This week’s dramatic rupture in the NATO alliance is seen by Israeli analysts as complicating and perhaps even diminishing Europe’s role in any future Palestinian-Israeli peace accord.
"It weakens Europeís position as one coherent voice," said Uzi Arad, former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "The Europeans took the lead within the Quartet, compared to Russia and the United Nations [which along with the U.S. are the other members]," he noted. "Europe is now in disarray and it puts into question the clarity and the cohesiveness of a European position."
The discord came as the public and security forces in Israel, the United States and England were put on high alert after intelligence sources in each country reported credible terrorist threats.
In Israel, a complete closure was ordered in the West Bank until Friday, preventing any Palestinian movement beyond Israeli roadblocks. Israeli security forces said they had received word of planned Palestinian attacks, including "mega" attacks on Israelis.
The disunity in NATO became apparent Monday when France, Germany and Belgium refused Turkey’s request to provide it with the military defenses in advance of an expected Iraqi reprisal attack should American-led forces attempt to forcibly disarm Iraq.
Arad, who is now director of the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, said the action of the three NATO nations raises questions of trust because NATO is a mutual defense organization.
"It makes all kinds of people wonder about their signed commitments," he said.
Turkey had requested that NATO provide it with Patriot anti-missile batteries, AWACS surveillance planes and anti-chemical and anti-biological equipment. The other 16 NATO countries supported Turkey’s request.
The political quarrel also demonstrates that many European nations, which "have an a priori pro-Arab stance, have apparently learned very little from their own history," according to Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. "They are today taking a stand which could potentially and tragically encourage those who perpetrate and encourage terror."
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, noted that the French reneged on a pledge in 2000 to have its own troops lead a European Union mission along the south Lebanese border that would disarm Hezbollah terrorists if Israel pulled out of its buffer zone there. Israel pulled out in May 2000 and France never acted.
"It’s much harder for them to be taken seriously now," he said.
The division in NATO may also delay an American-led attack on Iraq because Turkey is slated to be used as the launching pad from which American troops are to descend on western Iraq to destroy Scud missiles before they can be fired on Israel, Steinberg noted.
Once the Iraqi crisis abates, Shoval said he expects the Europeans to try again to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But, he said, "the U.S. has good cause to look at the Europeans with a jaundiced eye and say, ‘Who are you to take a leading position regarding the Middle East? If it is new Middle East, it is because of what we and not the Europeans are doing.’"
The U.S. Plan
Both Israel and the U.S. are expected to pursue the peace plan outlined by President George W. Bush last June 24. Bush is expected to ask Sharon to pursue a series of steps aimed at seeing the creation of a Palestinian state with permanent borders in the next three and a half years, according to Hirsch Goodman, deputy director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
It calls for the Palestinians to make major governing changes, including pushing Palestinian President Yasir Arafat aside for a prime minister. At the same time, Israel would freeze settlement construction, start security cooperation with the Palestinians, hold a regional peace conference and recognize a Palestinian state without borders, Goodman noted.
He said Sharon recognizes that he must make those moves if he wants to get an additional $4 billion in military assistance and $8 billion in loan guarantees from the United States. Such assistance is critical to helping Israelís battered economy and would be virtually impossible if he formed a narrow, right-wing government.
"This is the main reason Sharon will not have Avigdor Lieberman in his government," Goodman said.
Lieberman’s National Union, an alliance of three small parties, supports harsher policies towards the Palestinians. One of the parties openly supports the forced expulsion of Palestinians from the territories.
Alon Ben-Meir, project director at the World Policy Institute in Manhattan, said that flush from a decisive election victory, Sharon is enjoying a political honeymoon. But he said that unless Sharon includes either the left-wing Labor Party or the secular Shinui Party in his government (they came in second and third out of 26 parties in the election) his right-wing government would be very short-lived.
Not only has Sharon had problems wooing Labor into his government, but he has rival Benjamin Netanyahu as a "thorn in his side," pushing him to form a right-wing government, Ben-Meir observed. And such a government, he said, would "ensure that the settlement movement thrives."
Movement From Mitzna
For the first time this week, Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna held out the possibility Labor might join Sharon’s government by spelling out some of the compromises Sharon would have to make in return.
"Most of the public supports getting out of Gaza," he told Israel’s Channel One, adding that he prefers to see government money going to the 300,000 unemployed in the country rather than to supporting the settlements in Gaza.
"If Arik Sharon says he wants to begin evacuating settlements in Gaza, to seriously and swiftly finish building the [West Bank security] fence, transfer funds from settlements to socio-economic problems, I am a partner for negotiations," he said.
Asher Susser, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, cited polls that found a majority of Israelis in favor of both Labor and Shinui forming a government with Sharon’s Likud Party.
"That kind of coalition could make great decisions regarding the secular-religious [divide] and the Israeli-Arab conflict," he said. "It would be the best coalition we could have."
He said an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord could not come at a better time for Palestinians, whose economy is "the worst in the world except for sub-Sahara Africa."
If there is no agreement and the status quo continues for the next several years, Susser said, Israel would have to seriously consider the possibility of putting up a fence and unilaterally withdrawing from the territories or find itself outnumbered by Arabs.
"The worst of all possibilities is to do nothing," he said. "We should have a fallback position if there is no agreement."
Although he said he voted for the Labor Party, Susser said he would prefer Labor to join Sharon’s government even if Sharon refuses to make all the concessions Mitzna demands.
"I think the country should come before the party," he explained.
David Newman, a political science professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said Shinui should also enter the government.
"The best thing it can do is to go into the government and have arguments in the cabinet on issues relating to the allocation of resources and the rights of the secular and religious population," he said. Shinui leader Tommy Lapid "has to turn his demands into policy."
Newman said that although fervently Orthodox Jews in Israel who live on government handouts have "legitimate interests, they have to understand that resources have to be shared, particularly when so many people are unemployed."
The number of those who live on government handouts is about 25,000 to 30,000, he said.
Newman said he does not expect the fervently Orthodox to go into the army, but he believes they should be compelled to perform some form of alternative service in such fields as health services, education or social work.
He noted that would also be important to have Shinui in the government because its positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are mid-way between Labor and Likud.
"Shinui says terrorism must be fought hard but that if there is ever going to be a resolution of the conflict, there must be a two-state solution," Newman said.
He added that he has seen Sharon move away from ideological politics and more towards the "pragmatic center" in dealing with the Palestinians.
Just last week, Sharon acknowledged meeting with two senior Palestinian officials in recent days. His spokesman insisted that the meeting was only to arrange a staged cease-fire throughout the West Bank and did not focus on peace talks. The talks are reportedly continuing with aides.