Sharon Sets Three Goals for Final Term
Ariel Sharon’s second government held its first cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Sunday, March 2. This is most probably his last term of office as prime minister. Barring an early election before the 16th Knesset runs full term, he expects to bow out in 2007.
Above and beyond the urgent task of salvaging Israel’s battered economy, Sharon has set himself four long-term goals:
1. Determining Israel’s permanent frontiers
This objective Sharon hopes to achieve in partnership with US president George W. Bush, with whom he enjoys a close rapport. In expectation of the US-led war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s overthrow being but one tile in America’s redesigned ethno-geopolitical mosaic for the Middle East and Persian Gulf – as debkafile has been reporting for more than a year – he expects Israel’s frontiers with regard to the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be part and parcel of the wholesale transformation of an entire world region. An American victory might even stretch Israel’s frontiers, not shrink them, as dictated in every peace plan put forward to date.
Grounds for this expectation emanated from a little-noticed – nonetheless dramatic – shift in US policy on the Jewish settlements, the fate of which will dominate the shape of Israel’s final frontiers.
Speaking at the Enterprise Institute in Washington on Wednesday, February 26, President Bush defined that shift with a single word. Since teams of speech-writers and advisers carefully weigh every word uttered by an American president, those words are minutely examined by a host of interested watchers and analysts. The President’s landmark address on June 24, 2002 in which he mapped his two-state vision for the Middle East, was placed under many microscopes. Then, the phrase he used in speaking of Israeli settlements was this: “Consistent with the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee, Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories muststop.”
Seven months later, talking to the Enterprise Institute, the wording had changed.
“As progress is made towards peace,” said Bush, “settlement activity in the occupied territories mustend.”
Interestingly, the Mitchell Plan, a relic of the Clinton-Barak era that required the dismantling and phased evacuation of all Jewish settlements in Palestinian-controlled areas, was dropped from US presidential Middle East language, making way for broad acceptance of the status quo – barring perhaps a few isolated settlements and provided that settlement activity ends.
It is therefore not surprising that the leading pro-settlement faction, the National Religious Party, felt able to join the Sharon government with scarcely a demur.
The timing of the Bush statement is also significant – 24 hours before the new Sharon government lineup was endorsed and sworn in by the Knesset on Thursday February 27. The following day, the US president made the unusual gesture of telephoning Sharon to congratulate him on his 75th birthday.
The import of these gestures and the new Middle East power structure forged by the Bush administration may not have registered with the Labor party and its leader Amram Mitzna, who opted for the opposition benches, but they were not lost on the trendsetters of the Arab world. Suddenly, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah turned in his tracks and publicly offered the United States bases for its offensive against Iraq; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who ostracized Sharon for two years, invited him for a visit – despite the sensitive eve of Iraq war period. The 22 Arab rulers meeting Saturday at Sharm el-Sheikh on Saturday, March 1, left the Palestinian problem out of their deliberations and final declaration – the first Arab summit ever to drop an issue that could always be counted on to create a semblance of Arab unity.
2. Eliminating the Palestinian factor
In their most recent statements and remarks, senior US officials as well as Israeli spokesmen are finding connecting links between the eclipse of Saddam Hussein with his army and weapons of mass destruction and Yasser Arafat’s imminent exit from the Palestinian power structure.
debkafile‘s military sources report that last week Arafat angled through Cairo for Sharon’s permission to let him attend the Arab League summit – against Israeli guarantees for his return and immunity from capture for the terrorist chiefs to whom he has given sanctuary at his Ramallah headquarters.
Sharon replied in the negative. Arafat let the matter drop, in no doubt that the countdown begun in Washington for Saddam’s departure from Baghdad applied equally to him and the men he is protecting in Ramallah.
3. Pre-empting Palestinian-led terror
Arafat had planned for Palestinian anti-Israel terror to peak in the days leading up to the US assault on Iraq. He expected Israeli forces to knock out large segments of his terrorist machine – although not the massive devastation actually inflicted – and prepared three alternatives in good time:
A. The teaming up of his Fatah’s al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades with the Baghdad-sponsored Arab Liberation Front led by Abul Abbas. This has not panned out because, according to the intelligence estimates reaching Sharon’s desk, the joint Iraqi-Palestinian terror cells preparing eve-of-war mega-strikes in Israeli cities were systematically smashed.
Still, a single lone wolf who makes it through to an Israeli town with an unconventional weapon would be enough to refute this estimate.
