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Sharon Going on Offensive As Geneva Initiative Gains

JERUSALEM — The scheduled launch ceremony next week of the so-called Geneva Understandings is agitating the Israeli government, creating new tensions in its relations with the Bush administration and increasing pressure on Prime Minister Sharon to come up with a viable peace plan of his own.

The growing interest in the Geneva initiative at home and abroad has rekindled the government’s antipathy toward the plan, a virtual permanent status agreement engineered by a group of opposition figures led by Yossi Beilin. After several weeks in which officials tried to downplay the importance of the initiative by studiously ignoring it, the Prime Minister’s Office has now relaunched its campaign against the accord. Sharon’s aides are accusing Beilin and his allies of “sabotaging” an upcoming meeting between Sharon and the newly anointed Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei. Government ministers and officials are also up in arms over contacts to arrange an official meeting between the Geneva initiators and the American secretary of state, Colin Powell.

Despite its unofficial status, the Geneva document has managed to retain the spotlight by an elaborately staged unveiling process, from the initialing ceremony in Jordan last month to the publication of the full accord, the mailing of the text to some 2 million Israeli households and now the Geneva signing. Israel’s political establishment has responded with an unprecedented flurry of alternative peace plans, including one from Sharon’s Shinui coalition partners, another from the opposition Labor party, and even a plan from Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, by highlighting the government’s own diplomatic inaction, the Geneva commotion is seen as a key factor behind Sharon’s latest attempt to regain center stage by hinting at plans of his own to take “unilateral measures” in the territories in the very near future.

Public interest in the Geneva agreement is expected to peak this coming Monday, December 1, when the Palestinian and Israeli figures who negotiated the virtual agreement will convene in Switzerland for a ceremonial endorsement. The ceremony will be moderated by Hollywood actor Richard Dreyfuss, addressed by former President Jimmy Carter and attended by an array of Israeli celebrities, including authors, actors and rock stars. At least two Arab foreign ministers are expected, from Oman and Morocco, as well as a small group of supportive American congressmen.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry was surprised to learn this week in dispatches from its Washington embassy that the Geneva Understandings is gaining unexpected support in Congress, including backing from a small but growing group of Republican representatives. Israeli officials had already been caught off guard by reports that Powell was willing to meet with Beilin and his colleagues, and perhaps another team of Israeli-Palestinian peace activists, former Israeli security chief Ami Ayalon and Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh. Ayalon and Nusseibeh, whose page-long declaration of principles for a peace agreement resembles Beilin’s, have already met with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, usually thought to be a leading administration hawk.

The Washington establishment’s flirtation with Israeli opposition figures is seen in Jerusalem as one more none-too-subtle hint of growing administration displeasure with aspects of Sharon’s policies. “The writing on the wall is becoming more and more legible,” said a frustrated Foreign Ministry official. The official coupled the controversial American courtship of Geneva with a series of other, more official American moves recently. One was President Bush’s unusually sharp public chastisement of Israeli policies in a speech in London earlier this month. A second was Washington’s decision to support the adoption, over Israeli protests, of a formal United Nations Security Council endorsement of the so-called “road map” process, giving an uncomfortably formal stamp of international law to the map’s Israeli concessions. A third was this week’s announcement that Washington will deduct nearly $300 million from the loan guarantees promised to Israel because of fence and settlement construction in the territories.

Although most Israeli officials and analysts believe an open confrontation with Washington is not in the cards, mainly because of the accelerating presidential campaign, the signals of displeasure from the administration are coming more frequently and distinctly. In a clandestine meeting in Rome recently between Sharon and the National Security Council’s Elliott Abrams, as well as in publicized meetings this week in Washington between National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Sharon’s bureau chief Dov Weisglass, the administration is said to have strongly criticized the three flash-points regularly cited as main sources of tension: the continued building in West Bank settlements, Israel’s failure to remove so-called “unauthorized outposts” and the ongoing construction of Israel’s security fence deep inside West Bank territory.

Responding to the criticism — and seeking to shore up Sharon’s deteriorating position in public opinion polls — the prime minister and his advisers sought in the last two weeks to regain the upper hand by leaking reports of a plan for Sharon to take “unilateral measures.” Among the measures leaked to the press were a possible evacuation of Gaza, or parts of it, and the “consolidation” of Jewish settlements in the West Bank by relocating settlers from smaller, more isolated communities to larger and more established ones.

Sharon himself has declined to endorse publicly any of the many plans appearing in his name. So far he has confirmed only that he would indeed contemplate “unilateral steps,” but only if and when the upcoming diplomatic contacts with Qurei’s Palestinian government break down. Nonetheless, Sharon capitalized on the reports this week by repeating his familiar routine of convening the hawkish Likud Knesset caucus, absorbing waves of criticism from his parliamentary colleagues, and thus presenting himself as a bold moderate risking his political capital by facing down his hard-line party base.

The opposition, including Sharon’s former partners in Labor, took a dimmer view of the prime minister’s supposed moderation. “We’ll believe it when we see it,” declared Labor leader Shimon Peres. Press pundits also refused to go along with the prime minister’s spin. All the main newspapers were filled this week with columns by leading analysts deriding the talk of a Sharon peace plan as everything from “new cynicism” to “classic Sharon.”

The growing domestic and international pressure on Sharon is thought to be one of the main reasons that Qurei has refused to meet with him, after weeks of calling for a meeting. Palestinian affairs experts say Qurei doesn’t want to pull Sharon’s chestnuts out of the fire by providing him with the appearance of diplomatic progress. Despite the dire conditions on the Palestinian street, Sharon is thought to want the summit more than Qurei wants it, and the Palestinian leader is unlikely to give in without exacting a steep price in the form of significant Israeli concessions.

Qurei is also contemplating the internal Palestinian dialogue, slated to open in Cairo next week, between the Palestinian Authority and the extremist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, who was widely seen as kowtowing to Sharon and the Americans, Qurei aims to project a tough image in order to enhance his bargaining position toward the Palestinian militants.

Most Israeli analysts, including senior military intelligence officials, believe the Palestinians will achieve an internal cease-fire in the coming weeks. Yasser Arafat has a tactical interest in calming the territories and in reconsolidating his regime’s authority, they say, while Hamas and Islamic Jihad need to regroup and reorganize in the wake of Israel’s relentless campaign against them in the past few months.

Such a cease-fire might strengthen Sharon’s internal position, by bringing a period of relative calm and reinvigorating the Israeli economy. But it might also work against the prime minister by increasing the pressure on him to make the most of the calm by moving forward in the peace process. Now that Labor opposition has come out with its own “principles for peace,” nearly identical to the Geneva agreement, and even Jewish settlers are formulating a plan — which calls, in effect, for a binational state with Palestinians in the territories at a permanent disadvantage — the spotlight will be back on Sharon to come up with a viable plan of his own.

Sharon would then find himself back at square one. Perhaps, some critics and supporters hopefully suggest, he will be forced at last to show his hand and unwrap the lingering enigma of his true intentions. Or, as his harshest critics have it, he will then come up with yet another ingenious way of stalling and surviving another day without movement.

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