The tragically high proportion of children and babies among the 18 dead and 120 injured in the latest Palestinian terror atrocity appears to have shocked prime minister Ariel Sharon out of his uncharacteristic meekness in the face of rising Palestinian demands and surge of terror. Two Palestinian suicide attacks went by last week without response.
But Tuesday night, August 19, a Hamas imam, Ra’ad Misak from Hebron, detonated his bomb belt in the middle of a busload of families returning from the Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
The Sharon government finally roused itself to freeze talks with Palestinian leaders over the handover of four West Bank towns and suspended all exchanges and contacts with Palestinian representatives. Israel had been on the point of turning over the first two towns, Jericho and Qalqilya, by the end of the week, after dropping its basic demand for tight surveillance over wanted terrorist murderers.
Ever since the Aqaba summit on June 4, these exchanges were based on Israel falling back step by step in the face of Palestinian demands, compromising even on its most fundamental condition, namely that the new leaders of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan, first dismantle terrorist structures as laid down in article one of the road map. Israel did not stiffen even when the Palestinians were far from upholding the ceasefire they themselves had declared six weeks ago.
Tuesday morning, Israel’s security chiefs laid a confidential report before the prime minister which revealed that Dahlan and his men were staging sham anti-terrorist crackdowns to fool Washington. Later that day, the Palestinian minister quite openly elevated Rashid Abu Shback, his sidekick when he ran the Gaza Strip terror machine at its peak in 2000 and 2001, to command the newly merged West Bank-Gaza Strip preventive security service. Abu Shbak is on Israel’s wanted terrorist list.
The question commonly asked in Jerusalem in recent weeks was: why does the Sharon government put up with this mockery and keep the negotiations going, knowing they will go round in circles and end up at starting point, the resumption of full-scale suicide terror?
The answer discovered by DEBKAfile’s Washington and Jerusalem sources is that Sharon entered the process from a position of weakness. The best-kept secret in Jerusalem, one which explains the Sharon government’s exceptional docility, is this: the warm personal rapport prime minister Ariel Sharon developed with US President George W. Bush is no more. A widening breach has taken its place, dating from the June 4 Aqaba summit which anointed Mahmoud Abbas Israel’s Palestinian partner in the process to revive the Bush peace plan.
Since then, the Bush-Sharon relationship has gone downhill.
The first impediment appeared when the Iraq War ended its combat phase and Bush embarked on the fulfillment of his long-term vision. Since it also entailed replacing incumbent Arab regions of the Middle East with democratically elected, enlightened leaderships, Bush believed that in the long run Israel would benefit. Sharon supported the vision but with unrealistic expectations.
He soon woke up to the realization that Israel’s strength, military, social and economic, had been cruelly eroded by three punishing years of warfare against intrusive Palestinian violence and it could not afford to wait for the fulfillment of the US president’s plans. Even worse, America’s first steps on the way to its goals expose Israel to great, possibly existential, danger. Sharon’s diplomatic and defense policies, hinging on unswerving loyalty to the Bush line, were now proving untenable because of the conflict between the Bush administration’s postwar strategy and Israel’s vital security interests.
Ever since he was cut out of the White House loop, the Israeli prime minister has locked himself away, denying access even to his closest aide and main go-between with the White House, chef de bureau Dov Weisglass, whose frequent trips to talk to Condoleezza Rice have stopped abruptly. Sharon trusts no on else to talk with officials in Washington. Foreign minister Silvan Shalom is not considered capable of handling high diplomacy; neither is the Israeli ambassador Danny Ayalon.
DEBKAfile’s political sources discovered that Sharon’s breach with the White House, a secret in Israel outside inner governing circles, has made him vulnerable to the rising tide of personal attacks buffeting him day by day by factions who sense a chance to unseat him. Two allies, defense minister Shaul Mofaz and trade and industry minister Ehud Olmert, tried out a plan, supported by friendly circles the US congress, to restore the terms of trust between Bush and Sharon. The plan was for Sharon to go the extra mile for the sake of the Bush peace plan by preserving the ceasefire, notwithstanding continuing terrorist initiatives, and, despite the absence of a single Palestinian finger raised to stamp out violence, offer to hand over to Palestinian control not one but four West Bank cities.
The planners forgot to keep an eye on the Palestinians.
Sharon’s magnanimity was interpreted as a sign of weakness and its cause, the ebb in Sharon’s relations with the US President, quickly picked up in Ramallah, which thereupon raise the level of terrorist threats. Abbas and Dahlan decided to parlay Sharon’s moment of weakness into political capital in their own camp. DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources report that, in the first week of August, the pair called on Yasser Arafat and bragged that their clever machinations had damaged the Israeli prime minister’s standing in the White House. They tantalizingly asked Arafat how many years it had taken him to make trouble between Washington and Jerusalem.
Arafat did not rise to the provocation. He kept silent and prepared a rejoinder.
Since then, the Palestinians have carried out three suicide attacks against Israelis, although more were attempted. The last one on Tuesday was staged at the very moment that Abu Mazen was in negotiation with Palestinian Islamists for a ceasefire extension after the first three months are up at the end of September.
Instead of being extended the truce was effectively cut short. The bid to save the ceasefire and the Bush-Sharon friendship both ran into the sand at the very moment that the two leaders stand in need of all the help they can find to confront the rage of Arab terror.