What New Israeli Labor Leader, Defense Minister Ben Eliezer, Will Hear in Washington

The Israeli Labor Party’s newly elected chairman, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, defense minister in Ariel Sharon’s national unity lineup, has been invited to Washington on February 6. He can expect to be received by President George W. Bush and conduct working sessions with defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior administration members.
While there, debkafile‘s Washington sources report, Ben Eliezer may find he has traveled a long way to confront the dilemmas he ducked at home in the euphoria of victory. Since his election last week, the defense minister has loosed a stream of contradictory statements to the media, announcing this and that minister and this and that party functionary will be fired or retained. He has also been busy fielding demands from the dovish wing of his party to quit the Sharon government, which he was invited to join for his hawkish views. They want him to take time out to frame an urgently needed new party agenda.
Labor’s constituents have vanished in droves since the 1993 Oslo peace accords its leaders negotiated were swept away by the current Palestinian uprising. The party needs to reinvent itself urgently if it wants to survive.
But giving up the defense ministry is the last thing Ben Eliezer wants to do. Even in the government, he must somehow co-exist with the back-to-Oslo initiatives of his fellow Laborite, senior statesman and foreign minister Shimon Peres, and his frequent plunges into dialogue with Palestinian leaders, in violation of the Sharon government’s edicts. Because he wants to stay in with Sharon without antagonizing Peres, Ben Eliezer is constantly on the hop around conflicting pressures.
To win the foreign minister’s support for his candidacy, Ben Eliezer backed up his current round of talks with Palestinian legislature Speaker Ahmed Qureia, known as AbuAla, despite Sharon’s disapproval. Peres wants the defense minister to affirm that Palestinian violence has diminished sufficiently to return to diplomatic negotiations and release Arafat from his virtual house arrest in Ramallah. The Palestinians are clamoring for US envoy Anthony Zinni to pick up his interrupted mission to the region and Peres is echoing this demand.
In Washington, however, the defense minister will be pulled up very short by a different set of pressures.
The war America has declared on terrorism is inching closer and closer to the Middle East. The Bush administration is counting on Ariel Sharon for a firm hand at Israel’s helm. The new Labor leader will be strongly advised not to rock the government boat in Jerusalem, whatever this or that Labor faction may want. Instead he will be expected to render the national unity government every possible support.
According to IDF statistics released Sunday night, the rate of Palestinian terrorist attacks has fallen by almost half – from 300 in the first half of November, to 170 in the first half of December. For Sharon that is not good enough. Shortly before the figure was released, three Palestinians were killed while attempting to force their way into the Israeli settlement of Elei Sinai in the Gaza Strip. Since Arafat’s speech on December 16 ordering a halt to terrorist violence inside Israel, especially suicide strikes, Israeli security and military forces have thwarted 16 Palestinian terror attacks, of which 8 were attempted suicide strikes. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, say Israeli intelligence sources, do not deserve to be credited with Israel’s successful preventive operations. The Hamas is as free as it ever was to carry out terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while the Jihad Islami recognizes no restraints whatever.
The Israeli defense minister will find that Washington accepts the Sharon – not the Peres – reading. Unlike European leaders, the key members of the Bush team have little patience with the foreign minister’s dance around Palestinian leaders. AbuAla is regarded as a spent force both in and outside the Palestinian leadership and his meetings with Peres deemed essentially aimless.
Zinni will be sent back to the region when its suits the Bush administration. He will certainly not be assigned with promoting US relations with Arafat, who has lost all standing in Washington – particularly when he is snubbed even by his closest ally, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who refuses to see him.
Zinni’s first mission to the region was less to do with the Israel-Palestinian conflict and more about preparations for the coming US military moves in the Middle East. If he returns, it will be to carry on where he left off before.
The Israeli defense minister ought therefore to return home wiser, calmer, less liable to zigzag round conflicting pressures and more inclined to focus on the daunting tasks ahead of Israel and its government. The most realistic way for him to build up his power base and national reputation will be to sit still, keep his nose to the grindstone and bide his time.

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