WASHINGTON (May. 1)
Israel’s conditions for resuming peace talks with the Palestinians seem to change depending on who is delivering the message. In a new take on an old strategy, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres are talking differently — but, in fact, their overall strategies are very much the same.
“In any negotiations, it’s often advantageous to have a good cop and a bad cop,” said Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum.
In their appearances before American audiences, Sharon and Peres have adhered to their scripts.
Sharon is the classic bad cop, setting strong limits for the Palestinians and drawing clear lines in the sand.
“I don’t speak about reduction of hostilities. It should be a full cessation of hostility,” Sharon told members of the Anti-Defamation League’s annual leadership meeting Monday via satellite from Jerusalem. “It should be quiet.”
Peres, in the United States this week to present Israel’s views on the Middle East conflict, has been more sympathetic, listening and negotiating with the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors and giving Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat a little breathing room.
Interviewed on Monday by PBS-TV’s Charlie Rose, Peres said that despite Sharon’s rhetoric, he believes the prime minister will make some concessions for peace.
“I think he’s responsible enough and mature enough to understand that we have to take the necessary means, some of them very painful, in order to bring an end to the violence,” said Peres, a former prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Despite Sharon’s vow that he will not negotiate while Palestinian violence continues, Peres has been doing just that, spending Sunday shuttling between Cairo and Amman to discuss a proposed Egyptian-Jordanian plan for a cease-fire. Playing the good cop, Peres has explained that he is not violating Sharon’s vow since neither Egypt nor Jordan is firing on Israel — although their proposal was drafted together with the Palestinians, some of whom are firing on Israel.
The duo give very different answers when asked about U.S. involvement in efforts to stop the violence.
“I personally believe that most of the negotiations and talks should be bilateral,” Sharon told the ADL audience, effectively ruling out a U.S. role at present. “Basically, I think maybe that the best thing is to try and let the sides, first of all, to solve bilaterally the problems” facing Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
By contrast, Peres spoke Monday of “a division of labor” that would include a U.S. role. He spoke of “an important American involvement” that would help the two sides “negotiate directly, face to face.”
Israeli observers believe the Sharon-Peres dynamic is more a matter of personality than strategy.
“It’s not like they sat down and planned it this way,” said Steven Spiegel, professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles.
When an opportunity comes along like the Egyptian-Jordanian plan, it is Sharon’s first instinct to say no, while it is Peres’ first instinct to say yes. Then they find the middle ground, Spiegel said.
Sharon “is very happy to have Peres,” Spiegel said of Sharon. “He deeply needed someone like Peres.”
Smerling said the two leaders “respect, but suspect” each other. They are both old-style political heavyweights and have the ability to hold their own against each other.
“Neither of them, when they were in the junior ranks, felt constrained by their prime minister,” Smerling said.
For Sharon — who has angered members of his right-wing constituency by not being more aggressive — Peres represents an escape valve, enabling the government to negotiate without Sharon having to do it personally.
“If you had a younger, different kind of figure,” instead of Peres, Spiegel said, “it would be much harder to pull this off.”
Although some Israeli observers think the good cop-bad cop dichotomy is a result of genuine differences on where to draw the line, others say it is all part of the game.
“In politics, in the real world, you never push someone into a corner,” said an Israeli official in Washington.
Peres is giving Arafat the opportunity to agree to a deal, while still looking as if he “got something” from the Israelis.
“The strategy is for Arafat to move in a positive direction,” the official said. “To get him to do something serious to tone down the violence.”
The more hard-line view is that the Palestinians must see they achieved nothing by violence, discouraging them from resuming attacks in the future.
Peres maintains there is nothing accidental in the way he and Sharon operate.
“He knows what I am doing. We act in full coordination, even when we disagree,” Peres said. “I don’t think he invited me to be his partner in spite of my views, but because of my views.”