As Israel Pulls Out Its Troops, Optimists Hold Their Breath

By Chemi Shalev

Published July 04, 2003, issue of July 04, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — Hardened by the recent experience of broken promises and broken dreams, Israelis are watching the emerging cease-fire announced this week with a mixture of skepticism and hope, praying that it turns out to be more than just a temporary lull, as most suspect, in the three-year-old Palestinian intifada.

Israeli decision makers are nearly unanimous in their pessimism, predicting that the Palestinian Authority will fail to confront the terrorists. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, himself warned Prime Minister Sharon this week that Iran was planning to instigate new terrorist attacks, in the hopes of provoking an Israeli reaction and bringing the progress to a halt. Israeli officials admit they would be hard-pressed to avoid responding forcefully in the event of a major attack.

Still, for most Israelis the sight of uniformed Palestinian policemen taking over parts of Gaza and Bethlehem from withdrawing Israeli troops provided an unaccustomed glimmer of optimism. The sense of progress was reinforced by the incongruous images from Jerusalem this week, as Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart smilingly shook hands in front of the prime minister’s office while their respective ministers joked and mingled on the sidelines.

Even optimists were holding their breath. Both supporters and detractors saw the process as “Oslo Redux,” with all the trappings of the discredited peace accord: joint Israeli-Palestinian military patrols, security liaison committees and political dialogue groups to resolve differences on such familiar themes as security, commerce, incitement and prisoner release.

An overwhelming sense of déjà-vu permeated public discussion. On the right, Sharon’s critics accused him of repeating the same tragic mistake. On the center and left, supporters urged him to get it right this time.

Anticipating sharp criticism on the pro-settler right, and the certain outcry from families of terrorism victims, Sharon nonetheless planned to bolster Abu Mazen’s internal position with several important gestures in the coming days. Most controversial was the planned release of scores of security prisoners. Sharon also told Abu Mazen that he would be willing to speed up the transfer of additional West Bank cities to Palestinian control — on condition that Palestinian security forces under Mohammed Dahlan prove their resolve by confronting Hamas head-on and by beginning to dismantle the terrorists’ infrastructure in the territories.

In the days ahead, Israeli officials say, they will be watching closely to see if open conflict emerges between the Palestinian security apparatus and the opposition terrorist groups. Israel views such conflict as the litmus test of the entire “road map” process. Israeli negotiators failed to win an advance Palestinian commitment to disarm Hamas before handing over Gaza and Bethlehem, but they claim Washington supports their position on the matter. “Nothing less than a civil war will do,” said Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, an opponent of the road map.

Privately, Israeli officials admit that if Hamas remains intact, but there is no new outbreak of violence, Jerusalem will be hard-pressed to revoke the cease-fire and renew military activities. At least one respected Israeli security figure — outgoing National Security Adviser Ephraim Halevy, a former Mossad chief — said this week that Israel must “give a chance” to the internal Egyptian-brokered hudna, or cease-fire, agreement between Hamas and the P.A. before deciding to do away with the cease-fire altogether.

A senior Israeli official told The Forward this week that Israel will have to exercise “utmost discretion” in deciding how to respond to individual acts of violence by renegade Palestinian militants, which are seen as almost certain. But Sharon is likely to think twice and three times before pulling the plug, the official said, not only because of American pressure but also out of domestic Israeli political and economic concerns. The public, the official said, is worn out after 33 months of violence, now dubbed the Thousand Day War in the Israeli media. The recent signs of modest economic recovery would probably be erased at once if the cease-fire broke down, the official said.

Indeed, the latest polls showed that an overwhelming majority of the public — from the left to the moderate right — wholeheartedly supports the cease-fire efforts despite doubts over its chances.

In a poll published on Friday in the daily Ma’ariv, no less than 73% of the public expressed support for the cease-fire, but only 38% said they believe it will succeed.

Perhaps for that very reason, as a sort of fallback position, the same poll also showed a majority — 68% — continuing to support completion of the so-called separation fence between Israel and the West Bank, despite American objections that resurfaced this week. The public was evenly divided over where the fence should run: along the Green Line or deep inside the West Bank.

The fence, and American objections to it, has emerged in recent weeks as a disturbing fly in the otherwise smooth ointment of American-Israeli understanding. Lower-level U.S. diplomats have expressed misgivings about the fence for months, but the issue was recently raised at the very highest levels, both by President Bush, at the June 4 Aqaba summit, and by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice during her visit here this week. Israeli officials, fearing the differences could escalate into an open confrontation with the administration, have asked American Jewish communal leaders to raise the matter in upcoming meetings with Rice and other officials.

The heating up of the simmering American-Israeli disagreement over the fence is mainly due to the new Israeli plan for the fence’s route, which “deviates substantially” from Israel’s pre-1967 border, as the American ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer, said this week. As currently planned, the fence would encompass several large Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including the city of Ariel, and would largely cut the Palestinian areas off from the Jordan River to the east. Officials in Washington suspect that under the guise of “security concerns” Israel plans to create facts on the ground that would mean de facto annexation of large chunks of the West Bank. As Israel’s plans take shape, Washington is increasingly attentive to Abu Mazen’s repeated complaints against the fence and is relaying them to Israel with growing force.

Although Sharon has publicly rebuffed both Bush and Rice’s objections to the fence, officials here now expect an Israeli reassessment of its planned delineation, leading to further likely delays in the already protracted construction process. Still, officials say the ultimate resolution of the issue probably depends on the cease-fire process. A lengthy period of calm would quell public clamor for the fence to be finished, while renewed terrorism would likely stifle American opposition.

Meanwhile, the very possibility that a new demarcation of the fence might cut off major Jewish settlements from Israel was enough to send settler leaders scrambling to demand that Sharon stand up to American pressure. Relations between Sharon and the settler lobby have deteriorated in recent months, and the prime minister is seen as unlikely to be swayed by their arguments. After seemingly basking in a national anti-Palestinian consensus for 33 months, the settlers and their allies have recently found themselves isolated in Israeli public opinion, much as they were in the euphoric days of the Oslo process in the mid-1990s.

Many settler leaders are trying to keep their followers in check and rein in the growing opposition to Sharon. Some claim hopefully that the prime minister is simply playing a tactical game to score points on the world stage and build American support for an eventual onslaught against the P.A.. But others have begun to suspect that Sharon genuinely intends to make the “painful concessions” he repeatedly promises. One legendary hardliner, Meir Har-Tzion, Sharon’s comrade-in-arms from the 1950s-era Commando Unit 101, told an interviewer this week that Sharon was making “a tragic mistake that will lead to the destruction of the State of Israel.”

With that kind of sentiment gaining ground among radical settlers, the Shin Bet General Security Services recently warned Sharon of an “enhanced danger” of an assassination attempt on his life. In what may be the ultimate blast from the past, Sharon is now being cast as a latter-day Yitzhak Rabin, not only for his groundbreaking deeds but also because of the potential catastrophe, both personal and national, that may be lurking in the wings.

Visit the Forward online at forward.com to read an article on the fence by Wasington bureau chief Ori Nir.






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