Sharon Falls Flat on His Disengagement Plan
How did the twice-elected Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon get into his present fix? By week’s end, Likud ministers led by finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu had ranged in a phalanx against his disengagement plans. They told him that even the downsized version, calling for the removal of three settlements in nine months’ time and the rest over a 27-month spread, would not change their minds and would not be endorsed by the cabinet next Sunday, May 30.
Change ministers, for their part, threatened to quit the government coalition if the disengagement plan is not adopted. The downsized version will not survive a Knesset vote.
Sharon and his closest advisers are clean out of rabbits to save the government from its gravest crisis in many years.
debkafile‘s political analysts examine the underlying causes leading up to the impasse as Sharon’s second term as prime ministers seems to be petering out.
1. The Likud membership’s rejection of his unilateral disengagement initiative – later endorsed by President George W. Bush – was the symptom of a deeper malaise, the Likud leader’s alienation from his party and its payback for his cavalier treatment of the party rank and file since he took office.
However, the root cause of Sharon’s downfall now is his failure to come to grips with Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian terrorist chief may be credited with bringing down three Israeli prime ministers, Labor’s Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak and Likud’s Netanyahu who served between the two. Had the late Yitzhak Rabin survived, he might too have fallen victim to Arafat’s machinations. Sharon recognized the danger and had him isolated, but was never able to make the “irrelevant” label stick. He missed one chance after another of getting rid of him.
Early this week, Egypt’s diplomatic ace, intelligence minister General Omar Suleiman, visited Jerusalem and Ramallah. He informed Arafat the Palestinian people had been handed a historic opportunity. Sharon had told him he would be willing to meet many Palestinians’ demands. debkafile‘s political sources provided this quote: “Sharon is ready to get together with Abu Ala (Palestinian PM Ahmed Qureia) if he can produce a serious Palestinian proposal. He is waiting for him to call. Sharon is prepared for joint Israeli-Palestinian commissions to coordinate the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. He is willing to promise Mubarak not to depart by a single millimeter from the road map. He is open to far-reaching arrangements. I tell you now that President Mubarak will personally guarantee that the failure of Israel to withdraw from the Philadelphi Border Route will be deemed by Cairo its failure to pull back from any other point in the Gaza Strip.”
According to our sources, Arafat just sat there and said nothing.
When Suleiman demanded a reply, “Time is short,” he said. “Only nine months to the first Israeli evacuations and we need a decision now.”
Arafat said: “My answer? Look at the state of Sharon. Everything is falling apart for the Israelis. I have nine months? How many months does Sharon have?”
2. The second primary cause of Sharon’s plight is this: the spin churned out by the prime minister’s office has finally caught up with him after two and a half years of being fabricated wholesale with the help of his chief of staff Dov Weisglass and, latterly, deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert. It has reached the point that no one in the government, party, Washington or the Israeli street knows what to believe. A prominent political figure remarked Thursday night: “The spin monster has finally devoured its maker.”
A glance to the east may be instructive. After peeling away layers of extraneous and misleading matter, the Americans are clearly seen to be treading a consistent line from the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein to the finishing-off of the Shiite rebel cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia. Any leader rising to lead an insurgency in Iraq will share the same fate.
In Israel’s case, a historic non-recurring opportunity is at hand, as General Suleiman pointed out, to dispose of the Arafat obstacle.
Egypt and Arafat have been closely allied for more than half a century. He started out as the invention of Gemal Abdul Nasser’s intelligence and built himself up as a Palestinian national leader. Yet this week, the Egyptian president sent his intelligence minister to Ramallah to inform Arafat that his time was up. Suleiman did more than harangue Arafat. He laid down a list of demands and a proposition, as debkafile reveals:
A. He must pass the control of all the Palestinian security services to prime minister Qureia.
B. These services must be unified under new commanders.
C. He must not interfere when commanders tainted with terrorism are sacked.
D. In parallel steps, Israel will begin removing settlements from the Gaza Strip and Arafat will leave his Ramallah headquarters under Egyptian protection and relocate at the Palestinian presidential compound in Gaza City. He will not be allowed to return to the West Bank. He may be allowed limited overseas travel.
Again Arafat was silent.
Nonetheless, the Egyptian initiative is highly significant. Mubarak is the second Arab ruler in two weeks to tell Arafat to his face that it is time to go. Last week, Jordan’s Abdullah advised him to take a long look in the mirror and make up his mind to leave. What has happened is that the rulers of two of Israel’s Arab neighbors have stepped in to break the impasse which threatens their own stability, while Israel’s political leaders, right and left, are busy talking their heads off, running round in circles on diplomatic solutions and plunged deep in their rivalries.
Almost unnoticed, Israel is finally being offered the victory denied every one of its governments in the long, blood-drenched confrontation posed the Jewish state by Yasser Arafat. The offer comes with help. A powerful coalition made up of the United States, Egypt, Jordan and Israel can do unto Arafat what was done to Saddam Hussein – with one key difference. If he accepts, he will not be imprisoned but live exile in the Palestinian president’s palace in Gaza City until the end of his days unless he chooses deportation to an Arab state. Palestinian governance will pass into other hands. This formula does not guarantee the total stoppage of terrorist attacks against Israelis any more than a sovereign Iraqi government promises the end of violence in Iraq. However it will gradually die down as stability sets in.
Had Sharon and Olmert combined their disengagement spiel with a practical program for disarming Arafat, drawing his terror fangs and disposing of him for good, they would have stood a fighting chance of carrying the day and surviving. Bush too would have preferred a US-led regional option to a go-it-alone plan to remove settlements that had no chance of playing in Israel.
The only way out of the fix now is for Sharon to take his defeat on the chin and hand in his resignation. Two other Israeli political elders, Shimon Peres and Yosef Lapid of Change, would also perform a great patriotic service by removing themselves from the political scene and leaving the field to fresher faces. A national emergency government could take over in the interim with two objectives: to bring the Israeli-Palestinian war to an end by removing Yasser Arafat and calling a general election.
Israel’s parties are fully equipped with every democratic mechanism for choosing their leaders. They should be activated. The worst thing would be for Sharon to perpetuate the stalemate by staying on in the prime minister’s office with nowhere to turn. Without a clear agenda for Israel’s armed forces, the bloodletting will continue, the nation will remain divided and Arafat can call himself victor.