JERUSALEM (Oct. 7)
A brief but intense rift in U.S.-Israeli relations has been patched up, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon apologizing for his criticism of President Bush and allowing American officials unprecedented access to Israeli intelligence material in their war on terrorism.
Still, Sharon’s bitter eruption of rhetorical lava last weekend reflected deep seismic rumblings beneath the surface of Israeli policymaking.
In a prepared statement that he read to the press on Oct. 4, Sharon blasted Bush’s efforts to court Arab nations for his anti-terror coalition by pressuring Israel to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority despite unending Palestinian terror .
In a statement addressed to the United States and other Western democracies, Sharon warned, “Do not repeat the dreadful mistake of 1938, when enlightened European democracies decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for a convenient temporary solution.” The reference was to the infamous attempt to prevent a wider European war by granting Hitler’s territorial demands on Czechoslovakia.
“Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense,” Sharon added. “We will not be Czechoslovakia.”
The White House rejected Sharon’s remarks as “unacceptable.” Officials and commentators in both countries spoke of an unprecedented crisis between the two governments.
Though comparisons to pre-war Czechoslovakia are not uncommon in Israel’s internal political debate — pressure on Israel to buy quiet by meeting Palestinian demands frequently is compared to the appeasement of Hitler — some analysts read dark meanings into Sharon’s allegory.
After all, if Israel is Czechoslovakia, then President Bush is Chamberlain, the British prime minister who appeased Hitler at Munich in 1938. This, just as Bush was preparing to lead the West and other nations into a monumental war of “good against evil.”
After five telephone calls between Sharon and Secretary of State Colin Powell last Friday and Saturday, an apology from Sharon and public “clarifications” by his office, and remorseful interviews by the premier to two American newspapers, the crisis was officially laid to rest. Powell spoke of a “small cloud” that had passed, as such clouds do sometimes across the skies of the U.S.-Israel friendship.
On Sunday, for example, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that Sharon had authorized the defense establishment to allow the United States unprecedented access to data and information on the operating methods of special Israeli anti-terrorist units.
In addition, Israel and the United States were scheduled to hold strategic coordination talks in Washington this week, the first high-level discussions between the two governments since the Sept. 11 attacks and the establishment of the international coalition against terrorism.
To his domestic constituency, however, Sharon was less repentant for his outburst. Speaking with Yediot Achronot, the largest-circulation Israeli newspaper, the premier said he was not sorry for what he had said, though he pointedly added that “the argument is behind us.”
Sharon explained that American diplomatic moves behind Israel’s back — and a growing fear here that Israel would be subjected to unfair pressures once the war with Afghanistan began — had prompted him to speak out.
“I carried on for as long as I could” without reacting, Sharon told Yediot. Under strong American pressure, he said, “I enabled the meeting between” Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to discuss a cease-fire, despite ongoing violence.
Sharon, who is under European pressure to meet himself with Arafat, also allowed Peres to meet with several top Palestinian officials last Friday.
“But there is a limit. The moment the war begins ” with Afghanistan — as it did Sunday night Israel time — “an American emissary will be shuttling around this region with a” peace plan, Sharon said. “And Israel will be portrayed as undermining the American war effort.”
Rancorous words, and obviously heartfelt. Sharon initially hoped the international community would better understand Israel’s predicament in light of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but aides say he has grown increasingly exasperated as Palestinian violence continued and Arafat made little effort to rein in terror movements — yet the White House declined to label Hamas and Islamic Jihad as part of the worldwide terror enemy.
Sharon feels any distinction between “global reach” terrorism and the kind of terror that Israel suffers daily is specious.
Moreover, the premier was surprised, hurt and deeply suspicious when he learned last week that the Bush administration is readying a detailed peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and proposes to submit it formally very soon on the world stage. Israel had not been consulted at any stage of the preparation process.
Sharon fears that the United States increasingly will identify its national interests in the war against terror with the need to impose peace on Israel and the Palestinians. He knows the Bush plan broadly follows the Clinton proposal of a year ago — which calls for deep Israeli concessions and which Sharon and his Likud Party rejected.
On the left of Israel’s political spectrum, however, some leading voices ardently hope for renewed American efforts to realize the Clinton proposal.
Since peace talks with Arafat collapsed last winter under the Labor-led government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, many in the Israeli peace camp have concluded that only vigorous American intervention can bring peace.
These peaceniks — men like Shlomo Ben-Ami, the foreign minister who negotiated alongside Barak, and Yossi Beilin, justice minister in the Barak government — do not share Sharon’s fear of a new peace plan. On the contrary, they are buoyed by the news, signifying as it does renewed American engagement in Mideast peacemaking.
They hope, moreover, that America at war will be much more assertive than an America at peace, whose government has forever to persuade a reluctant public that foreign diplomatic involvements are in the national interest.
Diametrically opposed to the outlook represented by Sharon, this assessment of Israel’s interests embraces both those on the left who believe Arafat can still prove a peacemaker and those who have written off Arafat and hope that a new generation of Palestinian leaders will emerge.
Those in the first group hope intensified American pressure will finally produce the desired effect on the Palestinian leader. They pointed to some evidence early this week that, at last, Arafat’s police had begun arresting some of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives on Israel’s “wanted list.”
Those in the second group believe American determination to squelch Israeli-Palestinian violence, so that it does not constantly disrupt and upset the anti-terror coalition, can catalyze a changeover at the top of Palestinian politics.
Thus the new American activism has brought to the surface the old schism in Israeli politics between hawks and doves, which had been papered over until now during the national unity government’s eight-month tenure.
Yet Sharon’s pain at being left out of the anti-terror coalition — and his suspicions of what the Bush administration might have in store for Israel — are not confined to him alone, or even just to the right. Both sentiments do exist in the peace camp too.
Still, the feeling on the left was that Sharon’s outburst last week was ill-advised, if not downright irresponsible. Bush sees himself as leading the free world in an all-out war against evil. To tar him publicly with the brush of “appeasement” — just 72 hours, as it turned out, before he sent U.S. forces into action — was dangerous for Israel’s standing, many on the left believe.
Sharon, repentant in English, nevertheless is at pains to signal to his Israeli public that he is not sorry to have sounded an eleventh-hour warning bell on Israel’s behalf.