Weapons of mass distraction
Ariel Sharon had hoped a new defamation campaign against Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership would restore his electoral fortunes. It hasn't turned out that way, writes Graham Usher in Jerusalem
One minute and 200 metres apart, on Sunday night two Palestinians detonated themselves in the heart of Tel Aviv, transient home for thousands of Israel's migrant workers and then teeming with rush hour traffic. Twenty-two Israelis and foreigners were killed in the blasts and 100 wounded.
Click to view caption
Israeli Jews and Arabs demonstrate in Jerusalem on Tuesday against a decision to bar two Arab MPs, Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara, from standing in the forthcoming Israeli elections. A decision is expected from the Israeli Supreme Court today
It was the worst atrocity inside Israel since 27 March, when a Hamas suicide bomber killed 28 Israelis in a hotel in Netanya. Ariel Sharon's response then was to lay siege to Yasser Arafat's Ramallah headquarters and order his army to re-conquer most of the West Bank Palestinian cities, where it has more or less remained ever since.
The reprisals this time included helicopter gun ships pounding foundries in Gaza City, an even tighter Israeli closure of the West Bank and an unannounced ban on all Palestinians under 35 travelling abroad.
By Sharonian standards these are tepid reactions, tempered by pledges he has made to the US not to enflame the occupied territories ahead of a war with Iraq and the need to solicit $12 billion in US aid and loan guarantees to steer Israel out of its economic crisis.
Shackled in the "war against terrorism", Sharon instead vented his rage on the Palestinian leader and leadership, which he again accused of "supporting, funding and initiating terror".
He prohibited a meeting of the PLO's Central Council that was to convene on 9 January to discuss a new Palestinian Constitution, including the new position of a Palestinian prime minister. He also barred a Palestinian delegation from taking up an invitation from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to attend an international conference on Palestinian reform in London on 14 January.
"The time is approaching when the international community will conclude that there is no hope of progress towards peace until and unless the Palestinian leadership is replaced," said Israel's Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, by way of explanation.
But not all of the international community sees things that way. While condemning the Tel Aviv attacks, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw "deeply regretted" the ban on the Palestinian delegation since "it is important these people are able to travel and we are able to engage in a process of reform."
Israel was not to be swayed. Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reminded Straw that President Bush had said leaders "compromised by terror" could not be partners for peace. "You in Britain are doing the exact opposite," he charged. "No," countered Straw, "it is Israel that is doing the opposite. Instead of concentrating on dealing with terrorism, it is striking at delegates."
According to British diplomats Blair is still determined for some sort of conference to go ahead, backed by lukewarm support from Washington, which first "regretted" Israel's decision but is now reportedly requesting that it be reversed.
"The reason there is opposition over our stance on Iraq has less to do with any love of Saddam, but over a sense of double standards," Blair told British ambassadors on Monday. "The Middle East peace process remains essential to any understanding with the Muslim and Arab world."
Sharon is likely to be unmoved by such arguments. He knows nothing will revive his poll ratings for Israel's upcoming elections more than another assault on Arafat, whom many Israelis believe is the source of all the evils that assail them. And such an assault is required because mounting allegations of sleaze are at last starting to gnaw away at Likud's commanding lead in the contest.
On Tuesday Israel's Haaretz newspaper ran a story that all but accused Sharon of lying to Israeli police officers investigating monies he had received from fictitious straw companies during his 1999 campaign for the Likud Party leadership. Sharon told the police he had paid back the company "loans" by mortgaging his ranch in the Negev Desert.
In fact, the money had come from an old South African friend, Cyril Kern, delivered by the uncanny midwifery of Sharon's two sons, Gilad and Omri, the latter now running for parliament on the Likud list. Under police interrogation, Omri insisted on his right to remain silent about the affair. His father backed him. "Look," Sharon told his questioners, "Omri's a big boy. He needs to decide by himself."
Last week, Sharon fired a Likud deputy minister, Naomi Blumenthal, for insisting on her right to silence during police investigations into allegations of corruption in 2002 Likud primary elections. It was unacceptable, said Sharon, for a public figure to resort to a citizen's right to remain silent, vowing to dismiss any Likud candidate who had used improper means to be elected.
Sharon is now under pressure to come clean on his South African connection. It remains to be seen whether the wash of good government he doused over Blumenthal will now extend to his sons or, indeed, himself.