JERUSALEM — With fears growing that Israeli-Palestinian relations are reaching a dangerous stalemate, a power struggle has erupted within the Israeli security establishment over the conduct of Israel’s war against terrorism.
Israel’s military brass is pressing for an easing of some recent restrictions on the Palestinian population, arguing that the restrictions on movement and economic hardships are “increasing hatred” toward Israel and strengthening extremist groups like Hamas, according to a senior military source. The army’s demand has brought the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, into an unprecedented confrontation with both Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and the head of the Shin Bet General Security Services, Avi Dichter, who insist any lifting of restrictions would allow increased terrorism.
Lending urgency to the debate is the pending formation of a new Palestinian government under the prime minister-designate, Ahmed Qurei, also known as Abu Ala. While most Israeli decision-makers give Qurei slim odds of success in the post, many are equally fearful of the consequences of his failure, warning of a possible meltdown of the Palestinian Authority and the collapse of the Palestinian territories into chaos. Senior military sources warn against Israel’s showing Qurei the same “stinginess” that they say contributed to the failure of his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas.
Ya’alon and his top officers argue that the tough economic measures and severe restrictions of movement imposed on the Palestinians following the October 4 suicide bombing in Haifa, in which 21 people were killed, are fueling extremism and support for terrorism on the Palestinian street, dooming Qurei’s admittedly slim chances of success. Mofaz and Dichter counter that the risk of increased terrorism is too great to lift restrictions.
At the same time, Mofaz is secretly pressing Prime Minister Sharon to launch a new initiative of his own, under which Israel would offer to resume transferring territories to Palestinian control, in exchange for a Palestinian pledge to fight terrorism.
Sharon’s office has acknowledged to reporters that the prime minister has convened a series of internal government discussions aimed at “examining the situation” and “offering new ideas” on advancing the peace process.
Critics dismiss Sharon’s newfound interest in the peace process as a political gambit aimed at deflecting international and local attention from a recent spate of controversial decisions by his government. In recent weeks the government decided to retroactively legalize “illegal outposts” and build new housing in the territories, enhance funding for Jewish settlements and push ahead with construction of the so-called separation fence along its most expansive lines, which include the town of Ariel, deep inside the West Bank. Both the fence and the settlement construction brought rebukes from the Bush administration this week.
Adding to the pressure on Sharon to produce an initiative is the spurt of diplomatic activities outside the coalition, particularly the hotly disputed Geneva Understandings masterminded by the dovish former justice minister Yossi Beilin. While the government has been dismissive of Beilin’s initiative, it has countered it with a steady barrage of criticism and diplomatic countermeasures, suggesting that concerns are higher than officials acknowledge. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom ordered an unofficial but strongly worded Israeli démarche to be submitted to the Swiss authorities, who partly funded Beilin’s talks with the Palestinians. Shalom also charged at a Cabinet meeting that France and Belgium were offering $7 million to finance a public-relations campaign aimed at winning Israeli public support for the understandings. Beilin’s aides retorted, “in our dreams.”
Still, Beilin’s initiative appears to have started a trend. Within Sharon’s coalition, the Shinui party, divided over the Beilin initiative and stung by internal critics who say it is part of a “government of paralysis,” is said to be devising its own diplomatic initiative. The details have yet to be made public. Meanwhile, well-placed sources say that Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has held clandestine talks with Qurei, aimed at reviving the so-called “Peres-Abu Ala plan” first formulated at the end of 2001. That plan called for an interim Palestinian state to be established within eight weeks on territory comprising 42% of the West Bank, in the areas designated as “A” and “B” — partly or fully Palestinian-controlled — under the Oslo accords. Both sides were supposed to aim to reach a permanent agreement within one year.
According to knowledgeable sources, Peres is trying to convince Qurei to extend the short timetable mandated in their original plan, in order to make it more palatable to Sharon. If he succeeds, Peres will then try to persuade Sharon to adopt the amended agreement and form a new national unity government. Alternatively, if Sharon refuses, Peres will launch an all-out political campaign against the Likud government, accusing it of “squandering a chance” to achieve peace.
Western diplomatic sources who maintain close contacts with the Palestinian prime minister say that despite his public statements of support for the U.S.-backed road map to peace, Qurei is actively seeking a way around the road map’s requirement that the Palestinians first dismantle the so-called infrastructure of terrorist organizations. The sources maintain that Abu Ala is seeking a package deal that would promise the Palestinians immediate and tangible achievements, such as the limited state envisaged in the Peres-Abu Ala plan or even a “Gaza First” scenario.
A senior military source told the Forward this week that Qurei’s first step is to try to achieve a new and comprehensive cease-fire with the militant Palestinian groups, including Hamas, and to then demand from Israel a reciprocal halt to all military actions. Israeli intelligence, the source said, believes that Hamas is indeed interested in securing a lull in the fighting and is therefore conducting a dialogue with Qurei and that the main obstacle was and remains Yasser Arafat. The source maintained that Qurei is a wily and sometimes ruthless politician who may be better suited to “neutralize” Arafat than his luckless predecessor, Abbas.
The senior military source said that Qurei’s chances of success would be greatly influenced by the outcome of the American campaign against terrorists in Iraq. The source said that a veritable “conglomerate of terrorism,” including Al Qaeda, Iran and Hezbollah, has joined Saddam loyalists in an all-out effort to combat U.S. forces in Iraq. The terrorists’ aim is to sway American public opinion to press for a complete U.S. withdrawal. That, the source said, would be seen by the Palestinians as a victory for extremism and would probably create even more turbulence in the occupied territories.
Thus, while Sharon is said to be content to await news of Arafat’s failing health before making any real move, there is growing concern in the army that time is running out and that Israel must act now to try to preserve Qurei’s new government. In private conversations, Ya’alon and other top officers have voiced worries that the Israeli public may be losing some of its vaunted fortitude — as well as its confidence in the army’s abilities.
A top military source told the Forward that the Haifa suicide bombing, though not the bloodiest terrorist attack since the start of the intifada, had a devastating effect on Israeli public opinion, deepening a national mood of gloom and despair.
The military itself has come under unusually sharp criticism lately. On one hand, it faces accusations both at home and abroad of causing needless civilian casualties in airborne strikes against the Palestinians. On the other hand, mainstream critics charge that command errors were at fault in a series of recent successful ambushes of Israeli units, in the West Bank and in the Gaza settlement of Netzarim, in which seven Israeli soldiers were killed.
The harshest criticism, however, is over policy, not execution. The Netzarim incident, which left two unarmed female soldiers dead, has revived a long-standing debate over the wisdom and necessity of maintaining the isolated Jewish settlement in the middle of Gaza. Despite recurring calls to abandon the settlement unilaterally, however, both Sharon and the army expressed adamant opposition, claiming that such a withdrawal would be construed as a “triumph for terror.”
Finally, it should be noted that while the political and bureaucratic tug-of-war about the next move toward the Palestinians is gathering steam, there are those who believe that the momentous events will come from another quarter altogether: the ongoing investigation of Sharon’s alleged involvement in campaign finance abuse. Sharon was interrogated by the police this week, and according to well-placed sources, “the evidence against him is mounting.”
A police recommendation to prosecute Sharon, or even just one of his sons, would throw the Israeli political system into mayhem, with Sharon having to fight for his own political life. The situation with the Palestinians, no matter how critical, would then take a backseat and await its turn.