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Sharon Faces Ire As He Eyes Hamas Prisoner Release

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Sharon braced for fierce Cabinet opposition this week in the wake of his decision to release Palestinian security prisoners belonging to the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist groups.

Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office told the Forward that following next week’s planned meeting between Sharon and the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, Israel will start gradually releasing a few hundred security prisoners, including a handful of Hamas prisoners not directly involved in terrorist attacks. The release is certain to arouse intense public debate and inflame Cabinet ministers who had believed the prisoner release would not include Hamas and Islamic Jihad members.

The release of Hamas prisoners, which is conditional on a continued respite in terrorist attacks, reflects the increasingly complex quandary Sharon faces as he tries to bolster Abu Mazen’s shaky position while standing firm against concessions to terrorists. Adding to Sharon’s dilemma, a majority of his Cabinet remains highly skeptical of the new cease-fire and of the American-backed “road map” process in general, making any move toward Abu Mazen politically risky.

The release of Hamas prisoners is likely to be hailed as a victory by the Islamic fundamentalist movement, which would anger Cabinet hard-liners. But it is deemed essential as a way to strengthen Abu Mazen. It was the hasty pronouncement by several Israeli ministers earlier this month that Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners would not be included in any future release that precipitated the recent crisis within the Palestinian Authority, the most serious challenge yet to Abu Mazen’s position. The apparent exclusion of Hamas prisoners allowed Abu Mazen’s rivals to portray him as a “collaborator” with Israel, willing to sell out Islamic fighters — while winning freedom for his own followers — in order to placate Jerusalem and Washington. In an effort to contain the damage, Sharon and top security officials are now willing to reconsider their position and consider releasing a few Hamas and Jihad prisoners.

The prisoner-release dilemma reflects the awkward contradictions inherent in the new situation created by Abu Mazen’s appointment, the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire and the internal cease-fire, or hudna, between the P.A. and the Islamic terrorist groups.

Although Israel opposed the concept of a hudna from the outset, viewing it as a cover for Hamas to regroup, many officials now say in hindsight that the Palestinian truce is critical to maintaining the current calm and bolstering Abu Mazen. The quiet, in turn, has restored a sense of optimism and confidence to the Israeli public, which is enjoying its first tranquil summer vacation in three years. But that puts Sharon in a further bind. If Abu Mazen now fails to honor his pledge to “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure,” Sharon will be hard-pressed to revoke the cease-fire, as threatened, without angering his own public.

The same dilemmas underly the government’s attitude toward Yasser Arafat. At the precise moment that Sharon was in London this week seeking unsuccessfully to persuade British Prime Minister Tony Blair to cut ties with Arafat — on grounds that he is undermining Abu Mazen — the Palestinian prime minister himself was mending fences with Arafat, proclaiming their disagreements resolved. Indeed, while Israel has begun lobbying quietly to persuade Washington that “drastic steps,” including deportation, are needed to rid Abu Mazen of the Arafat threat, Abu Mazen himself is telling the Americans an Israeli move against Arafat would destroy his own leadership and bring the road map to a halt.

Although the cease-fire has been pocked by sporadic terrorist attacks, including this week’s kidnapping of a Jerusalem taxi driver and a knifing murder in Jaffa, security sources concede the Palestinians are at least trying to curtail attacks. Israel believes these efforts are still far too feeble to be effective, but officials say the Palestinian resolve to date is sufficient to justify further Israeli patience.

A similar Catch-22 also marks the growing controversy over the so-called “separation fence” between Israel and the West Bank. The fence, conceived on the premise that terrorism cannot be stopped by diplomacy, faces mounting political opposition in Washington, Europe and Arab states. Opponents say it will prejudge the demarcation of borders between Israel and the Palestinians, short-circuiting the fragile peace process. Many on the Israeli right oppose the fence for essentially the same reason: They fear it will prejudge the border, detaching Israel from coveted West Bank areas.

But the vast majority of Israeli public opinion strongly backs the fence. It was largely public pressure that drove Sharon to begin building it, and he is still stung by occasional criticism that construction delays border on dereliction of duty. On the other hand, public support for the fence could dissipate if the current cease-fire holds.

Sharon is trying to escape his predicament by playing both sides of the fence, as it were. In his talks with Blair this week, Sharon repeated the assurance he has given Washington that the fence is a temporary physical barrier with no bearing on future negotiations. On the other hand, Sharon is purposely holding up Cabinet approval and funding for further stretches of fence, on the assumption that developments on the ground will resolve the issue over time, one way or the other.

The same ambivalence is reflected in the government’s on-again, off-again moves to dismantle so-called “unauthorized outposts” in the West Bank. On the one hand, Sharon is under pressure from Washington to speed the evacuations. On the other hand, he is wary of appearing to give away too much to the Palestinians before they have begun moving seriously against the terrorist groups.

Ultimately, Sharon knows, he may have to dump his current right-wing coalition and opt for a centrist government with Labor. But he is loathe to do so before the peace process confronts him with a demand for concessions that would require such a move. For now he does not want to move aggressively against the outposts lest it drive out his right-wing coalition partners.

The backdrop to all of Sharon’s maneuvering is the Cabinet’s divided view of the road map. On the moderate side stand Shinui and a few Likud ministers, including Sharon, who view recent developments as a potential way out of the three-year-old intifada and perhaps an opening to peace with the Palestinians. On the opposite side stand the hard-liners, including the right-wing parties and hawkish Likud ministers such as Uzi Landau, Yisrael Katz and Limor Livnat. The hawks have no faith in the Palestinian leadership, old or new, and most oppose Palestinian statehood in principle, even if the Palestinians move against terrorists. In the middle, holding the balance of power, are the right-wing skeptics, including Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who are willing to “give peace a chance” but oppose sweeping concessions in advance.

No group has a clear majority in the Cabinet. The outcome of any vote depends on public opinion at the moment and, more important, on the ministers’ sense of Sharon’s own standing. The quieter the streets, the greater is public support for Sharon’s policies and the likelier Cabinet approval of gestures toward the Palestinians. But any sign that the Palestinians are backsliding — or any hint of vulnerability in Sharon’s own political position — makes it likelier that the Cabinet will revolt, as it almost did on prisoner release two weeks ago.

Sharon will try to spell out his quandary when he meets in Washington with President Bush at the end of the month. He will try to persuade Bush to consider the expulsion of Arafat, to stop fighting the fence and to minimize pressures on prisoners or outposts. No more pressure, he will argue: The whole edifice is just too delicate.

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