JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Sharon was scrambling this week to head off a civil war within his Likud party after his embrace of the American-sponsored “road map” to Middle East peace left supporters accusing him of giving in to pressure and endangering Israel’s future.
Sharon astounded the Israeli political community by securing Cabinet approval for the controversial peace plan, the first time any Israeli government had formally endorsed Palestinian statehood. The Cabinet vote, and Sharon’s embrace of the traditional slogan of Israeli doves calling for an “end to the occupation,” was greeted with cheers from Israel’s center and left and was hailed in Arab and European capitals as a historic act.
Reactions from within Sharon’s own right-wing camp, however, were explosive. Settler leaders called the Cabinet vote an act of “national treason” and vowed to take to the streets to fight it. Knesset members from Sharon’s own Likud party were hardly less hostile, showering the prime minister with angry rhetoric when he met with them the day after the vote. Likud lawmakers called the plan “an outrage” and “the road to hell” and vowed to fight it at an upcoming Likud convention, scheduled to convene on June 8, less than two weeks away.
Sharon himself made no attempt to hide the fact that he had endorsed the plan under pressure from Washington, insisting it was “not a happy decision” and emphasizing the dire consequences if he had turned down the American plan.
Nonetheless, Sharon went well beyond the imperatives of diplomatic realpolitik in his defense of the decision. In his appearance before the Likud Knesset caucus, he made no fewer than seven references to Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza and insisted Israel must end its control of more than 3.5 million Palestinians. The term “occupation” has been anathema on the Israeli right, which sees Israel’s presence in the territories as legitimate. Indeed, Sharon was reprimanded the next day by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who noted in a letter that Israel considers the territories “disputed.” Sharon issued a laconic reply through a spokesman acknowledging Rubinstein’s rebuke but expressing no remorse. Meanwhile, reports from the Foreign Ministry suggested that new guidelines were being prepared for Israel’s diplomatic corps, authorizing them to use the term “occupation” for the first time in decades.
Sharon’s longtime allies on the right were left confused and divided by the prime minister’s seeming reversal. Sharon secured his 12-7 Cabinet victory in favor of the road map by winning over the five ministers of Shinui and seven of the 14 ministers from his own Likud. He convinced four Likud hawks, including Benjamin Netanyahu and Limor Livnat, to abstain by attaching a list of 14 stringent riders to the government’s acceptance of the road map.
Tellingly, Sharon’s right-wing coalition partners, led by the National Union and National Religious Party, made no moves to quit the government, claiming that they would oppose a Palestinian state “from within.” However, widespread protests among rank-and-file supporters of the two parties may yet dislodge them from the coalition. That could pave the way for a reconstitution of the outgoing national unity government with Labor.
Public opinion, on the other hand, seemed to swing behind Sharon. A poll published in the daily Yediot Aharonot immediately after the Cabinet vote showed 56% supporting Sharon’s move and 34% opposed. Financial and economic circles were no less than ecstatic about the prospect of an early breakthrough in the peace process, with both the shekel and the stock market soaring in a burst of euphoria.
The long-absent public mood of optimism may swell even further next week, with the expected convening of two Middle East “peace summits” to be chaired by President Bush. In meetings reminiscent of former president Bill Clinton’s high-stakes public diplomacy during the 1990s, Bush planned to meet first with Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen, apparently in Aqaba, Jordan. He was expected to proceed from there to a gathering of pro-American and pro-peace Arab leaders in Sharm al-Sheikh, with the heads of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in attendance.
Bush’s decision to “jump into the cold water” of Middle East peacemaking, as Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar described it, took Israeli officials and analysts by complete surprise. Only days earlier, during a visit to the region, Secretary of State Colin Powell had told Sharon publicly that “getting started” on practical steps on the ground was more important that formal approval of the document as a whole. Within two days, Washington had reversed itself and was demanding formal Israeli endorsement. Scrambling to provide an adequate explanation for the administration’s about-face, Foreign Ministry officials opined that American difficulties in controlling Iraq, as well as the outburst of Al Qaeda terrorism in Casablanca and Riyadh, had made Washington fearful of an outburst of violence throughout the Middle East. After visiting Jerusalem and Ramallah and downplaying the importance of the road map, Powell subsequently traveled to Cairo and Riyadh, where he heard that Israeli acceptance of the road map was absolutely crucial to quelling post-Iraq resentment of the United States. The various factors converged, the officials say, to bring about a potentially seismic shift in American foreign policy, at least for the time being.
Well-placed sources told the Forward that Sharon had in fact promised Bush several months ago that he would bring the road map up for Cabinet approval if and when the president asked. Israeli negotiators, including Sharon’s bureau chief Dov Weisglass and army planning officer Brigadier General Eyval Giladi, subsequently held semi-clandestine talks with administration officials in Washington, reaching a series of mutual and still-secret understandings on the parameters of Israeli acceptance of the road map. When the president finally urged Sharon to bring the road map to a vote, Sharon, who has pinned his entire foreign policy on maintaining close ties with Bush, felt he had no other choice but to “bite the bullet.”
In approving the road map, Sharon brought the Israeli Cabinet to a historic acceptance of a Palestinian state, a move that even left-wing governments in the past had not dared to make. He also agreed, at least on paper, to a removal of all Jewish outposts created in the occupied territories since March 2001 and to a freeze, at least theoretically, on any new construction in well-established settlements.
Nevertheless, despite his resolute deeds and unequivocal words, Sharon left lingering doubts about whether he had indeed crossed the Rubicon and turned into a born-again peacenik or, as many critics on the left continue to suspect, this was yet another tactical ploy to buy time. As former Meretz leader Yossi Sarid said, “With all due respect to Sharon’s words, I will reserve judgment until I see his deeds.”
In particular, skeptics pointed to the 14 Israeli “reservations” about the road map, formally attached to the document in the Cabinet decision, which critics claim negate any realistic chance of movement. For example, Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians renounce their “claim of return” as a precondition to talks — rather than an outcome — is considered to be a nonstarter that is likely to scuttle any chance for progress.
Some Sharon analysts are describing his current moves as a “holding pattern,” until America’s presidential campaign starts in earnest. Conventional wisdom here holds that campaign politics will prevent any meaningful White House pressure on Sharon, leaving the prime minister home free.
Most Israelis remain skeptical of the Palestinians’ ability to live up to the security commitments contained in the road map, including the dismantling of terrorist groups and infrastructure. Israel eased one important source of pressure on the Palestinian Authority this week by indicating that it would contemplate a hudna, or cease-fire, between the P.A. and the militant Islamic groups, but only as a stopgap first step before the authority launches an aggressive military campaign against the terrorists. Such a move is thought to be unlikely, as long as Yasser Arafat continues to hold sway over Palestinian affairs, and Arafat amply proved this week that he is still in control by forcing Abu Mazen to postpone his meeting with Sharon pending “consultations” within the authority.
Indeed, Israel’s General Security Services, the Shin Bet, warned decision-makers this week that the apparent progress in the peace process will only spur such groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to attempt large-scale terrorist attacks in order to scuttle the fledgling diplomatic moves. Such an attack, analysts believe, will probably once again darken the public mood and could reverse Sharon’s newfound dovishness.
Nonetheless, even if the current optimism soon dissipates in a new round of violence, from a psychological point of view there may be no turning back from this week’s political turning point. After an ideological hawk such as Sharon stamped “kosher” on the concepts of “ending the occupation” and creating a Palestinian state, the differences between left and right are likely to dissipate, and a new public consensus to emerge. Tactically there may still be ups and downs, but strategically, the deed is done.