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Teetering on the brink

Al-Ahram Weekly – 14 March 2002

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent out deliberately confusing messages this week as he prepared for the return of US peace envoy General Anthony Zinni, a sign of America’s renewed, though possibly temporary, interest in the conflict.
 
The familiar “hawk” Sharon drove the army deeper into Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank at the weekend, putting into action his earlier declared pledge to inflict heavy casualties.
 
Dozens of Palestinians were killed in the bloodiest week of the Intifada as tanks and troops entered West Bank refugee camps and the air force again pounded the Gaza Strip.
 
But Sharon the convert “dove” also announced an about-face on his long-standing demand for seven days of quiet before peace negotiations could begin. He said he was “ready to do all I can to reach a cease-fire.”
 
Then on Sunday, after the Palestinian Authority captured the last suspect in the killing of Tourism Minister Rahavam Zeevi in October, Sharon lifted the ban on Palestinian President Yasser Arafat leaving Ramallah that has been in force since December.
 
The U-turns were, in fact, purely tactical. Sharon is still committed to his sledge-hammer assault on the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority.
 
But he has had to respond to the changing mood in Washington as American needs in its war on terrorism have shifted.
 
The White House demanded the easing of travel restrictions on Arafat so that he could attend the Arab summit in Beirut later this month. Progress on the Saudi peace plan to normalise relations with Israel, on which the West is pinning its hopes, depends on Arafat’s presence at the meeting.
 
Similarly, Washington judged that a commitment by Sharon to a cease-fire would contribute to calm in the region before US Vice-President Dick Cheney’s arrival this week. Cheney needs to build Arab support for anticipated US strikes against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
 
However, the apparently contradictory policy directions being taken by Sharon threatened to bring down the house of cards that is his coalition cabinet.
 
The first haemorrhage came late on Sunday when the extreme right-wing faction of National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu announced it was quitting the government in anger at the lifting of the demand for seven days of quiet.
 
Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Tourism Minister Binyamin Elon said they were no longer willing to be partners in the “continuing defeatism.”
 
Some 60,000 right-wing demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv on Monday night to make a similar point, protesting against what they see as a weakening of government resolve to defeat the Palestinians.
 
The cabinet resignations did not immediately threaten the government as Sharon still has a majority in the Knesset. But if he is forced to move further leftwards to maintain Labour Party backing, tensions within his own Likud Party will build rapidly.
 
And even loyalists suggested that unless Sharon achieves a cease-fire soon, about the only thing all Israelis are agreed would be a step forward, he will be lucky to see out the year in office.
 
“In such an event,” said one Sharon supporter, “he will be finished. He might as well not bother to run for a second term.” Binyamin Netanyahu, his rival for the Likud leadership, is already courting potential defectors on the right.
 
The first cracks in the unity government will do nothing to shore up support for Sharon among a war-weary public. The weekend casualties — 13 Israelis dead and more than 100 injured from a suicide bomb in a Jerusalem restaurant and two gunmen on the loose in the coastal town of Netanya — have further dented the prime minister’s image as Mr Security.
 
For the first time Sharon looks genuinely isolated, unsure of how to fulfil his pledge to stop Palestinian attacks, or who in his government can be relied upon to remain an ally.
 
Even before the weekend’s Israeli deaths, an opinion poll in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper on Friday recorded Sharon’s approval rating plunging from 68 per cent last month to 43 per cent.
 
Similarly, the most recent peace index survey by Tel Aviv university showed that only one in four Israelis thinks the prime minister is handling the security situation well.
 
There was little comfort from the rest of the survey either: the number backing his commitment to military force has fallen from 41 per cent last summer to 26 per cent; the percentage wanting international intervention, though small at 18 per cent, has doubled; and nearly a quarter of the population sympathises with the reservists’ refusal to serve in the occupied territories.
 
Public confidence in Sharon is likely to take even more of a battering with his sudden conversion to the negotiating process after months of allowing what the Haaretz newspaper called “the pointless bloodshed” of so many Israeli casualties.
 
Sharon’s next task will be to extricate himself from the web of conflicting expectations from his wavering supporters on the right and his hesitant allies on the left without tearing apart the government.
 
The Labour Party, now a mess of rival factions, has been unable to carry through its repeated threats to quit the cabinet, even though most of its ministers are privately opposed to Sharon’s hawkish policies.
 
In particular, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the government’s stalwart defender of the Oslo peace process, has admitted that had he known where Sharon was heading in the conflict he would not have agreed to join the cabinet.
 
Even the hard-line defence minister and Labour Party leader, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, has been increasingly at odds with the prime minister. Behind the scenes, he has been pushing for both of Sharon’s recent concessions: the lifting of the travel ban on Arafat and the dropping of the demand for seven days of quiet.
 
Meanwhile, there was growing anger among Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens at the latest wave of lethal attacks in the West Bank and Gaza.
 
On Sunday Arab leaders called a general strike against the occupation, the first since the beginning of the 18- month-old Intifada, to coincide with one staged by the Palestinian Authority in the territories.
 
It followed a rally in the town of Sakhnin on Saturday attended by tens of thousands of demonstrators. Arafat addressed the crowd via a telephone link, urging the Israeli government to continue on the path of the Oslo peace process.

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