JERUSALEM — Officials here are concerned that growing American-Israeli disagreements over the so-called “separation fence” between Israel and the West Bank may mar next week’s planned meeting in Washington between Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush.
Sharon is coming to the United States on the heels of the first-ever visit to the White House by a Palestinian prime minister. The recently appointed premier, Mahmoud Abbas, will urge Bush to pressure Sharon to halt construction of the fence immediately and to be more generous in the release of Palestinian security prisoners.
The back-to-back visits come against the backdrop of an extraordinarily acrimonious meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers this week in Jerusalem. Sharon told Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, that Israel would release more prisoners only if the Palestinians started to “get serious” about fighting terrorism. Abu Mazen’s message was the reverse: that only a substantial prisoner release can garner the Palestinian Authority enough credibility to start tackling the terrorists. The meeting was widely described by observers here as a deadlock, and both sides are now looking to Bush to break the stalemate by pressing both sides for concessions.
Lurking just over the horizon, however, a new political crisis is brewing that could render the diplomatic deadlock moot. According to well-placed judicial sources, Israeli police investigators believe they have collected enough evidence to prosecute Sharon on charges stemming from campaign finance violations during his 1999 leadership bid and a questionable loan he received from a South African businessman to pay the resulting fine. One of his sons was interrogated last week but chose to remain silent. Several Cabinet ministers told the Forward that Sharon seems “preoccupied” lately and that they believe the campaign
finance case and his and his family’s future are weighing heavily on his mind.
If Sharon is indeed indicted, he may be forced to step down as
prime minister, throwing Israel into a leadership crisis that would put the peace process on hold for an unknown period of time.
For now, Sharon appears to be looking forward to his Washington trip as a break from his troubles, despite the prospect of presidential pressure. The prime minister is said to be bringing a package of concessions on prisoners and checkpoints to present to the president. The two leaders are also expected to see eye-to-eye on Washington’s tougher posture toward Damascus and Tehran. Both Sharon and Bush are dismissing Syria’s recent overtures for direct negotiations with Israel as nothing more than a public relations ploy aimed at warding off American pressure.
But it is the fence, say worried Israeli officials, that may send Sharon and Bush to a head-on collision. Senior diplomatic sources told the Forward that in advance of his trip, Sharon has privately assured the administration that continued construction of the fence, especially in those areas where it is to deviate substantially from the pre-1967 “Green Line,” is “not on the table” right now. Sharon’s private reassurances, however, have been contradicted repeatedly in recent days by his own statements and by remarks attributed to both Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sharon asked the Likud’s Knesset caucus this week for urgent approval of a $170 million package to finance “quick and thorough” completion of the fence. Moreover, both Sharon and Mofaz have acknowledged, to the annoyance of administration officials, that in addition to the “Western Fence” — which deviates substantially from the 1967 borders in several areas, especially around the West Bank town of Ariel — the army is now in advanced stages of planning an “Eastern Fence.” This segment, running parallel to the Israeli-Jordanian border but several miles inland, would effectively encircle the Palestinian-controlled territory from the east and delink it from the Jordan Valley.
According to well-placed Palestinian sources, Abu Mazen intends to tell Bush that Israel is in effect constructing a Palestinian “ghetto” in the West Bank that would be cut off from any direct link with the outside world. Abu Mazen will claim that the massive fence, including moats and 30-foot concrete walls as well as a sophisticated electronic fence, is undermining Bush’s “road map” to peace and pre-empting future Israeli-Palestinian border negotiations.
The Israeli public has traditionally shown massive support for the fence, but public pressure appears to be on the wane following the sharp decrease in terrorist activity since the start of the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. Counting on this lull, a group of Likud Knesset members who oppose the fence, fearing it will isolate Jewish settlements and weaken Israel’s claim to the entire West Bank, decided this week to defy Sharon and bottle up his request for emergency funding for the fence.
