Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed a constructive role for European leaders this week while calling on them to severe all ties with Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, who in a compromise Monday with his new prime minister still retained a grip on power.
But British Prime Minister Tony Blair rebuffed Sharon’s entreaties about Arafat, saying Britain would continue the relationship as long as it was useful. Sharon argued that Arafat was tied to terrorist activities and was attempting to undermine Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in his efforts to reach a peace agreement with Israel.
Just a day before their meeting, Arafat hosted Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Ramallah.
Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs, said he was "disappointed" that the Russians continue to deal with Arafat.
"If the Russians are interested in stopping terror, these type of visits are in contradiction of this policy," he told The Jewish Week.
He observed that the reported rapprochement between Arafat and Abbas, in which the two agreed to allow Arafat to help oversee Abbas’ talks with Israel, was "very bad news for those who hope that the pace starts developing."
Sharansky added that Palestinian leaders, instead of trying to look for ways to permanently stop 33 months of terror attacks, are using the cease-fire as a time to allow the restoration of the terrorist infrastructure that had been badly damaged by Israeli forces. The cease-fire was declared June 29 by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah.
There were reports this week that Palestinian terrorists had test fired a long-range Qassam rocket and were rearming by smuggling weapons and explosives through four tunnels linking Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
And despite the cease-fire, Amir Simchon, 24, was stabbed to death Tuesday on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa beachfront promenade by a Palestinian who said he was a member of the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, a militant arm of Arafat’s Fatah movement. Simchon was the third Israeli slain by Palestinian terrorists since the cease-fire.
During his meeting with Blair, Sharon reportedly called on him and other European leaders to help undermine Hamas by providing social and welfare services to the Palestinian people that are now offered by Hamas. Hamas provides everything from medicine to food, thereby winning tens of thousands of Palestinian supporters.
Sharon’s trip comes against a backdrop of warming relations between Israel and the European Union, which earlier this month declared that its relations with the Jewish state would no longer be contingent upon progress in the peace process.
"There is a sense that the road map is in a crucial phase and the EU wants to do what it can to help both sides," said Neil Wigin, a political officer at British embassy in Israel. "The better the relationship with Israel is the more the EU and Israel can cooperate. The EU realizes that its stock in Israel is very low and wants to set about addressing that."
Israel for its part realizes that it can’t afford to let relations with Europe languish because the continent is the second largest trading partner for the Jewish state. Also, now that the rotating presidency of the EU is held by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (who recently refused to meet with Arafat) Israel sees a window of opportunity to make new diplomatic inroads in Europe.
"We realize that Europe cannot be ignored. We have a half a year in which we would like to launch a new campaign to establish new relations with Europe under the presidency of Italy," said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. "The Europeans have started realizing that they can’t do anything if Israel boycotts them."
In a speech to British Jewish leaders, Sharon urged Abbas to wage a "very active struggle (and I would say, I would call it a war)" against terrorist groups.
A spokesman for Palestinian security forces was quoted this week as saying that they have begun seizing illegal weapons and arresting those in possession of unlicensed guns in Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Israel TV that Palestinians have arrested about 20 militants in recent days. Hamas and Islamic Jihad issued a statement deploring the arrests and said it might prompt them to reconsider their cease-fire.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio that although the Palestinian security forces have shown a "few signs of activity … there’s not the sort of action that’s required."
Meanwhile, another statement from Islamic Jihad suggested the cease-fire would end if Israel did not release more than 6,000 Palestinian prisoners it acknowledges holding. Although Israel had said it would release 300 prisoners unconnected to terror attacks, Israel Radio reported Wednesday that the government was now considering releasing some Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners and allow the return of 30 suspected terrorists banished to the Gaza Strip. The move, should it come, was seen as a response to American pressure to shore up support Abbas.
But Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said the road map for peace does not call for an immediate release of Palestinian prisoners but does call for an immediate dismantling of the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure and the disarming of terrorists.
Against this backdrop, a prominent Palestinian pollster, Khalil Shikaki, released a poll of 4,500 Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon that found that only 10 percent of them wanted to return to their homes in Israel. But only half that number would go back when told their homes are no longer there and that Israel would direct their resettlement.
Although as expected, 95 percent said they would never give up the principle of the right of return to Israel, the low percentage willing to actually make the move opens the door to resolving a key stumbling block to Israeli-Palestinian peace, according to Shikaki.
"The point is that Israel can now recognize a Palestinian right of return without a risk to its own Jewish character or demographic balance," he said. "These results are a win-win for everybody [because they show that] Israel’s worst fears will not materialize."
Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he too believed that the poll might "make Israel’s recognition of the principle of the right of return less risky. … And by conceding to Israel the absolute right to deny entry [to certain Palestinians], we might find a compromise formula" satisfactory to both sides.
But Gold, Sharonís adviser, insisted that Israeli policy is not based on polls, which could change tomorrow.
"Israel is not going to participate in an effort that will allow Palestinians to overrun the State of Israel with huge numbers of returning refugees," he said.