Al-Ahram Weekly – 14 November 2002
The horrific shooting spree in which two brothers aged four and five were sprayed with bullets, along with their mother, by a lone Palestinian gunman who later slipped back into the West Bank marked the wretched start to the election campaign between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his rival for the Likud leadership, Binyamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu joined the cabinet last week after being cornered by Sharon into accepting the post of foreign minister or risk appearing driven more by personal ambition than the country’s good. Sharon hopes the job will limit Netanyahu’s room for criticising him in the run-up to 28 November Likud leadership primary.
On Sunday the two men barely concealed their hostility during the first meeting of the new cabinet, which also includes former army chief-of-staff Shaul Mofaz as defence minister.
Before the meeting the Israeli press circulated a report that Sharon was planning to exclude Netanyahu from the government if he won the election. After denying the story in cabinet, Sharon repeatedly silenced Netanyahu when he tried to respond.
The attack hours later at Kibbutz Metzer, which left five Israelis dead, offered Netanyahu a chance to outbid the prime minister in threatening retribution against Yasser Arafat. Netanyahu knows that in dealing with Arafat Sharon’s hands are tied by American demands for quiet in the region while it formulates a plan to unseat Saddam Hussein. Netanyahu had intended to avoid what might be interpreted as “cheap shots” against the prime minister and concentrate instead on Sharon’s dismal handling of the economy but has been unnerved by opinion polls showing Sharon taking a commanding lead among Likud voters.
Arafat, holed up in his ruined Muqata prison, presented an even easier target than normal this week. That Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a military wing of Fatah, claimed responsibility for the attack was damaging enough. But the choice of target — a leftwing kibbutz inside Israel that had campaigned against land confiscations from Palestinian neighbours — was disastrous.
The Fatah leadership had been seeking the Palestinian moral high ground by publicly barring attacks inside Israel. As news of the Metzer killings broke Fatah officials were meeting Hamas leaders in Cairo, under European Union and Egyptian supervision, to try to persuade the militant Islamic group to renounce suicide attacks inside Israel. It backfired spectacularly, with Hamas congratulating Fatah on the Metzer shootings.
In an attempt at damage limitation Arafat ordered an investigation to identify those responsible, saying they may have been trying to sabotage talks with Hamas. Palestinian officials blamed “out of control” Fatah members in Tulkaram. It was a picture confirmed by Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service, which revealed that the central command of Fatah’s Tanzim had collapsed since its leader, Marwan Barghouti, was arrested by Israel in April. What Shin Bet characterised as “local gangs” were refusing to obey any central authority.
This assessment had apparently passed Netanyahu by. First, at a symbolic cabinet meeting at Kibbutz Metzer on Monday, Netanyahu raised the issue of exiling Arafat, although Sharon refused to be drawn. The next day, seated next to the prime minister in front of 3,000 delegates to the Likud Party conference in Tel Aviv, he squarely blamed Arafat for the Metzer shootings and declared unequivocally: “As prime minister I will expel Arafat. It is the first thing I will do.” He added that removing the Palestinian leader was “an essential condition for wiping out terror”.
Sharon, whose own speech was rapturously greeted by delegates, could afford to smile and clasp hands with Netanyahu on the conference platform. He allowed himself a dismissive rebuttal of Netanyahu’s rhetoric. “Security is not achieved through slogans and magic solutions,” he said.
Netanyahu’s speech must have been galling for Sharon, who ardently supports exiling Arafat and has suggested before that he should have killed the Palestinian leader many years ago. But, when he is riding high in the party, he is not about to upset the Americans.
This was reflected in Sharon’s comparatively low- key response to the Metzer killings. Before dawn on Tuesday 30 tanks and armoured vehicles rolled into Tulkaram refugee camp, arresting three men, including an uncle of Sirhan Sirhan, the man Israel believes carried out the gun attack. The army also shot and seriously wounded a nine-year-old boy.
On Wednesday morning troops moved into Nablus, imposing a curfew on the Balata and Askar refugee camps. The army said it was planning a prolonged stay. Earlier soldiers had entered the village of Shuweika, north of Tulkaram, and demolished the home of 24-year-old Mohamed Naifa, the local Al-Aqsa Brigades leader accused of dispatching the gunman.
Such “restraint” will have pleased US envoy David Satterfield, who arrived in the region this week to take soundings from the Israelis and Palestinians about the draft American “road map” for ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Arafat, who has little other choice, told reporters he had approved the draft “in principle”.
Sharon and Netanyahu, neither of whom likes the plan because of its insistence on dismantling settlements and a timetable for creating a Palestinian state, have agreed to ignore it for the duration of the Likud primary campaign. Washington too wants to avoid turning the plan into an Israeli election issue. Whether Netanyahu can hold off from continuing to raise the temperature, though, is unclear.