Ariel Sharon Feels the Heat

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Peres confers with Sharon at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem

Ariel Sharon warmly commended Rudy Giuliani on Friday for showing "real leadership and consistent support of the State of Israel." The Israeli prime minister was applauding the New York mayor's rejection of a $10 million disaster-relief donation from Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal — Giuliani had been incensed by the prince's statement that U.S. Middle East policy had been among the issues that led to the Sept. 11 attack.

Giuliani was also having none of the prince's suggestion that the U.S. should "adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause" by "pushing Israel to sign and fully implement a comprehensive peace treaty." Sharon's response to the mayor's slapdown of Prince Alwaleed was understandable: The Bush administration appears a lot more inclined than Mayor Giuliani to heed the Saudi's advice, and the Israeli leader is feeling the heat.

Last week, Sharon was sharply rebuked by the White House for suggesting President Bush might try to "appease" Arabs at Israel's expense in his efforts to court their support for the anti-terrorism coalition. The Israeli leader's outburst signaled the mounting pressure he has felt from Washington since September 11 to do more to restore the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. To be sure, Washington's Arab allies have all been adamant that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to the long-term battle against terrorism. And the point same point has been explicitly endorsed by Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair — and implicitly endorsed by the U.S. in its conduct since the attacks.

Besides leaning on both Sharon and Arafat to make their cease-fire agreement stick, the Bush administration has also for the first time sketched some of the broad principles for a long-term political settlement to the conflict. Elements of that outline, which was to have been unveiled in a U.N. speech by Secretary Powell that was postponed after Sept. 11 and is now expected to be released next month, were reported in the Israeli media this week.

According to Israeli sources, the proposals include:

  • Establishment of a Palestinian state whose borders remain to be negotiated;
  • Recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine, although no details are offered on how the city would be divided;
  • Recognition of the "national character" of each state, i.e. Israel as Jewish and Palestine as Palestinian, which would presumably limit the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel and also the presence of Israeli settlers in what would become Palestine; and
  • A reiteration of U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and the Oslo Accords as the basis of any future political settlement.

    Despite Powell's repeated assurances that Israel's security remains of paramount importance to Washington, much of his vision is profoundly unpalatable to Ariel Sharon. Sharon fought tooth-and-nail against Oslo's land-for-peace trade, and believes Israel's survival depends on holding much of the land it currently occupies in the West Bank. And it was to underline his rejection of sharing Jerusalem that he marched up the Temple Mount with a thousand police and troops just over a year ago, setting off protests that Palestinian leaders quickly turned into the current intifada.

    But Powell's purported vision signals a recognition by the Bush administration that the Palestinians have no incentive to maintain a cease-fire unless its purpose is a resumption of political negotiations on ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and establishing Palestinian statehood.

    Pressure from Washington, as well as Yasser Arafat's recent attempts to rein in militants and ingratiate himself with the U.S. has also been weighing heavily on Sharon's own unity government. He is reportedly at odds with his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, over whether talks with Arafat should continue. Peres insists that Arafat remains Israel's best hope for finding a Palestinian negotiating partner and that resuming the peace process is of critical importance; Sharon believes Arafat can't be trusted and is resisting allowing any further talks. But while he carries the solid support of most of his cabinet, Sharon will struggle to find international support for avoiding talks with Arafat.

    But Arafat has plenty of difficulties of his own. Last Monday his police sparked a furious reaction across the West Bank and Gaza when they shot dead three anti-American demonstrators. Many local leaders of his own Fatah movement on Friday joined the Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad for peaceful marches protesting the U.S. air raids on Afghanistan, and there is little enthusiasm on the Palestinian streets for renewed dialogue with the Israelis.

    While the U.S. vision of a political solution based on Oslo may be broadly endorsed among its Arab allies, achieving an Israeli-Palestinian agreement to pursue such a solution remains as unlikely now as it would have been at 8.50 a.m. Eastern on September 11. While the terror attacks may have changed much in the world around them, very little has changed in relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Except, perhaps, in the incentives for resuming dialogue, and the disincentives for failing to do so. It is worth remembering, though, that it was not domestic epiphany that led to that historic White House handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat — the Oslo peace process began, originally, in response to international pressure in the wake of the Gulf War. And in light of the changing world situation, the dependence of both sides on international backing may well eventually force Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.