Sharon under Pressure, Builds Fresh Team

What was behind the sudden White House acceptance Monday, February 23, of Israel’s Europhile former prime minister and opposition Labor leader Shimon Peres for talks with secretary of state Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice? Why was Peres there and not senior prime ministerial adviser Dov Weisglass, on one of his regular White House jaunts for powwows with the US president’s top advisers?
And what brought the dovish Labor leader to the royal court in Amman two weeks ago to find out what message Abdullah II had for prime minister Ariel Sharon from his meeting with Syrian president Bashar Assad? Foreign minister Silvan Shalom should have undertaken that errand. He should also have been Sharon’s natural emissary to Ankara at around the same time for talks with Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul.
debkafile‘s political sources in Jerusalem reveal that Peres undertook all three missions at Sharon’s behest.
The message he carried from the Jordanian king to the Israeli prime minister was this: Tell him there’s no need to rush into negotiations with Assad, or even initial talks. Assad’s intentions are serious but he is confused. Most of all he is desperate to throw off the weight of unrelenting US pressure on him. Let peace talks wait until the situation clears up.
Peres carried the message to Sharon’s office in Jerusalem and was promptly sent off to Ankara just after the visitor before him, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, had departed. According to debkafile‘s sources, his task was to probe the prospects of Turkey joining a possible Egyptian-Jordan initiative for an Islamic or Arab summit in late March to accept a role in support of the diplomatic process taking shape between the United States, Europe and the Sharon government. The Israeli Labor leader left the Turkish capital with the impression that, aside from the Egyptian and Jordanian rulers, no other Arab leader – certainly not the Saudi Crown Prince or Assad – had any intention of embracing a role in this project.
The Labor leader undertook the February 23 Washington trip when he met Sharon Thursday night, February 19. Three US officials, Stephen Hadley, William Burns and Elliot Abrams, had just been briefed by Sharon in Jerusalem on his evacuation proposals and were to report to President George W. Bush Saturday, February 21.
This was unquestionably his most important assignment. Sharon thereby placed on the shoulders of the opposition leader and long-time antagonist the task of setting up the prime minister’s next visit to the White House. Peres later admitted to reporters in Washington that he had lobbied on behalf of the Sharon initiative to withdraw from Gaza and part of the West Bank without reciprocal steps by Palestinian leaders.
According to debkafile‘s sources, Peres’s high-powered diplomatic round has laid bare the quiet shakeup going forward in Sharon’s top team, the possible precursor of a government reshuffle. One of the first heads to roll is expected to be that of Weisglass who, since late December, debkafile is reliably informed, has been gradually removed from the short circulation list of confidential data recipients, including the outcome of top-level missions which he formerly monopolized. He is to pay the price for failing to obtain a date for his master’s Washington visit and for the general cooling in US-Israel relations.
His departure would produce a major upheaval in the prime minister’s work and personal life given their long association and Weisglass’s key position as his single closest confidant.
However, our sources report that Sharon has begun interviewing replacements, including one candidate known to have recently carried out sensitive missions on his behalf.
Sharon finds his informal partnership with the opposition leader, without having to go through the hassle of co-opting the entire factionalized, squabbling Labor party to his cabinet, a great convenience. Despite their long rivalry, the two veterans managed to work together harmoniously in the dying days of the national unity government two years ago. Their renewed collaboration opens up options for the prime minister to pump new blood into his cabinet lineup if his back is pinned to the wall by right wing pro-settlement parties and the centrist Change which is determined to block Labor’s path into a national unity government.
Peres, however, to placate articulate peaceniks in his Labor, declared in Washington after he left the White House that in his view, Israel’s pullback will have to go further than Sharon’s proposals and be followed by deeper withdrawals. He thus laid the groundwork for a claim that he has Sharon’s ear and is acting to consummate Labor peace policies. The party therefore had no cause to object to joining a Sharon government.
debkafile‘s sources in Jerusalem have heard that Sharon has his eye on a second former Labor prime minister, Ehud Barak, whom he defeated at the polls. His presence alongside Peres would further strengthen Sharon’s inner government team.
The prime minister, whose popular credibility is in free fall, cannot afford to put off a leadership facelift. Monday, February 23, his government faced three no confidence Knesset motions. One, criticizing his unilateral evacuation plans, was voted down by a scant 46:45, bringing the government uncomfortably close to defeat, as a result of a revolt by members of government parties committed to fighting Israel’s withdrawal, who either defected or absented themselves from the House. The prime minister’s own Likud faction is half-turned against him over the issue, while opposition activists on the left are busy collecting blocks to build a corruption case against him and his sons.
The general public is asking whether the government acted wisely when it decided to refrain from appearing before the Hague international court hearing the case against Israel’s defense barrier this week. In the battle for public opinion outside the court, the Palestinians and their supporters are triumphantly advancing their cause for statehood, while Israeli families bereaved by Palestinian terrorists rally with photos of close to 1,000 victims. They make a strong moral case but are also grim, tragic and despairing. That is not the spectacle the Israeli voter looked for from Sharon who was elected on the high hopes of confounding Palestinian terror.

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