JERUSALEM, June 14 (JTA) — Just after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon got Cabinet approval for his plan to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip because he sees no Palestinian negotiating partner, a bitter argument has erupted between top Israeli intelligence officers over whether Yasser Arafat could ever be a peace partner with Israel. The main protagonists are two former heads of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Malka and Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad. The latter is now a senior adviser to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Malka accused Gilad of deliberately distorting intelligence assessments to reinforce his view that there is “no one to talk to” on the Palestinian side. Gilad denies the charges, asking why Malka said nothing of the sort when he was Gilad’s superior before and after the failed Camp David summit in July 2000 or after the Palestinian intifada erupted later that year. Malka’s accusations have led to calls by Israeli opposition leaders for an inquiry by the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, but committee chairman Yuval Steinitz has declined, describing the controversy as “a tempest in a teacup.” The stakes in the disagreement are as much political as concrete: If Israeli leaders have formulated policy since the intifada began based on an erroneous intelligence assessment, it could further undermine a government gravely weakened by the effort to force the disengagement plan through a fractured Cabinet. Impervious to the controversy, however, Sharon is forging ahead with his unilateral withdrawal plan, based on Gilad’s widely accepted view that as long as Arafat is in power as Palestinian Authority president, no Palestinian will dare negotiate a real peace deal with Israel. In a June 10 interview with Ha’aretz political analyst Akiva Eldar, Malka made two headline-grabbing charges: That the forceful, articulate Gilad had promoted the unfounded notion that Arafat’s basic strategy is to destroy Israel by overwhelming the Jewish state with Palestinian refugees, and that Gilad claimed to have held this view even before the intifada — though military intelligence argued at the time that Arafat had resorted to violence merely to extort a better peace deal from Israel. In Malka’s view, Arafat was and is ready to make peace with Israel roughly on the basis of proposals offered by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton. Those proposals offered the Palestinians about 97 percent of the West Bank and a land swap to make up the shortfall, shared sovereignty over Jerusalem, Israeli acceptance of some responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem, and the return to Israel of some 20,000 to 30,000 Palestinian refugees. Malka’s case was backed up a few days later by Ephraim Lavie, another former intelligence official who had been head of the Palestinian desk in Gilad’s department. Lavie spoke of a “dangerous discrepancy” between verbal presentations to the government that highlighted Arafat’s intransigence and written research assessments that didn’t. He spoke of “unprofessional norms” and said there was no basis for the idea that Arafat sought to use demography to destroy Israel. On the contrary, Lavie said, arguing that Arafat didn’t want peace, and then treating him that way, had become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Even if the Palestinian leader wanted to make peace, he wouldn’t be in a position to do so. But Gilad says he has the evidence to prove that Arafat never abandoned his dream of a refugee “right of return” that effectively would destroy Israel by demographic means. Moreover, most of the current Israeli military and political establishment share Gilad’s view, including the current military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash , and the army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon. When the issue came up in the Cabinet, Mofaz also sided with Gilad. The controversy posits two contradictory views of Arafat’s basic strategy. For Malka, the Palestinian leader has used violence as a tool to achieve a political deal, while for Gilad, the use of terrorism is designed to get the international community to force Israel to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees, sparking a process leading to Israel’s demographic destruction. These opposing perceptions are at the heart of the differences between the advocates of last October’s “Geneva accord” peace proposal, who say that peace with the Palestinians is possible, and the Sharon government, which maintains that Israel must move on its own because it has no Palestinian partner. Yossi Beilin, leader of the left-wing Yahad-Meretz Party and the driving force behind the Geneva accord, says Malka’s claims undermine Sharon’s main argument for unilateral moves. Sharon aides respond that even if Arafat is not bent on destroying Israel by demographic means, Israel still will be overwhelmed by an Arab majority if it stays in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Therefore, they argue, Israel cannot allow itself to be held hostage any longer to Arafat’s intransigence, whatever its cause. Labor Party leader Shimon Peres argues that it’s important to find out who is right in the argument because of the implications for Israeli diplomacy, and he is urging the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to probe the issue. But Steinitz says he doesn’t want to “cheapen” the committee by launching investigations “on every issue that crops up.” The committee recently carried out a major investigation of Israel’s intelligence failings in the run-up to last year’s Iraq war. In an editorial Monday, Ha’aretz agreed with Peres that settling the argument is important, but suggested that after nearly four years of violence and terrorism the burden is on the Palestinians to prove they are ready for a peace deal. “Such a demonstration of intent could resuscitate the process of negotiation between two potential partners to a peace agreement,” the editorial said. The controversy comes as many in the international community are convinced of Arafat’s negative role. The Sharon government, backed by the Bush administration, has refused to deal with Arafat, arguing that he is deeply implicated in terrorism. Pressure on Arafat is growing, especially from Europe and Egypt, to step aside and transfer most of his powers to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, creating a situation in which peace talks can resume. In the meantime, Sharon is pressing ahead with his unilateral disengagement plan. He has set up a committee to work out compensation for evacuated settlers; insists that Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers, even those who voted against the plan, show “collective responsibility” and support it now that it has passed; and is exploring new coalition options, primarily with Labor and the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc. Together, the moves give the impression that Sharon will allow nothing to deter him from his withdrawal plans. While Malka’s critique is making waves on the political left, it’s causing scarcely a ripple where Sharon is concerned. Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.