|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
22 - 28 March 2001
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Sharon gets his way -- mostlyIt wasn't all as smooth as it appeared, but Ariel Sharon got to Washington, and got what he wanted. Graham Usher reports on the rite of passage for the new Israeli leader and the new US president
Ariel Sharon's inaugural pilgrimage to the White House as Israeli prime minister was not quite the "love-fest" described by Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, though it did underline the new US administration's "collective amnesia" when faced with the Israeli leader's "previous crimes." In fact, between the choreographed handshakes and fake grins, there was the occasional squirm.
In closed session -- away from the cameras -- US Secretary of State Colin Powell made clear his opposition to Israel's ongoing policies of siege and closure in the occupied territories. "We understand your difficulty," Powell reportedly told Sharon at their tête-à-tête on Tuesday, but "you have to give the Palestinians some hope." And the US was allegedly furious at Israel Finance Minister Silvan Shalom's statement on Monday that the $54 million in tax revenue Israel owes the Palestinian Authority would not be transferred to "pay the salaries of Palestinian forces involved in terror."
Nor were the Americans pleased by Israel's Jerusalem municipality decision on Monday to approve construction of a further 3,000 housing units for the Har Homa settlement at Jebel Abu Ghneim in the occupied West Bank. "We don't think that continued construction activity like this contributes to peace or stability," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, with all the weariness of a father again having to excuse an errant child.
But these fluffs aside, everything went according to script. Bush demonstrated before Congress and AIPAC that the "special relationship" still exists between Washington and, if not yet Jerusalem, then at least Tel Aviv. And Sharon gained US covenant for three planks of his strategy vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
The first is that the precondition for any return to negotiations is the cessation of "violence," by which both Israel and the US mean ending the Palestinian uprising. The second is that the pursuit of a "comprehensive" settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict is now over. "Both sides require a dialogue that leads to mutually acceptable political, economic and security arrangements, be they transitional or permanent, partial or whole," Powell told AIPAC's annual conference on Monday, reading from a text that could have written by Sharon.
Above all, Sharon drew from Bush the "closure" he most wanted to hear. "We'll facilitate and we'll work with those responsible for peace," the US leader said after his meeting with Sharon on Tuesday. But "our nation will not try to force peace."
With that phrase, Bush drew a line on seven years of US diplomacy that not only "facilitated" the Oslo process but also at times dragged it by the nose. Now Oslo's agreements, timetables and "understandings" are so much dust on the junk-heap of history and no longer binding on anyone. They are rather to be succeeded by a vacuum that "the parties themselves" will have to fill. And, true to his bulldozer nickname, Sharon is already shovelling in the breach.
Addressing AIPAC supporters on Monday night, the Israeli leader unveiled his new, "more realistic" approach to "peacemaking." It consists of "two basic stages," he said. The first involves the "relentless fight against terrorists and their supporters with an effort to prevent escalation" by "improving the economic situation of the Palestinian population." This will eventually lead to a "non-belligerency and long-term interim agreement" grounded on "Israel's security and Palestinian [territorial] continuity and a better economic future."
Given the present undeclared state of war in the occupied territories, it is by no means certain that "the second stage" will be reached. But the wheels of the first are already in motion.
The "relentless fight against terrorists" has already seen the Israeli army divide the West Bank into 60 military enclaves and Gaza into four, with the siege in each area at the "discretion" of local army officers to "relax" or "tighten" as they see fit. The purpose is drawn from the oldest colonialist method in the book, says PLO negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo. "It's carrot and stick in the hope of dividing the people from the Palestinian Authority."
Should this fail -- as it almost certainly will -- Israel may be tempted to go after the PA itself, perhaps from within the Palestinian-controlled areas. Israel's military establishment certainly seems to be readying Israeli public opinion for such a course.
On Tuesday, Israeli army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz addressed the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee armed with a raft of statistics. These "proved" that PA security officers were responsible for 40 per cent of all Israeli fatalities during the Intifada, that Yasser Arafat's Force 17 presidential guard is the "leading force" behind the attacks and that the PA has an arms factory in Gaza producing mortars and grenades. The conclusion was not made but clear: Israel reserves the right to enter Gaza not to conquer it anew but to "abduct, destroy and kill" those installations and those Palestinians fighting it, says one Israeli source.
A similar construction can be put on Sharon's cryptic remarks at the close of his meeting with Bush. "We promised we would not surprise each other," he told reporters. So "don't be surprised if we punish the terrorists and those who send them."
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