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New U.S. Peace Initiative Could Spell End of Sharon’s Government

U.S. pledges to increase Washington’s involvement in ending Israeli-Palestinian violence may be welcome in some quarters, but they are source of anxiety for some in the Sharon government.

Not only could a new U.S. initiative create new friction between Jerusalem and Washington, analysts here say, it could also trigger the breakup of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s fragile national unity coalition.

Word of the new initiative came over the weekend in New York, where world leaders convened for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said after a round of meetings with Middle East leaders at the United Nations that Washington is “looking for opportunities to become more actively engaged” in Middle East peacemaking.

That same day, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said after meeting with Powell that the United States would soon be publicly presenting its “principles” for peacemaking.

A day earlier, during a speech to the General Assembly, President Bush set something of a precedent when he spoke of “Palestine” as a future state.

“We are working toward the day when two states — Israel and Palestine — live peacefully together within secure and recognized borders,” Bush said.

U.S. officials have frequently made reference to a future Palestinian state, but they have not called it “Palestine.”

Powell on Sunday confirmed that the president had used the name intentionally.

“If one is moving forward with a vision of two states living side by side,” Powell said, “it’s appropriate then, as we start to reach more aggressively toward that vision, to call those two states what they will be: Israel, Palestine.”

For decades, the use of this term would have been seen in Israel as a deliberately hostile gesture.

“Palestine,” after all, is the word used invariably by the Palestinians to describe their national goal.

Some Israelis contend that it deliberately hints at the pre-1948 situation, when all of the country under the British Mandate was called Palestine — and that the current use of the term implies a vision of eliminating the Jewish state.

Ra’anan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said he is comfortable with Bush’s use of the name “Palestine.” Obviously, Gissin pointed out, Bush did not mean Palestine in place of Israel.

But it seemed equally obvious from the president’s remarks that Bush also did not mean the kind of unconnected islands of Palestinian self-rule, surrounded by swathes of Israeli control, that Sharon has put forward in the past as his vision of an eventual Palestinian state.

Even if Israel agrees to the idea of Palestinian statehood, as significant as the step may be, it will not be enough to paper over the very real and very deep differences that divide Sharon from the Bush administration — and divide Sharon from Peres.

This explains the growing speculation in Jerusalem that newly energized U.S. peacemaking could easily result in tension with Washington and in the collapse of the national unity government.

It was with the goal of preventing these two scenarios that Peres has been trying over the past several days — so far without success — to draw up with Sharon a mutually agreed list of Israel’s peace principles.

Their discussions reportedly hit a snag over the suggestion that Israel would have to dismantle some settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — or at least say it is ready to dismantle them — in order for its peace plan to carry credibility.

Sharon, constantly criticized from the right by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is opposed to any such concession at this time.

He knows it would cost him support from the Likud’s more hawkish coalition partners — and perhaps from some members of the Likud itself.

By the same token, Peres and the Labor Party leadership would find themselves under mounting pressure to end their coalition alliance with Sharon if the Americans step up their peace efforts — and the prime minister of Israel fails to respond in a positive and forthcoming way.

Meanwhile, events on the ground make the task of peacemaking seem formidable indeed.

The difficulty of getting Israel and the Palestinians to back off from their nearly 14 months of violence was made clear Monday, when the five permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, China, Russia, France and England — issued a statement calling on Israel to withdraw from two Palestinian-controlled cities in the West Bank and urging the Palestinian Authority “to take all possible steps to put an end to violence.”

On Tuesday, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority rejected the statement.

Israeli officials said they would withdraw from Jenin and Tulkarm after the Palestinians halt attacks against Israel. Palestinian Cabinet minister Hassan Asfour meanwhile condemned the statement, saying it justified “Israel’s terrorist acts against the Palestinian people.”

Israeli troops entered six Palestinian-controlled cities in the West Bank following the assassination last month of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi by Palestinian gunmen. Israel has since withdrawn from four of the areas.

The troops are remaining in Jenin and Tulkarm, Israeli officials say, because of repeated warnings that terror attacks on Israel will be launched from the two cities.

Along with the threats of new Palestinian violence, Sharon also has to contend with the pressures of domestic politics.

One such pressure point was created Monday night by Yossi Beilin, a leading Labor dove and close confidant of Peres.

Beilin accused Sharon of resisting peace by standing firm in his demand for a week of total quiet on the ground before implementing any of the proposals set forth by the Mitchell Commission in April.

A U.S.-led international panel, the commission set out a series of confidence-building measures to help end the Israeli-Palestinian violence.

As part of its new initiative, the United States is expected to press Israel and the Palestinian Authority to commit to the Mitchell recommendations as the means for getting the negotiating process back on track.

Speaking on Israel Television, Beilin said Sharon, for ideological reasons, is determined to avoid making such a commitment.

This, said Beilin, is because Sharon believes that once the negotiations resume, they will focus on the proposed solution put forward by President Clinton a year ago.

At the time, Clinton proposed to then-Premier Ehud Barak and to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat a Palestinian state on some 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza.

He also proposed that Israel would give the Palestinians territory within Israel that is near the Gaza border in exchange for three settlement blocs in the West Bank.

In addition, Jerusalem would be divided, with each side holding sovereignty over the areas presently inhabited by its nationals.

Sharon and the Likud have rejected these proposals, and if they resurface, Likud and Labor would find themselves at odds over how to react — and this could spell the end of the unity government.

Sharon, for his part, apparently hopes that the Bush administration will realize that pushing its proposals too hard could backfire.

For if the Sharon government falls, the polls predict, its replacement may well not be a more moderate coalition, but quite possibly a more hawkish one led by Netanyahu.

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