Re-inventing Sharon?

Whereas in Cairo, Israeli Foreign Minister was talking about ” the need to change rhetoric”, and telling reporters that “the greatest mistake, the mother of mistakes is war”, the Israeli government was taking a new step to show that no flexible position would be allowed. It is noteworthy that the decision to build several new towns in the Halutza sands region – a part of the Negev near the Gaza strip and along the border with Egypt-, was taken on the same day Shimon Perez arrived to Egypt for a short meeting with President Mubarak and Chairman Arafat. But would it be too excessive to say that the Cabinet decision was intended to put Perez on the “wrong side”, albeit he did not spare his energy reserves to convince his Arab interlocutors of Sharon’s tight and stiff point of view about keeping absolute calm for at least seven days, before starting to implement the Mitchell Committee recommendations? It is not amazing to state that as for Perez last visit to Cairo, even the Israeli press was suspicious, since it is not sure that he believes himself in the operational effect of the message he has just delivered, unless in getting older he has grown credulous, as well! But this is perhaps the style of Sharon’s management which has not been tested yet, neither by the Arabs nor by the Israelis themselves, although everybody knows who is actually Sharon and what he is aiming at. He did nothing to hide it anyway: “No Zionist government will decide to transfer state land to a foreign element”, is he reported as saying on July 15’s Yediot Ahronot! There you are, peace seekers ! Your “land for peace” principle is being merely thrashed and sent out to the trash can! Those who protest that anyway Arafat had already rejected the deal once proposed by Barak -: taking control of Halutza sands in return for Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank that contains the heaviest concentrations of Jewish settlers -, omit that it is not so much the Halutza future that matters to Sharon, for no Israeli Prime Minister would ever have dared propose this land to the Palestinians if it was really worth keeping for the Israelis, and this is also the reason of Arafat’s rejection. What actually motivated Sharon was rather the will to veto any future negotiations involving the right of return to the Palestinian refugees of 1967 and 1948’s wars. Otherwise, the obstacle upon which the American led Camp David negotiations fell apart. That is the new style of Sharon’s government: keeping the pressure outside, while wedging the nail in the coffin of the peace process inside! Whether Foreign Minister Perez is aware of the game his boss is playing on his back or not, is matter of speculation. For some Arab observers, the two men are as “united” as Dr Jekill and Mr Hide. Anyway, when Perez landed in Cairo, President Mubarak asked him whether he came to get things ahead or to play time, reports say. And to make clear to what extent Perez Opinion is really worth for the Israeli Prime Minister, His spokesman was saying that he ” made no secret that he doesn’t intend to allow the right of return of Palestinians to sovereign Israel”. And since these are the facts, apart from demolishing homes, firing tank shells against civilians, penetrating the Palestinian territories for a ten thousand time and taking people in custody or even assassinating them, and repeating every day the same scenario ruthlessly and tirelessly, while still complaining that the Palestinians are a violent people that wants to force its way to the “state” upon Israel and the whole world, what is the point of sending out a former Nobel-prized Minister if not to ridiculise the mere idea of working for peace with the Arabs? So, if Ariel Sharon have never existed, would it have been necessary to create him ? It is up to the Israelis to answer such a question.

Yet, it is not only the person of Perez that is targeted, and it is not even his party who anyway failed to reach any compromise with the Arabs, and this is why – don’t forget it- it is right now represented in Sharon Cabinet. What is actually being targeted is the American involvement in the Peace Process. This is something Sharon would be much happier if it never happened. For it is obvious that the American refusal to back and condone all his acts is so far what held him back from launching an all-out military invasion of the Palestinian territories, – an option that is still on all the newspapers, and on the Israelis’ in first rank.