The Likud rebels have conveniently latched on to the high cost of the fence, which will ultimately exceed $1 billion, as an excuse to delay further construction. The opponents point to massive budget cuts recently approved by the government and the Knesset, claiming that money for the fence would be better spent easing some of the social hardships created by the austerity measures.
Indeed, Sharon’s trip to Washington comes against the backdrop of unprecedented social unrest in Israel, epitomized in highly-popular protest marches to Jerusalem by single mothers, who have been especially hard-hit by the recent cuts. Netanyahu, as finance minister, has tried to blunt the negative publicity by exhorting the mothers to “go to work” instead of relying on government handouts. But the deepening recession and still-rising unemployment have undercut Netanyahu’s arguments and deepened public unhappiness with his and the government’s economic performance. An ongoing crisis in the country’s hospitals, some of which have stopped treating patients altogether, is adding fuel to the economic fire.
Sharon is trying to stay clear of Netanyahu’s troubles, although recent polls suggest that despite the popularity of his security and diplomatic policies, the economic mess is starting to take a toll on him. In a poll published last weekend in the daily Ma’ariv, Sharon’s overall approval rating dropped to a dead-even 45% to 44%, an unprecedented low for the previously untouchable prime minister.
But while the economic discontent does not appear to threaten Sharon’s political stability for the time being, informed judicial sources maintain that Sharon may face a far greater threat from an entirely different direction. According to the sources, police and prosecutors investigating suspicions of illegal campaign financing and allegations of bribe-taking by Sharon have already reached the conclusion that the prime minister is more likely than not to be indicted as the case unfolds. In that case, Sharon would probably have to step down, at least until his trial is completed.
The allegations, which were first uncovered in a state comptroller’s report and compounded during the height of last winter’s election campaign, revolve around illegal campaign contributions collected by Sharon in 1999 and a questionable $1.5 million loan that he received from South African millionaire Cyril Kern in order to pay the stiff fine imposed by the State Comptroller.
Last week, the police interrogated Sharon’s son Gilad, who refused to answer questions and maintained his right to silence. In the coming days police will summon Sharon’s other son, Omri, who is now a Likud Knesset member.
According to the judicial sources, police are investigating growing suspicions that Kern was actually serving as a conduit for money fronted by unnamed Austrian millionaires who wanted to finance Sharon for their own interests. Following the completion of the Austrian chapter of the investigation, police sources say, Sharon himself will be interrogated — a step that is certain in and of itself to touch off political controversy and instability.
From there, the scandal is likely to escalate and evolve into full-fledged political crisis, assuming it is true, as the sources claim, that the police already have enough evidence to prosecute Sharon.
Cabinet ministers told the Forward that Sharon’s suspension from office, if and when it comes, would touch off a long and bitter battle for succession within the Likud, which could also have a dramatic effect on the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire and on the road map process.
It is as yet unclear whether Sharon, if indicted, would only suspend himself temporarily or whether he would have to be replaced altogether. Recent precedents set by the Supreme Court point to the latter possibility, a scenario that would set loose a harsh political battle between ranking government ministers to replace Sharon. According to Israeli law, the removal of the prime minister does not mandate new elections but rather the selection of a successor to Sharon by a majority of the current members of the Knesset.
The popular defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, is barred from replacing Sharon during the current term of the Knesset because he is not a member. Conventional wisdom holds that the other leading contenders are Netanyahu, whose popularity has significantly eroded because of his economic policies, and the deputy premier and trade and industry minister, Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem who is also said to be facing criminal charges on other matters. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that a “dark horse” will ultimately emerge from within the ranks of the Likud to claim the throne.
In any case, the politicians say, if the dire predictions of Sharon’s legal entanglements are borne out, the entire picture is likely to change, and next week’s supposedly “critical” meeting between Sharon and Bush will ultimately be remembered as a marginal footnote in the greater scheme of things. Sharon, at the White House next week, will be concentrating on Bush but at the same time will be keeping a wary eye on the legal developments in Jerusalem.