JERUSALEM (Nov. 10)
An American “road map” for Israel-Palestinian peace is becoming a political hot potato for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
On the one hand, Sharon, who has been trying to keep relations with Washington smooth in advance of a possible U.S. attack on Iraq, does not want to oppose the U.S. peace plan.
On the other hand, with Israeli elections some three months away, he wants Israeli voters to know that he is not enamored of the plan.
Further complicating the situation, he has to deal with the criticism of the plan sounded by his newly appointed defense and foreign ministers.
During Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Sharon prevented Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz from answering when he was asked by Cabinet member Yitzhak Levy to explain his objections to the U.S. plan.
Israeli newspapers had quoted Mofaz as saying he did not think the road map addresses Israeli security concerns.
Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been equally critical of the U.S. plan.
In his first comments after being sworn in as foreign minister last week, Netanyahu said the road map was “not on the agenda” because of the anticipated U.S. attack on Iraq.
Hours after making the statement, Netanyahu was rebuked by Sharon.
Over the weekend, Netanyahu shifted his stance somewhat, saying that despite his own position regarding the road map, he did not intend to take any steps to change government policy in the time leading up to the elections.
The road map envisions a provisional Palestinian state by 2003 and full independence by 2005, provided the Palestinians crack down on terror and reform their government.
Israel has said it cannot accept the U.S. plan in its present form, arguing that progress is not linked strongly enough to Palestinian security performance.
Israeli officials have expressed their reservations in meetings with U.S. officials. The Palestinians are still working on their response to the road map.
Political observers doubt much progress will be made on the U.S. initiative before the Israeli elections.
In a separate development, former Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of Labor is reportedly planning to renew contacts with Palestinian Authority official Ahmed Karia to complete the outlines of a peace plan before the elections.
Peres hopes the Labor Party will advocate such a plan during the election campaign, the Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported.
U.S. envoy David Satterfield is visiting the region this week to promote the U.S. road map.
But as Israeli officials ponder how to deal with the diplomatic initiative, they also have domestic political considerations very much in mind.
After three years on the political sidelines, Netanyahu is now making a bid to unseat Sharon as leader of the Likud Party.
On Sunday, the two agreed to hold the Likud primary on Nov. 28.
Two recent polls of the Likud leadership race have shown contradictory results.
A survey of 500 Likud members, published last Friday in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, showed Sharon leading Netanyahu, 48 percent to 38 percent.
However, a poll by the Midgam Research company, published last Friday in the Jerusalem Post, indicated Netanyahu slightly ahead, with 40.9 percent of the vote to Sharon’s 40.5 percent. Both surveys had an error margin of about 4.5 percent.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the political aisle, legislator Haim Ramon may abandon his bid for leadership of Israel’s Labor Party.
An internal party poll shows that only 17 percent of voters in the party’s Nov. 19 primary support Ramon, while party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has 29 percent support and Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna stands at 47 percent.
According to the poll, if Ramon withdraws from the race for the primaries, Mitzna would garner 57 percent of the vote and Ben-Eliezer 37 percent.
Along with dealing with the U.S. diplomatic initiative and the run-up to the election, Israeli officials also continue the fight against Palestinian terror.
At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Mofaz said the Israel Defense Force would increase its anti-terrorist activities. A former IDF chief of staff, Mofaz said the army would focus on nabbing terrorist leaders.
His comments came one day after Israeli soldiers killed an Islamic Jihad military commander in Jenin.
Iyad Sawalhe was killed in an exchange of fire with Israeli troops Saturday after he was discovered by troops in a hideout built behind a kitchen wall.
Sawalhe’s wife turned herself in, but he resisted arrest, firing and throwing grenades at the soldiers, the army said.
Israeli officials said Sawalhe was responsible for a series of terror attacks that killed 31 Israelis and wounded some 90 others.
Sawalhe had been one of the main targets of the Israeli army operation in Jenin, launched two weeks ago. On Sunday, Israeli troops began withdrawing to the outskirts of the West Bank city.
An Israeli army commander said Sunday that 55 Palestinian terrorists and three would-be suicide bombers were rounded up during the two-week operation.
Israeli military officials called the killing of Sawalhe a major blow to Islamic Jihad’s efforts to carry out terrorist attacks.
But the terrorist group said Saturday it would continue to attack Israeli targets.
Later that day, Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the death of an Israeli army tracker who was killed when a mine exploded near the Gaza settlement of Netzarim.
Sgt. Maj. Madin Grifat, 23 of Beit Zarzir, was critically wounded in the explosion and later died in a hospital. Another soldier was moderately hurt in the blast.
Israeli officials discounted Islamic Jihad’s claim of responsibility, saying such mine attacks were planned over a long period and that the bomb had probably been planted before the Jenin raid in which Sawalhe was killed.