No later than July 12, Raanan Gissin, spokesman of Ariel Sharon declared: ” the army has plans to cover all the possibilities”, and he explained: “There are three options: surrender to Arafat, to go ahead with this plan – to occupy – or to continue the current course of restraint and self-defense. The government has said it’s committed to peace; but this situation can’t last forever. Yet, we know by some well-dosed leaks that when the hard-line Ministers clamored for an assault on the Palestinians, it is Sharon himself who, playing the doves, opposed it! What then ? Has the big old man grown soft and flexible? What a great disappointment for his admirators! Yet even if this is to add a strain to an already black picture, one cannot omit the fact that by the most fateful coincidence- !!- it is well since his ascencion to power that the whole region grew steaming and boiling with rumors about a looming war! These are not the Arab journalists trumpetting for the Apocalypse, but well the Westerners and the Israelis as well. All those who read the press know what the headlines were about so far, and at last, some Israeli officials joined the chorus. Here you have Reuven Rivlin, Israeli Communications Minister, declaring:” Our patience is coming to an end, and we can’t bear every day another casualty”! And there you have his colleague, Dalia Itzik, Industry Minister replying as an echo: “The scent of war is in the air” ! One day Perez says: ” War is the mother of mistakes”! And another day – or even another hour!- his colleague in the Cabinet, the same Rivlin, warns: ” If everyone in Israel comes to a conclusion that the elimination of Arafat is the only way to stop violence, then we will be forced to do so”! Worst: we do not know whether Perez represents the Government or no longer though he is still part of it! Leaks still well dosed let us think that between Sharon and his Foreign Affairs Minister there may be an important , though not a grave, dispute. For when Sharon referring in a Cabinet reunion to the makers of the Oslo accords, said: “Anyone who thought we could place our security in Arafat’s hands was mistaken”, he was immediately replicated by Perez: “Without Arafat the situation will only be more difficult”. And since we know how “high” Arafat is placed in Sharon’s mind – :e.g. a “murderer”, and a “pathological liar”!- and vice-versa, no wonder if some Arab influent observers or advisers to the PA Chairman or to Mr Mubarak, see Perez as an isolated actor performing a “one-man-show” on the stage, in a theatre deserted by the spectators! For one thing is clear: Whatever his intentions, Perez is not going to re-invent Sharon and to sell him to the recalcitrant neighbors. He has to deal with realities. That is the only way for peace. In return, it is no less obvious that he thinks that Arafat had been bypassed by his own people upon which he could not get complete control, for according to July 16’s Ha’aretz, he told him in Cairo:” …The Tanzim (paramilitary) operatives in Hebron, who are subordinate to you and under your responsibility, carry out these terrorist attacks”! And since this is his own statement, how could he back Sharon’s tight and stiff view and ask Arafat for an absolute calm during seven days? And what is this “absolute calm ” anyway, which does not exist even in Paris or London? This is exactly the “counterproductive” kind of conditions that would only inflame the situation, for they are perceived as provocations by the Palestinians, who undergo the daily humiliating plight of the occupation.

The need ” to change the rhetoric” is thus appliable to the Israelis themselves, but would they care? Is it not odd that those who officially make of the murder of their opponents a policy of the State, ask the others to “change the rhetoric”? And if we make the effort of reading what is printed black on white in the Israeli papers, we would not miss to note that there is even worse than the Israelis acknowledge. For example, Maariv published recently excerpts of what it called a top-secret document prepared last fall by the Shin Bet and presented to then-Prime Minister Barak: ” Arafat, it says, is a severe threat to the security of Israel. The damage from his disappearance is less compared to the damage from his continued survival”.

The document has been authentified, and even presented to Sharon, as it seems. So, when exactly did that talk about murder start? With Sharon or with Barak?

Maybe it is pointless to argue now about who started what, but it is quite evident that if rumors are part of the show and that they are wanted for their effects, some acts and facts cannot be denied: on June 2, following a suicide operation that killed 21 people outside a Tel Aviv disco, a large-scale attack on Palestinian territories has been put off by Arafat’s announcement of a cease-fire. The point is that a great number of observers have been wondering since then: For when has that assault been postpointed?

The American envoys- it is true – are keeping the pressure on Sharon, as well as on Arafat. Tenet, Powell, Burns, Satterfield did their job, undoubtedly. Yet, they can do more than what it has been done, so far: this is a widespread opinion among the Arabs and the Europeans as well. Mr Richard Boucher, State Department spokesman, explained lately that the travel of Mr Satterfield following up on the discussions that Mr Burns and Mr Powell held in the region, aimed at ” improving security cooperation, the restoration of calm and progress towards the implementation of the Mitchell Committee recommendations in all their aspects “. He made sure that the Administration is “troubled” by the Israeli entry into the Palestinian territories and the demolition of homes in Jerusalem and Rafah… Yet, if one must acknowledge that without this American “presence”, the situation would have been worse, it is obvious though that the Americans are not putting even 1/10 of their weight in the balance, which is precisely what they are reproached. As a matter of fact, it sounds as if the Americans have no alternatives. Mr Boucher said: ” it is important to stop the violence, it is important that the parties themselves bear down and stop the violence through their own efforts”, and this is also what everybody says, either in the Bush Administration or in Europe, or even in the inflamed region. Yet, on the ground it seems sometimes lunatic! And the reason for that failure is well known: there is a difference between discourses and concepts and operational plans. And it is precisely that difference which makes a policy sound or unsound, realistic or fanciful. And it is odd, above all, that the Americans who have been dealing with the region for as much years as the Israeli state may afford, are still so “shy” and hesitant in their dealing!

