JERUSALEM (Aug. 11)
The way top Israeli officials tell it, ties between Jerusalem and Washington have never been better.
They point to the relaxed camaraderie of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s late July meeting with President Bush at the White House, which they describe as their best ever.
“The two leaders are on the same wavelength on all the big issues,” a close Sharon aide told JTA.
For all the upbeat talk, however, the Sharon-Bush meeting revealed at least three major issues on which Israel and the United States are divided and could clash further down the road:
construction of the Israeli security fence, which Bush called “a problem,” and over which his administration is threatening to cut promised loan guarantees to Israel;
the concept of a settlement freeze, which Israel and the United States interpret differently; and
the timetable for the Palestinian Authority to dismantle terrorist groups.
According to Israeli officials, Bush’s unease over the security fence stems from a fear that it could compromise his vision of Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side in peace.
For the vision to become a workable reality, the Palestinian state, in Bush’s view, “must be viable.” A fence cutting into Palestinian territory and disrupting territorial contiguity could destroy that viability, Bush believes.
In their meeting, Bush urged Sharon to look at “the big picture,” and not to build the fence in such a way that it prevents a viable Palestinian state.
A few days later, in an interview with the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that what worried him and the president was the fence “producing faits accomplis with respect to what a state might look like” — that is to say, that Israel was moving unilaterally to determine a border of a future Palestinian state.
At about the same time, State Department officials leaked news of a contingency proposal to reduce the $9 billion in loan guarantees promised to Israel for every dollar spent on the fence where it veers into the West Bank.
It long has been American policy to cut aid to Israel for its non-security expenditures on settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the State Department view, the fence, where it cuts into the West Bank, might similarly be considered untenable Israeli development on Palestinian land.
No decision has been made yet on the loan-reduction proposal. Israeli officials, however, believe the Americans wanted to broach the idea to pressure Israel into building the rest of the fence more or less along the Green Line, the boundary that divides Israel proper from the West Bank, captured from Jordan in 1967.
Israel, it seems, is ready to comply. One of the options for the fence was to go around the city of Ariel, Israel’s largest settlement in the West Bank, some eight miles from the Green Line. That would have meant cutting deeply into West Bank territory in that one spot.
Now, however, officials are saying privately there are other ways of defending places like Ariel. The rest of the fence, another 100 miles to the south, probably will run very close to the Green Line.
Israeli officials are telling their American colleagues that the main reason the Palestinians don’t want the fence is that it will take away the leverage terrorism has given them throughout the past decade of negotiations.
“The Palestinians thought they would come to negotiate now, and if it doesn’t work out, simply go back to terror,” one official said. “But with the fence stopping the suicide bombers, it won’t be so easy for them to do so.”
The second possible flashpoint in Israel-United States relations is the question of a settlement freeze and the dismantling of unauthorized Israeli settlement outposts — often a mobile home or two on a hilltop not far from an existing settlement. Again, the problem is the president’s fear that settlement expansion could compromise the chances of creating a viable Palestinian state.
The administration fears that unauthorized outposts will be joined to existing settlements, taking in swaths of land Palestinians claim as their own. Israeli officials counter that that’s simply not on the agenda, noting that 22 such outposts have already been dismantled and that 12 more will be taken down over the next few weeks.
Still, there could be problems. The Americans insist on a building freeze even in existing, full-fledged settlements, while Israel says it must be allowed to accommodate natural population growth in existing settlements — though the “road map” peace plan clearly prohibits that type of expansion as well.
In Israel’s view, in any case, the key to the success of the diplomatic process isn’t the fence or the settlements but whether or not the Palestinians disarm the terrorist militias, as called for under the road map.
P.A. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, say there’s no need to confront groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad as long as they are maintaining the temporary cease-fire, or hudna, that they declared at the end of June. Taking on the terrorists now, they argue, would spark a Palestinian civil war.
They say they prefer to wait until the Palestinian public gets used to peace and quiet and rejects groups like Hamas, whose ideology would lead them back to violence and suffering.
Israel says the groups are using the cease-fire to rearm for future confrontations, and that allowing the groups to flourish — even if they’re not carrying out attacks right now — is like keeping a loaded gun to Israel’s head, one that surely will be fired sooner or later.
The Israelis argue that Abbas and Dahlan easily could dismantle the groups right now: The Palestinian Authority has some 20,000 men under arms in Gaza and 30,000 on the West Bank, whereas the militants number only a few thousand at most.
The American position is ambivalent. Powell has said that the United States “will not be satisfied until terror has been eliminated, not just for the moment, not just for a hudna, for good.”
Yet, he adds, “We need to show a little bit of patience and flexibility to make sure that it happens in a way that does not result in a situation that undercuts or brings down Mahmoud Abbas, because then where are we?”
A senior Israeli official describes the emerging situation, in which the cease-fire continues but the militias are left untouched, as a “honey trap” for Israel.
Hamas and other terrorist groups are rearming massively for a new round of terror, he says, “but if the cease-fire continues, the government won’t even be able to explain to its own people, enjoying peace and quiet, the need for the” Israel Defense Forces “to preemptively smash the terrorist infrastructure.”
Worse, he says, the Israeli fear is that in an ongoing cease-fire situation, the Americans might press Israel to move on to the next stage of the roadmap without the Palestinians having carried out their most basic commitment: disarming the militants.
The senior official acknowledges that President Bush could not have been more emphatic in demanding that the Palestinians disarm the militias before taking the peace process any further.
But, he says: “That’s the American position now. Who knows what it might be several months down the road if the hudna is extended and holds.”