Visits of Israeli Politicians Spark Speculation on Sharon Succession

Three possible candidates to succeed Ariel Sharon spent the week cultivating a constituency crucial to anyone seeking to become prime minister of Israel: the U.S. government.

One attribute Bush administration officials were seeking was a willingness to advance Israel-Palestinian peace talks.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Limor Livnat all were in Washington this week for long-planned visits — but the coincidence of their arrival at a time when Sharon is in political trouble at home inevitably raised the issue of their future ambitions.

“There can be no doubt that they have that in mind,” Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher said of hopes for the premiership. “All three are serious contenders.”

An ability to work well with Washington is considered an electoral asset in Israel. Discord between Washington and Jerusalem helped scuttle re-election bids by incumbents Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 and Netanyahu in 1999. Making a good impression in Washington almost always helps back home.

That’s especially true now that Sharon’s popularity has suffered from a combination of influence-peddling allegations against his sons, the economic situation in Israel and increasing disquiet in the army with perceived hard-line policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Livnat was scheduled to meet Thursday with U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige and then address the conservative Hudson Institute about the intersection between education and incitement to terror — a topic dear to conservatives in Israel and to some U.S. Jews whom Livnat might target for future fund raising.

Netanyahu also was burnishing his statesman’s credentials, meeting Thursday with President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. The showpiece of his visit was to be his appearance Wednesday before a Senate committee to explain recently instituted pension-plan reforms in Israel.

“It hasn’t been done in many countries,” Ginossar said.

For Israelis, telling an economic superpower how to run a pension plan is like selling coal to West Virginia and could help distract attention from the severe budget cuts Netanyahu has introduced back home.

Netanyahu also was to present to the senators his proposal for a rail link between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea — the kind of grand economic vision Netanyahu has used effectively in his political career.

Currently, however, Israel lacks a rail link between its capital, Jerusalem, and anywhere else.

Netanyahu also has been discussing investments in Israel with major U.S. Jewish contributors, another important constituency for those seeking the top office in Israel.

It is Mofaz, however, who is in the most sensitive position. The defense minister has been closely associated with Sharon government policies that have irked the Americans, including a proposal to build a security barrier that ventures inside the West Bank and reticence to dismantle illegal settlement outposts.

One strategy for Mofaz has been to emphasize what Israel and the United States have in common.

In his meeting with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Monday, Mofaz raised Iran’s nuclear ambitions — a conversation fortuitously timed for the day a U.N. agency criticized Iran for hiding evidence of uranium and plutonium enrichment.

That kind of validation of Israel’s decades-long suspicions about the Iranian regime reinforces the Bush administration’s post-Sept. 11 appreciation for Israeli prescience. Rumsfeld likely was keen to hear what Mofaz had to say on the subject.

Mofaz and Rumsfeld also discussed Syria, another area where Israel and the United States agree more than ever. Bush has said he understands Israel’s recent bombing of suspected Palestinian terrorist camps in Syria, an unusual expression of support for an attack on another nation’s territory.

Given U.S.-Syria tensions over Iraq, Mofaz probably assured Rumsfeld that Israel would closely coordinate with the United States any further engagement with Syria, Alpher said.

Differences between the allies were more likely to arise Thursday, when Mofaz was scheduled to meet with Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Powell and Rice have criticized Israel’s security barrier, and Powell reportedly has expressed support for an unofficial Swiss-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal that the Sharon government has reviled as unauthorized and unduly concessionary.

The Bush administration expects Israel to accelerate the peace process now that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei is ready to present his new government, said David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The collapse of P.A. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas’ government in September gave Israel a breather from U.S. aggravation over some Sharon policies, but the installation of another relatively moderate Palestinian will return peace negotiations to the forefront of Israel-U.S. relations.

“The message will be that they’ve been on vacation for two months; now school’s back in session,” Makovsky said Tuesday.

With an eye to showing the kind of moderation that would win him a future election, Mofaz was expected to use those meetings to express readiness for a Qurei proposal for a cease-fire that would include Palestinian terrorist groups.

“I would think Mofaz would want to use the time he had on this visit to discuss with the United States a common strategy on how to approach this new government on counterterrorism, and how to develop a broader approach to deal with a truce,” Makovsky said.

It doesn’t hurt that Mofaz last week lifted some restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank.

Ghassan Khatib, the labor minister in both the Abbas and Qurei governments, said another sign of goodwill would be a lifting of travel restrictions on P.A. President Yasser Arafat, who has been marginalized by Israel and the United States because of his links to terrorism.

“You cannot expect the only Palestinian leader who can deliver the Palestinians into any serious process to stay under house arrest,” Khatib said in a telephone interview from the West Bank.

Khatib said Qurei was hoping to co-opt Arafat by conceding security control to the president. Abbas quit partly because his attempts to circumvent Arafat failed.

“I believe that within the current situation, with the minimum level of tension between the prime minister and president, it is more likely this government will more efficiently fulfill its obligations,” Khatib said.

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