WASHINGTON — Fresh off the rapid dismantling of 25 Jewish settlements, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon appears to be picking up political and diplomatic steam on several fronts.
Israeli diplomats and Jewish activists in Washington say that Sharon’s government has been assured by the White House that the Bush administration will not pressure Jerusalem into additional territorial concessions in the West Bank until the Palestinian Authority disarms Palestinian terrorist groups.
“The Americans see eye to eye with us that this ought to be the next step,” Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Daniel Ayalon, told the Forward, adding that without a crackdown on Palestinian militants, “under no circumstances will there be any further [Israeli] measures” such as evacuation of more settlements in the West Bank.
Just last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The New York Times that America expects Israel to carry out additional withdrawals from the West Bank. “It cannot be Gaza only,” she reportedly said. On Tuesday morning, however, President Bush praised Sharon during a briefing with reporters and placed the onus for progress on the P.A.
“Of course you want to get back to the road map,” Bush said, referring to the American-backed international peace plan that calls for the creation of a Palestinian state. “But I understand that in order for this process to go forward, there must be confidence — confidence that the Palestinian people will have in their own government to perform, confidence with the Israelis that they’ll see a peaceful state emerging.”
Sharon also appeared to be reaping political gains domestically from the easier-than-expected dismantling of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four more in the northern West Bank. A new poll of Likud members, released Monday by Israel’s Channel 10, showed Sharon with a 36% to 28% lead over his main party rival and former finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The new figures come only two weeks after an earlier poll by Ha’aretz found Netanyahu with a commanding lead just days before the pullout was set to begin. The earlier poll was taken immediately after Netanyahu resigned from the finance post on August 7, delivering a blistering speech attacking Sharon’s disengagement plan.
Netanyahu is just one of several Israeli political leaders who have ripped into Sharon. On Monday, Uzi Landau, another potential challenger to Sharon’s Likud leadership, berated Sharon to his face, saying, “You are a swindler, a liar and corrupt.” Effi Eitam, a leader of a religious nationalist faction who quit Sharon’s government over the disengagement plan, threatened Sharon with “political revenge through the history books and our education system” and said we “will leave you to pet the lambs on the ranch.”
But while Israeli rightists were condemning Sharon, the Israeli premier drew strong praise from Bush. The president praised Sharon on Monday for his “bold leadership.”
The words from Bush came after American Jewish organizations and Israeli diplomats raised concerns over Rice’s remarks in The New York Times last week. Bush administration officials offered reassurances that the White House does not expect another significant Israeli concession to the Palestinians before the Palestinian Authority takes action against the terrorists, the Forward has learned.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, published Monday, Sharon said that Rice was “expressing the hope, which we share, that after the implementation of the disengagement plan, the momentum will continue and conditions for progress according to the road map will be created.” Sharon told the paper that Rice made it unequivocally clear that the next step must be for the P.A. to stop terrorism and dismantle the terrorist organizations, especially Hamas. On that, he said, “I have no intention of conceding on them one iota.”
On Tuesday, in signs of a potential diplomatic impasse, Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders told reporters in Damascus that they had reached a deal with P.A. Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei that will allow the two terrorist organizations to keep their weapons. Qurei did not confirm the reports, but told reporters following his meetings with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders: “There will be no calm until the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.”
Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, told the Forward that even as his government demands that the P.A. confront terrorism, Israel will fulfill its commitment to ease the movement of Palestinian people and goods in and between the Palestinian territories.
“The Americans are still demanding that we remove roadblocks” in the West Bank, Ayalon said, “and we will.”
The Bush administration is being criticized by some observers for not outlining more concrete steps for Israel and the Palestinians to build on the momentum generated by the Gaza pullout.
“The pathway has not been spelled out,” said Scott Lasensky, an expert on America’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the United States Institute of Peace, a Washington-based federallly-funded think tank. “There is no articulated policy and there is no constant American political force there, on the ground — no envoy — to connect the Israeli disengagement with a renewed political process.”
Lasensky and other observers are warning that without such American guidance, two familiar forces may hinder a future Israeli-Palestinian political process: violence and elections.
Palestinian and Israeli militants may try to use violence to sabotage any additional peace moves, observers said.
As for elections, the Palestinian parliamentary vote is scheduled for January 2006. On the Israeli side there is strong speculation that Sharon’s unity government will dissolve before the end of the year, due to the expected withdrawal of the Labor Party. If Labor resigns in October, after the Gaza pullout is complete — as many observers predict — general elections in Israel may be set for early next year.
“In any case, you will have both sides going through a phase of obsession with internal politics,” making additional bold steps unlikely, Lasensky said.
“These dynamics are not new: Both sides will go into a hibernation of sorts, where the leadership will be focused on the domestic scene rather than on foreign policy,” Lasensky said, “and the question is whether the U.S. would be able, despite that, to find a bridge to a political process.”
Some experts have said that the Bush administration could and should flesh out the first phase of the road map by forming a detailed sequence of small reciprocal steps that both sides will take in the short run, during their respective election seasons. “Modest steps within the first phase of the road map could maintain the momentum and make sure that expectations are not completely disjointed from reality,” said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. These steps, he said, should focus on gradual Palestinian actions to rein in the terrorist organizations, short of an all-out confrontation to dismantle groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
Israel could reciprocate by steps such as imposing a moratorium on the expansion of settlements that are outside the West Bank security fence, Makovsky said. That can be done even if Israel continues building in the so-called “settlement blocs,” adjacent to Jewish population centers inside Israel. Sharon told The Jerusalem Post this week that he intends to continue construction in such areas. “I will build,” he said, specifically mentioning the two largest settlements in the West Bank, Ma’ale Adumim near Jerusalem and Ariel, east of Tel Aviv.
In conversations with policymakers in Washington, Israeli diplomats and Jewish activists have argued recently that the chief incentive for the P.A. to fight terrorism should not be reciprocal Israeli concessions but rather an infusion of international financial assistance to the Palestinians.
While Israel and some Jewish groups are urging the Americans and the international community to deliver development funds to the Palestinians, Israel’s own request for American aid to develop its periphery in the Negev and the Galilee may encounter resistance in Congress.
Israel has not yet officially submitted its request to the White House, and in turn the administration has not submitted a request to Congress. But Israeli officials have publicly indicated that they intend to ask for as much as $2.2 billion in American aid. Several pro-Israeli members of Congress privately suggested to Israel that the aid should be requested in the form of loan guarantees rather than a cash grant, arguing that an additional $2 billion cash grant to America’s largest recipient of foreign aid would be tough to sell on Capitol Hill as lawmakers start the painful process of budget reconciliation that certainly will involve unpopular cuts to domestic programs.
Still, the Forward has learned, in an off-the-record briefing on the Hill, a senior lobbyist with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee recently told congressional staffers that Israel does intend to ask for a cash grant.
Speaking of such an aid request, one congressional staffer told the Forward, “This will not be easy.”