Group of Eight partners what they must do to promote political freedom, equality for women, access to education and greater openness in the region. As Bush promotes that plan and his vision of free trade zones, financing for small businesses and help in overseeing elections, the last thing he wants is to get bogged down in one of the world's most intractable conflicts – the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Because Washington wants some peace and quiet on this front, Sharon has still not received the White House invitation he expected in the mail back in January.

Sharon sticks to his guns

Feeling the chill, Sharon has only now come to realize the futility of his bid to sell his disengagement plan to Washington and the unreality of his hope that it would be seized on as a cure-all for helping to patch up US and European differences over the Middle East and Iraq.

But he has not given up. Last week, he tried working the European end. He even accepted a formula rejected by every Israeli government before, to allow European forces to be deployed on Palestinian Authority territory.

His permission brought swift action.

Two Palestinian security operations rooms, one in the West Bank city of Jenin and the other in Gaza, were set up and placed under the command of British MI6 security liaison officers. The principle behind the scheme is that the British government will fund the two security coordination facilities in which branches of all the Palestinian security and intelligence services are based.

Their first mission will be to restore law and order to the anarchy-ridden Palestinian cities while reining in terrorist activities.

The mixed “operation rooms” experiment has been tried before and failed. The British attempted to set such facilities up in Jenin and Beit Jalla – a West Bank village where terrorists fired on the nearby Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. They were shut down for lack of serious Palestinian cooperation.

For Sharon, therefore, this was no better than a goodwill gesture and not expected to last. This week, casting about for security partners, he began sounding out Egypt and Jordan for them to play key roles in the disengaged Gaza Strip and West Bank, respectively.

Israel willing to open 1979 peace treaty

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Jerusalem, Sharon posted secret messages to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak proposing that Egypt position two veteran paratroop or commando battalions in Sinai and set up a logistical base for them in El Arish near the Israeli frontier. The Egyptian police forces now guarding the border, he said, are poorly trained and woefully inadequate for stopping the wholesale Palestinian smuggling of weapons and fighters into the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

He also pointed out that al Qaeda has been using the Palestinian smuggling route to move men from Saudi Arabia into Syria and Iraq. They cross the Straits of Tiran between Saudi Arabia and southern Sinai and travel north in camel caravans up to the Israeli-Egyptian border. Once inside the Gaza Strip, they move on to the West Bank and then Syria. The prime minister asked Mubarak to let an agreed number of plainclothes Egyptian security and intelligence officers enter the Gaza Strip.

In order to get his disengagement proposals moving, the Israeli prime minister has therefore for the first time in 25 years agreed to reopen the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty which demilitarized Sinai in order to permit Egyptian combat troops to enter northern Sinai and stand on the Israeli border

The Israeli leader likewise asked King Abdullah of Jordan to deploy a regiment of the Jordanian-commanded Palestine Liberation Army, operating within the framework of the Arab Legion, in certain West Bank cities. He also proposed that Jordanian security and intelligence officers operate in the West Bank in conjunction with Israeli and American opposite numbers against Palestinian terrorists.

But to Sharon’s surprise, neither Mubarak nor King Abdullah was enthusiastic. Our sources in Cairo report the Egyptian president is shy of responsibility for Gaza Strip security at the expense of building up a foothold on the West Bank. Mubarak does not want the Gaza Strip – historically, Egypt never did – but he would welcome an influential role in the West Bank.

Drastic moves on the Palestinian front do not suit Abdullah at this time either. (He too has travel plans to Washington as reported in next item). The king is far more concerned at the moment with his country’s stability and economic straits and cannot afford to stretch the limited resources available to his army and intelligence service by detaching manpower for the West Bank. Sharon’s feelers have therefore drawn a royal cold shoulder in Amman every time an Israeli emissary turns up on his doorstep. When Sharon suggested that a meeting between them had been scheduled Abdullah brushed it off.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s political sources in Jerusalem, Sharon’s case in Washington and overtures to Cairo and Amman are falling flat largely because of his weakness at home.

There is a growing sense that the scandal-plagued Israeli leader cannot hold on much longer before being forced to step down. Intelligence reports reaching Washington from Tel Aviv depict Sharon as short-tempered and edgy. He look as though he is under siege and desperate for a way to break free.

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