What’s Amiss with US-Israel Relations? Low Mark for Sharon

When in the past Israel was beset with extreme economic distress, its finance ministers were to be found in Washington, lobbying hard for help – even in the form of symbolic investment for boosting the country’s financial credibility and morale. Yet finance minister Sylvan Shalom has given up transatlantic travel, even though the Sharon government enjoys exceptionally cooperative relations with the Bush administration.
debkafile‘s Washington sources reveal a different facet of that relationship.
Two weeks ago, the Israeli prime minister’s chef to de bureau, Dov Weissglass, visited Washington with a surprising message. He urged the importance of including two Palestinian Authority officials, Mohamed Rashid and Mohamed Dahlan, both close to Yasser Arafat and high up in his terror machine, in the process of reforming the Palestinian administration. This request went down badly with leading US officials. When the Bush administration adopted Sharon’s demand for a thorough overhaul of the Palestinian administration to purge it of terrorists and corruption, it meant exactly that. No half-measures. Arafat’s men must be pushed out, and reformers brought in. Certainly they wanted no truck with Arafat’s personal financial adviser and former Gaza Strip terror chief.
Nonetheless, Weissglass insisted – and ran into a blank wall.
The Americans understand the game played by Israeli Labor ministers, Binyamin Bin Eliezer and Shimon Peres – a last-ditch attempt to rescue and re-empower Yasser Arafat’s regime. Behind them is a faction of wealthy businessmen, bankers and politicians with vested interests in preserving that regime who are now also backing Haifa Mayor Gen (ret.) Amram Mitzna in his race against Ben Eliezer for the Labor leadership.
This faction stigmatized Sharon to the point of casting him out into the political wilderness for over a decade. Even after most of the electorate voted him into office and rejected Oslo, the Israeli prime minister keeps a wary eye on its activities. A week after declaring that he would rather face an early election next January than reverse belt-tightening budget cutbacks, Sharon turned around; he sat down with Labor leader Ben Eliezer to discuss budget “adjustments” that will ensure Labor votes in November. Both agreed that a January election is not a good idea. Sharon even gave the nod to the defense minister’s “Gaza First” initiative for handing sole responsibility for security in Gaza to the Palestinian authority as a test. He did not demur when Ben Eliezer took his initiative further, adding the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Hebron to the experiment, in deference to the Palestinians’ bargaining skills. Brandishing another red flag in Washington’s face the Israeli defense minister agreed to negotiate with Dahlan, as well as the reformist interior minister Abdel Razzek Yahya.
At the same time there is no progress in another of Ben Eliezer’s projects to which Sharon has given the nod: a security fence supposed to protect Israel from West Bank Palestinian terrorist intrusions. This is not surprising. Cash is scarce because Washington is holding back.
In the early 1990s, George Bush Senior starved Israel of funds for as long as the hard line Yitzhak Shamir headed a Likud government, only releasing a promised $10 bn guarantee when the late Yitzhak Rabin succeeded as Labor prime minister. Rabin then gave a group of dovish businessmen heading the faction that is rearing its ahead again now a lead-role in providing the 1993 Oslo framework with financial substance. It was the first President Bush who forged the powerful linkage between Middle East politics and the Israeli business community. President Clinton deepened that link.
The second Bush continues the linkage, but in reverse. The Oslo faction will not be allowed to defeat his strategic plans for the Middle East or reverse his project for obliterating “evil’ regimes, whether Saddam Hussein’s in Baghdad or Yasser Arafat’s in Ramallah. So determined is the Bush White House on this score that even in the thick of preparations for a major assault on Baghdad, Washington finds time to promote reforms designed to break up Arafat’s stranglehold and at the same time burn the ground from under the feet of his Israeli financial partners.
To this end, the US government is slowly switching off the flow of supplementary dollars to Israel and will continue to do so until it is convinced that Ariel Sharon has stopped flirting with the Oslo faction and that candidates for prime minister of Mitzna’s ilk disappear.

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