B. A Palestinian-al Qaeda team effort. Momentum here was seriously stalled by the elimination of two top al Qaeda operatives on Saturday, March 1. Abu Mohammed al-Masri died in a bomb explosion at the Palestinian camp of Ein Hilweh in southern Lebanon and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured in a hideout near Islamabad. Al Masri had lived in a Palestinian “refugee camp” near Sidon for six years. One of his jobs was to act as go between for al Qaeda and the Palestinian leadership. Khalid Sheikh, identified in some circles as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, was the operational commander of the attacks on November 28, 2002, against the Mombasa Paradise Hotel and an Israeli Arkia passenger plane.
Their removal has lifted a particularly insidious and immediate threat but, unlike the Palestinian-Iraqi operation that was more or less crushed, al Qaeda continues to pose a major menace.
debkafile reports from its counter-terror sources that, in the last three months, the two al Qaeda officers were in charge of distributing SA-7 Strela and Stinger anti-air rockets to tens or even hundreds of terrorist cells in the Middle East, Western Europe and the Far East. They were determined to make up for their mistake at Mombasa, which enabled the Israeli Arkia airliner to elude a missile attack, and shoot down an Israeli passenger plane anywhere.
When terrorist chiefs are nabbed or liquidated, the network’s operational rank and file are bound to be affected. Some of the cells scattered around the world may decide that prudence is the better part of valor and drop out. However a good many may decide to go through with their missions at all costs to demonstrate that al Qaeda’s infrastructure is still viable.
C. Hizballah. Much has been written about the capabilities and motivations of these Lebanese Shiite extremists with whom Arafat signed a pact at the outset of his confrontation with Israel.
4. Israel’s regional standing
The permanent presence of a large American military force of some 70,000 troops in Iraq for the next decade will have a revolutionary impact on the military-strategic balance of power in the region. This presence will differ from the longstanding US military foothold in Saudi Arabia in that it will be America’s main military base for the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa. The global war against terrorism and the rogue nations deploying weapons of mass destruction will be conducted from bases guarding the banks of the Euphrates and the Tigris and the oilfields of northern and southern Iraq.
The Bush administration was not overly dismayed by the Turkish parliament’s refusal on Saturday, March 1, to permit US troops to use bases in Turkey for the invasion of northern Iraq. In any case, northern Iraq is not controlled by Saddam Hussein, but by two Kurdish chieftains, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, whose security depends heavily on American and British air cover. Turkey’s removal from the Iraq equation relieved the problem posed by Kurdish opposition to the entry of Turkish troops. The US war command feels it can afford to wait before entering northern Iraq until a later stage in the war. In any event, Turkey was never the only route into northern Iraq. American forces knew they could go in from Jordan in the west, from Kuwait, Qatar and Oman in the south and, under extreme pressure, land at Israel’s Haifa and Ashdod ports, head east and jump off from Jordan.
In view of this American planning for the region, countries like Iran and Syria and such terrorist groups as HIzballah face hard choices. They will have to reform and divest themselves of their unconventional weapons and terror bases or face American military fury – not from a distance but on their doorsteps.
This consideration applies most significantly to Iran, its nuclear weapons program and terrorist groups like Hizballah whose thousands of missiles point at targets deep inside Israel.
Israel’s participation in the American military and intelligence operation against Iraq, al Qaeda, Iran and the Hizballah is both active and covert. Israel-US military and intelligence collaboration is likely to increase as America’s role in the region broadens.
This does not rule out differences and conflicts of interests between the Bush administration and Sharon. However the Israeli prime minister forges ahead with his eye on Israel’s strategic goals, making sure they do not fall by the wayside as Washington pursues its complicated objectives. He wants to make sure that Israel is unchallenged as the leading regional military and economic power. To this end, he works though Israeli security and intelligence frameworks and employs figures untrammeled by domestic political pressures, such as defense minister Shaul Mofaz , chief of staff Lt.-Gen Moshe Yaalon, the new Mossad director, Meir Dagan, and his predecessor, Ephraim Halevy, head of the national security council.
Sharon knows that his time is limited. He has therefore begun fashioning a new political elite to whom he can bequeath his strategic legacy and whom he trusts to continue to advance on the goals he has set.
Sharon is Israel’s eleventh prime minister and the first since the state was founded in 1948 to actively choose his successor. His choices have strongly marked the makeup of his coalition government and account for his haste to get it working.
A second article in this series will discuss Sharon’s choice of successor.