TEL AVIV — Fresh from his triumphant summit meeting with Arab leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh, Prime Minister Sharon promptly ran into new political trouble this week when one of his top aides formed a tactical alliance with his right-wing opponents, threatening to undermine the prime minister’s do-or-die Gaza disengagement plan.
The February 8 summit, Sharon’s first trip outside Israel in a year and his first visit to Egypt in 23 years, brought the prime minister together with the newly elected leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, for a joint declaration of an end to violence and a resumption of diplomacy.
Sharon also met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the summit’s host, and King Abdullah II of Jordan, both of whom promised to return their ambassadors to Israel after a four-year break.
Around the world, attention was focused on the poignant symbolism of the renewed peace process, and on an immediate challenge from Palestinian hard-liners. Hamas declared shortly after the summit ended, in a statement from its Lebanese representative, Osama Hamdan, that Abbas’s swearing off of all violence against Israelis was “not binding on the resistance,” which was waiting for further Israeli concessions.
Sharon had agreed to a string of concessions in return for the cessation of terrorism, among them the release of some 900 Palestinian prisoners, a handover of five West Bank cities, the removal of roadblocks and an end to all military operations against Palestinians, including arrests and assassinations. Hamas said the concessions were not sufficient. Within Israel, however, attention was riveted on the new challenges to Sharon that emerged while he was in Egypt. Sharon’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom – who had not been invited to the summit, unlike his Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts — announced during a television appearance that he was launching a “movement” to force a national referendum on Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan.
The disengagement plan is the centerpiece of the new diplomatic momentum in the region, and Sharon repeatedly has rejected putting it to a referendum, arguing that it would delay implementation.
Shalom, a major power broker in Sharon’s ruling Likud party, told his television interviewer that he was not opposing the disengagement plan as such. Rather, he argued that winning approval for the plan in a referendum was the only way to avoid national fragmentation over the issue.
Nonetheless, by throwing his weight behind the referendum idea he lent important new clout to the plan’s opponents, who are the main backers of a referendum.
Sharon’s aides downplayed the new Shalom move, noting in a statement to reporters that the “foreign minister’s views are known to the prime minister.” But there were clear signs of worry. Shalom’s adoption of the referendum banner puts him in a de-facto alliance with Sharon’s main rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, strengthening the leadership of the anti-disengagement faction within the Likud Party.
Nor was that Sharon’s only challenge while he was away. The same day, the disengagement plan narrowly escaped a critical defeat when a parliamentary committee approved an essential piece of enabling legislation by a razor-thin margin. The bill, authorizing compensation for settlers facing relocation, passed by a one-vote margin after an Arab lawmaker switched his vote to “yes” so that the measure could pass. Five of the committee’s eight Likud members voted against the government bill.
Following the committee vote, another key Sharon ally, Education Minister Limor Livnat, declared the bill’s approval “illegitimate” because it depended on the vote of an Arab lawmaker.
Adding to Sharon’s woes, his concessions to the Palestinians have become the focus of a major tug-of-war between the two main wings of Israel’s security establishment. The military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, a strong proponent of reaching out to the Palestinians, has led the camp arguing for a generous prisoner release in order to shore up Abbas’s position. Ya’alon has even called for the unpopular step of freeing several prisoners “with blood on their hands,” the common term for those convicted of direct involvement in murder.
Opposing Ya’alon is the director of the Shin Bet internal security service, Avi Dichter, who has favored a harder line at every stage in the recent contacts with the Palestinians. Dichter has argued forcefully that Israeli concessions — including handing over Palestinian cities and lifting roadblocks – would sacrifice valuable tools that have helped reduce terrorism in the last two years, without any clear sign that the Palestinians are able or willing to keep the peace.
In planning the prisoner release, Israel was working from a list of prisoners submitted by Abbas himself, who sees the release as a major card in his effort to win a cease-fire pact with Hamas. Near the top of the list is Qassem Barghouti, son of the jailed leader of the Tanzim movement, Marwan Barghouti. Just before the Palestinian elections last month, the elder Barghouti — perhaps the most popular figure in the territories — took his name out of the running, paving the way for Abbas’ s easy victory. The release of Barghouti’s son is now seen as important to winning over the Tanzim, the biggest of the fighting organizations, to Abbas’s campaign to end the “armed intifada.”
Dichter has remained adamant. Shin Bet sources pointed out that in previous prisoner releases, the freed convicts quickly returned to terrorism, armed with know-how and connections obtained in prison.
The disagreement is not limited to current concessions. Rather, it reflects an ongoing debate between the military and the Shin Bet. Senior military officers interviewed in recent weeks have accused the Shin Bet of “seeing everything through a straw.” The security service, they say, has a single role, which it performs ably: foiling terrorist activity. Because of their job, service operatives view everything through the lens of the immediate impact on the level of terrorist activity, with no regard to long-term effects. Strikingly, some army officers note, Shin Bet leaders have repeatedly become peace advocates after retirement, maintaining that their security duties only convinced them that a longer view was needed at the political echelon.
Dichter, for his part, has always favored closures, sustained military presence inside Palestinian cities and other strong-arm measures. He is also an open opponent of Sharon’s disengagement plan, insisting that Israel should demand performances before giving anything up.
For a long time, the Shin Bet approach made the service — and Dichter himself — strong favorites with Sharon. But currently Sharon has his own straw to peer through: He regards everything through its possible effects on the disengagement plan. Ya’alon, who had opposed the plan but eventually fell in line, is therefore regarded now as closer to the prime minister’s ear.
Dichter completes his five-year term as Shin Bet chief in May. He is enormously popular with the public, seen as the one man most responsible for a 90% drop in terrorism. Until last month it was widely assumed that Sharon would ask him to stay on, but in January his May retirement was announced officially. Some insiders claim he wanted to go out on top, but others insist that he hoped to stay and was stonewalled by Sharon, his immediate supervisor, who wants someone less visible and more supportive of disengagement.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visiting the region just before this week’s summit, publicly called on Israel to make hard choices to move the diplomatic process forward. She might not have had Dichter’s job in mind. In the Middle East, however, nothing is as predictable as the unpredictable.