Sharon’s handicap – his failure to stem terror

The Palestinian ambush in Hebron that cost the lives of 12 Israelis, most from the security forces – including two senior officers, IDF Col. Dror Weinberg and Border Police Superintendent Samih Suwidan – is bound to have political fallout, occurring as it does two months and one week before Israel’s general election. It will intensify the pressure on prime minister Ariel Sharon to remove Yasser Arafat, as the source of the evil. Interestingly, among the international condemnations of the Palestinian attack, nothing had come from the White House by Saturday night. Sharon, his hand no longer held by his unity cabinet partners, is still constrained by Washington’s opposition to Arafat’s deportation.
The corrosive effect of these cross-currents on Sharon’s standing versus the electorate is not lost on the Palestinians. They can be expected therefore to accompany the election campaign with more deadly military-cum-terror attacks so as to maximize Israeli casualties and influence the poll’s outcome on January 28.
By orchestrating the Hebron attack, Arafat achieved three goals:
1. Sharon was shown up to the Americans and Israelis as a failure in the war on terror. The Palestinians demonstrated their ability to strike at will at such highly sensitive spots as Hebron, where a small Jewish community lives amid and alongside an Arab population of 130,000 and where Jews and Muslims share the Cave of the Patriarchs. Jerusalem may well be next.
2. The general convention among political pundits and the Israeli media that Sharon is unbeatable in his run for a second term as prime minister is unbeatable will have been shaken.
3. The predominantly centrist Israeli electorate will be swung round to the ultra-right by its sense of outrage. Arafat’s spin strategy is simple: An Israeli government dominated by extreme hawks helps him foster the Palestinians’ international image as victims, providing grist for his international campaign as leader of an oppressed people.
He also gained ground in the inter-Arab arena:
A. He proved to the Arab rulers – and the rivals in his camp – who want him out, that behind his enfeebled appearance and wild, incoherent speech, he is in full command of the political center stage and several steps ahead of them all.
B. As Palestinian terrorist leader, he has been determined never let Osama bin Laden outshine him from the earliest days of his Al Aqsa Intifada. As inventor of the suicide method of terror and its developer to epic proportions, Arafat is anxious to prove to the Muslim masses that the Palestinians are the first true Islamic martyrs and jihadists; al Qaeda rates only second place.
The Hebron massacre confronts all of Israel’s leading politicians with cruel dilemmas.
Ariel Sharon: His decision to chain his political fortunes to the Bush policy chariot at all costs has cost him the ability to defeat Palestinian terrorism. He has maneuvered himself into the same no-exit alley as the Hebron forces who were trapped in Palestinian cross-fire on Worshippers Lane Friday night. Less than two years after promising the Israeli voter security, he faces the electorate a second time having let the Palestinians escalate their confrontation into a dragging war of attrition. The victim of this kind of war typically sustains heavy casualties, as well as political, military and economic paralysis, while the aggressor retains the initiative and the element of surprise.
Both Sharon and Bush underestimated Arafat and his skills for turning to great advantage the static situation to which he was condemned as an isolated, besieged and “irrelevant” figure. In Hebron, he turned the tables on his adversaries and he means to continue to build up the military and personal heat on the Israeli prime minister.
Binyamin Netanyahu: His re-appearance in Israeli politics four years after he was voted out as prime minister does not support his promise that the “new Bibi”, who has learned from his mistakes, will contest Sharon for the top Likud post on November 28. The Hebron episode will remind the voter that Netanyahu as prime minister signed the 1998 Wye River Memorandum that facilitated the Hebron Redeployment Agreement. Sharon then foreign minister stood beside him. The military criticized the agreement at the time as impracticable and a recipe for future trouble between the two communities. Netanyahu then, like Sharon today, explained that he perceived the concession’s shortcomings, but could not stand up to pressure from the White House then occupied by Bill Clinton.
In his current challenge to Sharon, Netanyahu’s slogan is the call for Arafat’s deportation. As chief of staff, defense minister Shaul Mofaz urged this course in the past, and it will be taken up by more ministers at Sunday’s cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
Binyamin Ben Eliezer: The incumbent Labor leader is not expected to survive the leadership contest next Tuesday, November 19. The series of blunders he committed in the last six months will come home to roost. The Hebron calamity will remind party voters that Ben Eliezer, as defense minister in the Sharon government, enforced a pacification policy in Hebron, Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip. In all three places, attempts to hand authority over to Palestinians and ease restrictions resulted in an upsurge of terrorist violence against Israelis. In Hebron, Israeli paratroops are now retaking the positions he ordered them evacuate three weeks ago.
As a politician, he demonstrated the unforgivable shortcoming of bad timing. He quit the Sharon government before correcting his mistakes, divesting himself of the very tools and clout he needs to repair his record in time to fight for re-election as head of the Labor list.
Amram Mitzna, Mayor of Haifa and former general, is therefore expected to easily beat him to the draw and become the next Labor leader. Until now, Mitzna has pushed a peace agenda hard, calling for negotiations with the present Palestinian leaders “as if there were no terror”. Before the Hebron attack, he looked like leading a move to merge Labor with Meretz and consolidate the left wing camp in time for the general election. Now, he may be advised to modify this line.
Shaul Mofaz; A complete tyro in national politics, he will face the voter alongside Sharon in January. His military past, unstained record and climb from an underprivileged background make him an electoral asset for Likud.
However, although Sharon is almost certain to win the race hands down – his centrist policies have drawn many uncommitted groups to Likud – he may find his support eroding if he continues to fight Yasser Arafat’s terrorist offensive with one hand instead of two. The second chance granted him in nine weeks time may not carry him full term. Military shocks tend to accelerate overdue political shakeups and the next one could leave Sharon behind.
debkafile political analysts discern five potential political blocs building under the surface in the post-Sharon future: A large right-of-center grouping headed by Mofaz; a right-wing, nationalist alliance under Netanyahu; a left-wing bloc headed by Mitzna, a Jewish religious list and a Muslim-Arab bloc.

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