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Wooing Labor, Sharon Begins P.A. Talks

JERUSALEM — Under the shadow of the impending American war on Iraq, Prime Minister Sharon is expanding his talks with Palestinians and accelerating his drive for a “secular unity government,” with Labor in tow.

Sharon and his advisers have met in recent weeks with a host of Palestinian leaders, including Arafat deputy Abu Mazen and the new Palestinian finance minister, Salim Fayad. The talks ostensibly were aimed at trying to shore up a temporary cease-fire with the Palestinians, but cynical political analysts are convinced that their main target is to soften up Labor leader Amram Mitzna and pressure him to launch formal coalition talks with Sharon.

Indeed, Mitzna is showing initial cracks in his hitherto impenetrable armor of opposition to joining a Sharon cabinet. The Labor leader was uncharacteristically positive after a second meeting with Sharon held in Jerusalem this week, in which the prime minister briefed Mitzna on his recent contacts with the Palestinians. Following the meeting, both Likud and Labor sources said that “the atmosphere has changed for the better” and that further meetings between Sharon and Mitzna would be held soon.

Mitzna is also coming under increasing pressure from the public to team up with Sharon, compounded by the spreading sense of emergency, which some call panic, that is engulfing the Israeli public in advance of the expected American attack on Iraq. Israelis were psyched up for war last week, in the wake of widespread but unsubstantiated rumors that had the American attack commencing last Saturday night. Supermarkets were under siege to supply plastic sheeting and duct tape for sealing off rooms and windows, and near-riots broke out in Civil Defense stations handing out gas masks.

The immediate hysteria subsided on Friday, however, after Hans Blix’s cautious report to the United Nations Security Council appeared to postpone the war for at least a week or two. Officially Israel maintained silence in the face of growing European opposition to the American campaign, but in private, most government officials were withering in their criticism of “perfidious” Europe and “misguided” Third World countries that are obstructing Washington’s designs.

The public’s attitude is more complex. According to recent polls, a surprisingly large minority of 40% of Israelis support efforts to find a “peaceful” solution to the Iraqi crisis.

The public’s attitude is apparently nuanced, including on one hand deeply felt identification with the Bush administration’s attitude toward Saddam Hussein and its stated goal of getting rid of the Iraqi dictator, but tempered on the other hand by a widespread wish to avert yet another security crisis and national trauma which could emanate from an Iraqi attack on Israel.

The public’s anxiety and fear is being fed by incessant Civil Defense guidelines issued by the army’s Home Front Command, portraying the Iraqi threat as a clear and present danger. Ironically, and in stark contradiction, the official prognosis, shared by both civilian and military analysts, is that the chances of such an attack actually taking place run from small to nil.

In a briefing to Israeli reporters this week, Major General Amos Gilad, who has been designated the “national spokesman” for the war, said that Saddam currently possesses “extremely limited” capabilities of striking Israel, and that even these would most likely be neutralized either by American preemption or by Israeli air-defense systems. Gilad portrayed Saddam as a “monster,” but also said “he has never been weaker.”

Gilad also downplayed the danger of a “mega-attack” being carried out by Iraq-inspired Palestinian terrorists, saying that the Palestinians do not need Saddam to spur them on, and that the army is growing more and more successful in thwarting Palestinian terrorism at its source.

Indeed, this week the army escalated its campaign against the Palestinian terrorism apparatus, especially in Gaza, following an attack against an Israeli tank in which four Israeli soldiers were killed. The army has launched a renewed “liquidation” effort against Hamas leaders in Gaza, striking at suspected terrorist leaders from the ground and from the air in an effort to dismantle what Israel calls the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza.

At the same time, Israelis were cautiously optimistic following Yasser Arafat’s capitulation to European pressure and his announcement that he would soon appoint an executive “prime minister” at his side. Sharon and his advisers said that they still expect Arafat to use some of his “old tricks” in order to maintain his absolute control over the Palestinian Authority, but admitted that Arafat’s statement was a “step in the right direction.”

Thus, Sharon exploited both the darkening clouds of war with Iraq and the silver lining in the Palestinian clouds in order to try to cajole Mitzna into joining his cabinet. Concurrently, Sharon and his advisers have been aggressively courting the centrist Shinui, viewing its agreement to join the coalition as the critical pivot that would force Mitzna to come along as well.

In a bid to ease Shinui’s path into the coalition, the party has been brought together with the National Religious Party in talks chaperoned by the outgoing mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, who resigned his post this week in anticipation of a senior appointment in the new Sharon cabinet. Olmert has been trying to get the two parties to hammer out mutually agreeable formulas on matters of religion and state. Olmert’s resignation has paved the way for Jerusalem’s first-ever charedi mayor, who will replace Olmert temporarily until new municipal elections are held. Nonetheless, the successful conclusion of the Shinui-NRP talks, held in Olmert’s Jerusalem home, would most likely mean the exclusion of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, from Sharon’s future government.

The Zionist, Modern Orthodox NRP is likely to find common ground with Shinui on such issues as reducing the exemption of yeshiva students from army service, canceling previously-granted government handouts to large families or providing civil marriages to Jews barred from rabbinical matrimony because of technicalities in rabbinic law. Shinui, for its part, would have to forego its demand for public transportation on the Sabbath and to tone down other secularist stipulations.

A Likud-Shinui-NRP coalition would give Sharon a coalition majority of 61, but would mainly serve as political bait to entice Mitzna. Most polls show that Labor voters share Mitzna’s reluctance to serve in a national unity government under Sharon. That opposition changes to enthusiastic support, however, when Labor voters are told that the unity government would be a “secular” one with Shinui in and the ultra-Orthodox parties out. Mitzna’s advisers are telling him that if Sharon reaches agreement with Shinui, the Labor leader will be unable to withstand the “tidal wave” of public pressure, especially from his own party, to join Sharon. As one Labor activist put it, “Mitzna will have to choose between caving in or being swept away.”

Political analysts believe Sharon, ever the wily tactician, is biding his time, waiting for further escalation in Iraq in order to deliver the coup-de-grace to Mitzna’s rejectionism. More and more politicians now believe that with the help of Saddam, Arafat and the tough American stance, Sharon is more likely than not to achieve his goal of a national unity “dream team,” an accomplishment that would most likely catapult him to unimagined new heights of popularity.

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