Wary of Right, Sharon Punts On His Plans

By Ofer Shelah

Published January 16, 2004, issue of January 16, 2004.
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TEL AVIV — Under opposition pressure to spell out his still-murky “unilateral” plans on the Palestinian front, Prime Minister Sharon appeared before the Knesset last Monday and did just the opposite. Gone were the phrases that had caused such a stir last month, such as “dismantling outposts” and “unilateral withdrawal.” Instead, he spoke vaguely of unspecified “unilateral steps,” which he now promised not to implement without Knesset approval. With his right flank mollified that nothing was about to happen, Sharon won an easy 51-to-39 vote approving his statement.

This was not a week for Sharon to take political risks. On Sunday night an estimated 100,000 settlers and right-wingers had turned out in Tel Aviv for a mass rally against the prime minister’s proposals, with several of his own Cabinet ministers and Likud allies seated pointedly on the podium.

His week got even more complicated Monday evening, when a private investigator went on television with tapes of conversations that appeared to contradict Sharon’s version of his role in a series of campaign-finance scandals. Sharon has declared under oath that he paid little attention to the complex financial arrangements made by his sons and aides, particularly in his 1999 Likud leadership bid. But the tapes produced by his onetime private security consultant, David Spector, seemed to show Sharon personally involved in the smallest details of money transfers. “Arik was the person who dealt with all of this, every little detail, working through other people,” Spector told Channel 2 interviewer Nissim Mishal. If proven, the allegations could expose Sharon to charges of perjury and force his resignation.

Not surprisingly, given his political and legal pressures, Sharon is treading with extreme caution on the diplomatic front. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the unfolding drama with Syria, whose president, Bashar al-Assad, was reported this week to have accepted a key Sharon condition for renewing peace talks between the two nations, namely that negotiations begin “from scratch” and not from the point where they broke off in 2000. Assad’s acceptance of his condition for talks, reported from Damascus by a visiting U.S. senator, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, appeared to catch the prime minister off guard. Sharon has been dismissive of Assad’s December 1 diplomatic initiative and is known to be skeptical of territorial withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a Syrian requirement for any agreement.

Israelis are divided over the Assad gambit. Much of the military establishment appears to regard it as a serious initiative from which Israel could benefit strategically. The chief of military intelligence, Major General Aharon Farkash-Ze’evi, testifying in the Knesset this week, repeated his earlier assessment that Assad means business. He added that the Syrian leader had begun speaking publicly about normalization of ties with Israel and had ordered Palestinian terrorist groups operating from Damascus to lower their profiles. Ze’evi said the Syrian initiative had created a “breach” in Syria’s alliances with Iran and Hezbollah, and he recommended that the nation’s leadership use the opportunity to weaken the Lebanon-based terrorist group. Despite opposition prodding, however, he declined to say whether that meant the government should accept Assad’s offer to talk.

Further embarrassing Sharon, Israel’s figurehead president, Moshe Katsav, openly called on Assad to come to Jerusalem for talks, recalling the historic visit in 1977 by the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Katsav’s invitation was promptly turned down by Assad — not in person but by a minister — but Katsav, undaunted, issued it again. The analogy between Assad and Sadat was at best imperfect, since Sadat, it is now known, had already reached a secret agreement with then-Israeli leader Menachem Begin before his plane left Cairo. This time there is no agreement and little interest in reaching one. But insiders said Katsav was aiming less to woo the Syrian leader to Jerusalem than to avoid the appearance that Israel was turning a deaf ear to an Arab leader offering negotiations. The invitation was widely described as a clever way of pretending to say “yes” while meaning “no.”

Sharon, for his part, did not even pretend to be interested. In a Cabinet meeting in which the subject was brought up, he responded with surprising emotion, reminding his ministers that in 1973, “Syrian soldiers were given medals for torturing Israeli soldiers.” The fact that Washington has shown no enthusiasm for the Syrian offer — which is considered a naked effort to deflect U.S. pressure on Damascus to crack down on terrorism — only has strengthened the feeling in the Israeli public that there is, in fact, little chance of a breakthrough. Israelis living in the Golan Heights, unlike the West Bank settlers, didn’t even bother to protest.

Not that the settlers are protesting very hard. Their Tel Aviv rally on January 11 was notable for its lack of attacks on Sharon. No one accused him of treason, as they had accused Yitzhak Rabin a decade ago. Most speakers simply pleaded with Sharon to “be himself again.” None threatened to withdraw their support from his government, because none of his political allies have any intention of doing so. The Labor Party would happily replace them should they bolt over moves toward the Palestinians. The only real threat to Sharon now comes from the police investigators.

Amid the maneuvering, one of the most promising diplomatic initiatives of recent days disappeared this week virtually unnoticed: the abortive new diplomatic channel to Libya. Following the news last week that Libya had agreed to end its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, after months of secret talks with America and Britain, word was leaked to the press here of secret Israeli-Libyan talks aimed at diplomatic relations. The high-level talks were said to have involved Foreign Ministry officials and Knesset members on the Israeli side and the son of Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi on the Libyan side. But the leaking of the talks infuriated Libya, which announced it was ending the contacts. That prompted an angry Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to demand a Shin Bet investigation into the source of the leak — widely rumored to be none other than the Prime Minister’s Office.

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