“The US has not given a green light for any Israeli military action”, said Susan Pittman, speaking for the State Department recently; and this may be okay and “almost” true! ” Almost” because Sharon would not need it to send his tanks into the Palestinian territories, a thing – you would observe- he did not refrain from doing, despite the presence of The American envoy in the region. That is also Sharon’s new style of managing. He would not go to Washington in order to get a ” green light” . What for, if he can profite of the presence of an American envoy and send out his tanks to break the Palestinian bones? Indeed, no American diplomat would ever say to Sharon: ” Yes, go ahead! Crush them!” But did he really need that? Had he asked the Americans for their “green light” when he invaded Lebanon in June 1982 or – better – when he supervised the butchery in Sabra and Chatila? What ? Are the Americans so naive or amnesic?

Let’s proceed in order. Upon which country the Israelis are relying for their military equipment? That same equipment that allows them to behave just as they do. Uncle Sam could not have lost the sense of the realities, since this is a matter of public records. We know that since 1950, the United States has provided more than $46 billion dollars in grant military aid to Israel. Besides, Israel has also received many billions more in grant ‘economic aid’, loans for military purchases and used American armaments. Would anyone pretend then that the US cannot do more to bring peace to the Middle East? Who knows Israel more than the US, and who better than those who know can pressure and ask for concrete steps?

To say that the US has not accorded a green light for Sharon is perhaps true. Yet, it is inaccurate in the light of what has been happening for years. For while the Israeli defense-industrial complex that the United States helped to build was becoming one of the world’s most competitive arms exporters, Washington could not ignore that some of Israel deals were not only unlawful but also harmful for the American State itself. What did the former administrations to stop Israeli cooperation with countries such as Cambodia, Colombia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, Burma, Zambia etc… who are all either under embargoes or severe restrictions? And what about helping China build its current F-10 fighter jet, thanks to American technology, or transferring a Patriot Missile as it has been rumored to the Chineese? And who has forgotten the quite recent affair of the Awacs? It took more than half a year of intense pressure, including unofficial sanctions and threats to further withhold certain types of US technology, before Israel was forced to abandon the sale! That shows at least that when Washington wants to pressure really, it gets things done or undone. Yet, Israel was not hindred in 1999 from selling a Phalcon airborne radar to China worth $250 million. And though Israel pretended that the Phalcon does not contain US technology, the American officials said ” the system is closely related to the Awacs”!

Did the Israelis ask for the American green light when they transferred US technology to countries under restrictions thus abusing their own allies and helpers? And what about the section 4 of the Arms Export Act, that stresses that weapons may only be used for the purposes of “legitimate self-defense”? Were the F-16 fighter jets “self-defending” when they unleashed their laser-guided bombs on the civilians who took refuge in a UN asylum in 1997, in Lebanon, or even more recently in the Palestinian territories?

Of course, the Arabs can understand that the US want to keep the alliance with Israel strong and sound. This is a matter of sovereignty. It is not to be discussed. But what seems irrational for the Arabs is the fact that although pretending to have a word in the future of the region and really shifting their policy to be more credible – especially since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the end of the cold war- , Washington is not actually pressuring in order to get things done, as they know it can do. Many keys are in the American hands, but they are not playing them: weapons,technology, economic and financial assistance, and so much other items, and still, nothing has been done since the arrival of Mr Bush to the White House. So, it is quite understandable that there is matter for worrying.

Now, was it to hinder these worries from growing into disappointment and bewilderment that ex-President George Bush called Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah last month, as it has been reported on July 16’s Washington Post issue, to “assure him of his son’s good intentions toward the Middle East” ? Anyway, the call did not go unnoticed, and though unuseful in a country like the USA, it is sure that in the present context it makes sense.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.

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