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As Sharon’s Plan Advances, Officials Reconsider Arafat

TEL AVIV — For months, the Israeli public and the political system waited anxiously for the announcement of Attorney General Menachem Mazouz on whether he was going to press bribery charges against Prime Minister Sharon. Sharon’s security plans, the composition of his coalition and his own political future hung in the balance. When Mazouz finally spoke, it seemed worth the wait for the prime minister.

Mazouz not only announced the case closed, but also shredded the case for prosecuting Sharon. Although Mazouz’s decision may yet come before the Supreme Court, and although Sharon is still under investigation in another case, it seemed that the door was opened for the prime minister to strengthen his shaky political position, add the Labor Party to his coalition, end the rebellion against him within his own Likud Party — and go ahead with his disengagement plan.

In fact, preparations for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza entered a new phase even before Mazouz’s declaration. Sharon himself reiterated his commitment to complete the disengagement plan by the end of 2005.

A team of representatives from the pertinent government offices began work on the details of the withdrawal. Leaks to the press even mentioned that soon, settlers could ask to receive compensation for leaving their homes.

At the same time, new questions were being raised about issues long considered at the heart of the Israeli consensus since the outbreak of the current intifada. Officials and commentators began to attack the widely held view that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is the source of all troubles in the region, and that Israeli Defense Forces troops behave in the most humane way possible.

The disengagement plan seemed to bring some Israelis to review beliefs rarely questioned since September 2000. Former Chief of Military Intelligence Amos Malka, now a private businessman, claimed in an interview with Akiva Eldar of Ha’aretz that contrary to popular perception, the intelligence wing was not united in thinking that Arafat was not a partner for peace-making. He blamed his former deputy, Major General Amos Gilad, head of the research branch, for pushing this position even though he had no real information to back it up.

Malka even went as far as to blame Gilad for “retroactively rewriting intelligence assessments” to support his claim that Arafat was to blame and that there was no hope in negotiating with him.

“In all the time that I served as head of MI, the research division did not produce so much as a single document expressing [Gilad’s] assessment,” Malka insisted. He was supported in his assertions by the former head of the Palestinian section in the research branch, retired Colonel Ephraim Lavie.

Malka’s accusation seemed odd, especially since he himself did not express views that far from those of Gilad at the time, and kept quiet for almost four years. Gilad, for his part, was as decisive as ever.

“I would have no problem if 1,000 people thought differently than I,” he told Eldar in response. “That still doesn’t mean that they’re right.”

The debate is not merely a question for historians. It touches on the main narrative presented to the Israeli public by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and those who followed him: Israel, according to this version, offered Arafat all it could. He rejected the offer, because he is incapable of making peace and seeks Israel’s destruction. He is, therefore, “irrelevant,” as he later was declared by the Israeli government, and no settlement is possible until he is removed.

These days, however, Arafat seems more relevant than ever. In an effort to turn Israel’s unilateral move into a quasi-agreement, the head of Egyptian intelligence, Omar Suleiman, is holding a meeting with all Palestinian factions in Cairo. If an agreement is reached, chaos in Gaza could be prevented —and the Israeli withdrawal may be carried out under much more favorable terms. But no agreement may be reached without Arafat’s consent, something that everyone in Israel knows.

Meanwhile, stories of ruthless behavior by Israeli troops began to make the news, further intensifying the feeling among some that “we have no business in these parts.” Soldiers returning from the latest wide-scale operation in Gaza told of indiscriminate demolition of houses and rules of engagement that in effect authorized shooting down any Palestinian standing on a rooftop at night, whether armed or not. Soldiers returning from Gaza told the Forward that senior commanders told troops that anyone found on a rooftop after dark “has no business being there, other than observing for terrorists.”

The stories’ airing created a climate in which the origins of the current war are now questioned more than ever, and the combat’s effect on IDF troops is viewed much more negatively. The news has heightened support for Sharon’s pullout plan, helping him to turn the government decision into action.

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