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Ben-eliezer Finally in Washington, but Sharon Still Takes the Limelight

February 8, 2002
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In any other week, the visit of an Israeli defense minister probably would grab headlines in Washington and prompt red carpet treatment from the White House and Congress.

But as Benjamin Ben-Eliezer meets with U.S. political leaders, his visit and his message is overshadowed by those of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who met with President Bush at the White House on Thursday evening. Ben-Eliezer did not participate in the meeting.

Ben-Eliezer may simply have chosen the wrong week to make his first appearance in Washington since Sharon’s unity government was seated almost a year ago. His visit was planned long before Sharon’s, who was invited by Bush only a few weeks ago.

On the other hand, he could be wearing his other hat — new chairman of the Labor Party — to show voters back home that Sharon is not the only official with good ties to the American government.

“This is the way Israel is,” said Stephen Cohen, national scholar for the Israel Policy Forum. “Israel sets up a number of alternative policies at the same time. If any of the policies proposed has a real possibility of achieving a response, then it will go forward.”

In meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney; the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice; the secretary of state, Colin Powell; and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld; Ben-Eliezer urged the United States to increase the pressure on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to reject terrorism and look for alternative conduits to the Palestinian people.

“I expect the Americans to put pressure on Arafat, in order to neutralize him,” Ben-Eliezer said in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He can do the job, but he doesn’t want to do the job.”

Ben-Eliezer’s message is softer than Sharon’s, who was expected to ask Bush to cut all ties with Arafat.

Uzi Landau, Israel’s minister of public security, also was in Washington this week for meetings about homeland security. He asked the White House to add the Palestinian Authority to the “axis of evil” — Iran, Iraq and North Korea — that Bush cited in his State of the Union address last month.

Though the invitation to Sharon came from the White House, some observers speculate that he chose to meet with Bush this week for fear of being overshadowed by Ben-Eliezer. The defense minister has said he probably will pull Labor out of the unity government some time later this year.

Sharon also may have been worried that an alternative peace plan Ben-Eliezer reportedly is preparing could get White House attention or, even, an endorsement.

“It’s part of the fact that Israel has a unity government, but it doesn’t have a unity policy,” Cohen said. “For what should be Israel’s proposal beyond the military proposal, there is no consensus.”

While domestic concerns may explain the two politicians’ jockeying, the multiplicity of official Israeli voices — Foreign Minister Shimon Peres also pushes pet diplomatic projects that may not have Sharon’s full blessing — sends confusing signals to foreign leaders, including the Americans.

“That’s not new to us,” a State Department official said. “But it does have some unique communication issues. One has to be aware of the domestic environment.”

Last year, Peres was in the United States pushing the idea of dialogue with the Palestinians while Sharon was insisting that Israel would not negotiate until Palestinian attacks ceased for a week.

Sharon often gives Peres some leeway because of his international status as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former prime minister. In addition, some believe Sharon and Peres engage in something of a good-cop, bad-cop routine that ultimately widens Israel’s opportunities for negotiation.

Sharon’s relationship with Ben-Eliezer seems to be less amicable and, indeed, less coordinated.

“The Labor Party will continue to be in this government as long as all of us are facing security problems,” Ben-Eliezer said. “I will leave the government at the second when I will feel there is a chance of real breakthrough, and that by staying in this government I have been blocked.”

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