WASHINGTON — Still smarting from an embarrassing dust-up with his top general a day earlier, Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon received a stunning public rebuke last week from a key ally in Washington when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz endorsed a peace plan that envisions Israel withdrawing to its June 1967 borders.
Wolfowitz, considered the leader of the neoconservative hawks within the Bush administration, appeared to echo some of the favorite themes of Sharon’s left-wing critics in an October 30 address at Georgetown University. He warned that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was heightening tensions between America and the Muslim world and insisted that the conflict could only be resolved by “political means.”
“Clearly, one huge factor in our relations with the Muslim world, as well as one of the greatest obstacles to peace in that region, is the continuing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,” Wolfowitz said.
As evidence that a solution was possible, Wolfowitz cited an informal peace plan formulated by former Shin Bet security agency chief Ami Ayalon and Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh that calls for a Palestinian state with borders based on the 1967 lines and a partition of Jerusalem. Noting that Ayalon and Nusseibeh are gathering Israeli and Palestinian signatures on a petition endorsing their plan, Wolfowitz said such efforts for peace were important “so that extremists who oppose it can be isolated.”
Wolfowitz also voiced praise for “some brave leaders” who have led past Israeli-Arab peace efforts, naming Shimon Peres and the late Yitzhak Rabin as well as Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan. He pointedly contrasted those four with unnamed “extremists.”
Sharon has repeatedly condemned proposals to return Israel to its 1967 borders. He and his allies have also consistently rejected the suggestion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is responsible for the mounting anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world.
Pro-Israel activists attempted to downplay the significance of the speech, saying they had been assured that Wolfowitz was expressing private views and not administration policy. At the same time, activists acknowledged that tensions between Washington and Jerusalem were mounting over various Israeli actions in recent days. Key among them was Sharon’s reported decision to extend the Israeli security fence to the Jordan Valley, effectively encircling the major Palestinian population centers. Administration officials told their Israeli counterparts that they do not see a security justification for such an “eastern fence” and that building it would have a detrimental effect on future efforts to achieve peace, American and Israeli sources in Washington said.
The administration criticisms come hard on the heels of a furious public row last week in Jerusalem after Israel’s military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, gave a press briefing in which he voiced critiques similar to Wolfowitz’s. Ya’alon said that Israel’s continuing military pressure on the Palestinians was fueling Palestinian “hatred” of Israel and that Israel should offer gestures to the Palestinians to ease tensions. Ya’alon said that Israel’s “stinginess” toward former Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas had contributed to Abbas’s failure, and he warned that Israel should not repeat the same “mistakes” with Abbas’s successor, Ahmed Qurei.
The general also criticized the route of the security fence, saying that by deviating from the “seam line,” as the 1967 border is known, the barrier’s length had been increased greatly, making it harder to patrol.
Ya’alon made his comments in an off-the-record briefing to political analysts from Israel’s three main newspapers, in which he was identified as a “senior military official.” But his identity became known within hours after the comments were published October 29, prompting a furious response from his superiors. Sharon reportedly demanded that Ya’alon apologize or resign, but Ya’alon did neither.
Instead of pressuring Ya’alon, however, Sharon appears to have reversed course since then and moved closer to the general’s viewpoint. Responding to reports that Qurei was close to forming a new Palestinian Cabinet and was seeking a renewed cease-fire with Hamas and other radical groups, Sharon said he intended to meet with Qurei this week to explore new peace efforts. Sharon had previously indicated that Qurei was too close to Yasser Arafat to serve as a negotiating partner.
Anticipating his boss’s shift, Sharon’s hard-line defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, met early this week with the Palestinian finance minister, Salem Fayad. There were reports, too, that the director of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter, had met with the Palestinian national security adviser, Jibril Rajoub.
Sharon’s moves come amid mounting indications of unhappiness with his policies in Washington. Administration officials have expressed dismay in recent days over the issuance of Israeli government tenders to build more houses in West Bank settlements. In mid-October Israel’s Ministry of Housing invited bids for the construction of 143 homes in the settlement of Karnei Shomron and another 180 in Givat Ze’ev, near Jerusalem. Peace Now, an Israeli group that monitors and opposes settlement building, said Israel has issued 1,627 such tenders for housing units in Israeli settlements in the territories since the beginning of the year, ignoring the call for a freeze on settlement activity in the administration’s “road map” peace plan.
Administration officials expressed further frustration over Israel’s reported legalization of eight illegal outposts, which Israel had promised to dismantle. The Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot reported last week that the government granted these eight outposts, all previously slated for evacuation, the status of settlements.
Impatience is also mounting in Washington over the route of Israel’s security fence. Until recently, sources said, Bush administration officials were under the impression that the fence would be mostly contiguous to the pre-1967 “Green Line” that separates Israel from the West Bank. But in the past two weeks there were reports in the Israeli and international media that Israel is drafting plans to extend the fence to the Jordan Valley, as far south as the Dead Sea, to defend Israeli settlements in the area from terrorist attacks.
Such a route is said to violate understandings reached by senior aides to Bush and Sharon. Bush foreign-policy advisers “are very unhappy about the eastern fence,” said a pro-Israel lobbyist in Washington. “They were under the impression that the Israelis were not going to go through with it.”
Sharon has not publicly adopted the “eastern fence” but has pointedly declined to rule it out when questioned. Asked about it in an Israeli Channel 2 television interview in mid-October, he said the “route is being planned now.” Shortly after the interview, senior administration officials expressed dismay to their Israeli counterparts, according to informed sources in Washington.
Despite the criticisms, pro-Israel activists in Washington say the administration is not working actively to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, believing that a Palestinian leadership committed to fighting terrorism has yet to emerge. Still, in the words of one lobbyist for Israel, “There is also a desire for Israel to be sensitive to U.S. needs.”
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that there is concern in the administration that Israel will interpret the hiatus in American diplomatic efforts on the peace process as an opportunity to establish more facts on the ground.
There were indications, too, that the administration was closing ranks in its approach to Israel. Israel and its supporters have sought in the past to rally support in the Defense Department, which is seen as more hawkish, in order to ward off pressure from the State Department, which has led efforts to promote peace talks.
Wolfowitz, in his Georgetown speech, addressed the point head on. “I do have to say, contrary to what you may have heard, foreign policy is made in the State Department,” the deputy defense secretary said, “and I need to be very careful about getting in the way of Secretary Powell’s diplomacy. I think it’s pointed in the right direction.”
Wolfowitz’s speech drew a quick condemnation from the Zionist Organization of America. Other Jewish groups, however, refrained from commenting on the speech.
— With reporting by AMI EDEN in New York and CHEMI SHALEV in Jerusalem.