Israeli officials in the United States for talks with the Bush administration have stressed that they will continue to hold discussions with “realistic” Palestinian leaders even as they confine Palestinian President Yasir Arafat to his headquarters in Ramallah and counter Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian efforts to help the Palestinian terror campaign.
As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flew to Washington for talks Thursday with President George W. Bush at the White House, saber rattling picked up between Israel and Iran.
Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani warned that if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear reactor, “we will respond in a way no Israeli politician has ever dreamed about. … Iran is not a small country like Iraq. Iran has a powerful artillery, a disciplined army and skilled air defenses.”
The government-controlled media in Iran have predicted that Israel would bomb the reactor similar to its 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor.
Although Israel’s Transportation Minister, Ephraim Sneh, told Israel Radio, “Israel never had and does not have any intention of attacking Iran,” Jane’s Intelligence Review predicted Israel “will almost certainly” launch a pre-emptive attack before the reactor could generate enough weapons-grade material to make ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.
Mordechai Kedar, a professor at Bar-Ilan University who is an expert in state-sponsored terrorism, said he would not rule out such an Israeli attack. Kedar said it took 10 years, until the Persian Gulf War in 1991, for the world to appreciate Israel’s action against the Iraqi reactor.
“So you can see that acting now against the Iranian nuclear reactor” might be perceived as wrong but that in the long run “it would be seen as the right action,” he said. “And no one is now more interested in doing this than the United States of America.”
The Bush administration has been convinced by Israel that Iran played a key role in the Karine A, the ship containing 50 tons of weapons and explosives for the Palestinian Authority that was captured last month by Israel before it could reach its destination.
And U.S. officials reportedly are also concerned about an Iranian plot to launch mortar and rocket attacks on Israel from Jordanian territory. Jordan’s King Abdullah is said to have told Bush of the plot last month during a visit to the White House.
A London-based Saudi newspaper quoted Bush administration officials as saying that this revelation helped convince Bush to include Iran in the “axis of evil” he spoke about in his State of the Nation address last month.
Al-Shaq al-Awsat said Abdullah claimed that Iran was involved in 17 attempts by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to launch attacks on Israel from Jordanian territory. The paper said Iran feared that Israel — and maybe even the United States — would attack Syria should the Iranian-based Hezbollah escalate its attacks against Israel’s northern border.
When the king called Iranian President Muhammad Khatami to complain about launching attacks from his country, Khatami blamed it all on extremists, according to the paper.
The Al-Shaq al-Awsat report came even as Israel’s foreign minister, Shimon Peres, warned Monday that Iran had put members of its Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon. He charged also that Iran was turning Lebanon into “a ball of explosives,” having supplied Hezbollah with 10,000 rockets with a range of 12 to 43 miles, capable of hitting the heart of Israel.
Iranian officials denied the allegation.
Asked about the Iranian threats, Sharon said the Israel Defense Forces “and the government are taking all the necessary steps to protect [Israelis].”
“We must be patient and calm, and be more self-confident,” he said. “If this will be done, I believe there will be quiet and that it will be possible to make progress towards peace.”
Sharon revealed last Friday that he had met secretly with two top lieutenants of Arafat and that he plans to meet them again once he returns to Israel from his U.S. trip. Sharon said he called the meeting, which was sanctioned by Arafat, because he believed “the Palestinians don’t really fully understand what Israel demands in order to start the diplomatic process. … I also wanted to hear their requests.”
The prime minister said he told the Palestinian officials that all terrorists must be arrested, imprisoned and punished; that the terrorist network must be dismantled; all illegal weapons must be seized; they must take preventative measures against terrorism; and they must stop incitement. Sharon said that among other things, the Palestinians asked that the closure of the territories be lifted.
Sharon was expected to discuss Iran, Iraq and Syria, as well as the Palestinian Authority, during his talks with Bush, their first since Dec. 2. Zalman Shoval, Israel’s former U.S. ambassador, said he expected the two men to discuss how to deal with Arafat, who Shoval said had embarked on a “PR blitz” with his op-ed column in Sunday’s New York Times.
“But if you look at the article, nothing has changed,” Shoval said, except that he has now “laid claim to West Jerusalem and not just East Jerusalem.”
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Jewish leaders here Tuesday that he remains convinced that Israel still could not talk peace with Arafat.
“Mr. Arafat is committed to the past and we are committed to the future,” he said. “ He is committed to a promise he gave to hundreds of thousands of [Palestinian] refugees when he promised that every one of them would get back home.”
There was also an ominous report this week in the leading German daily Die Welt, which said Arafat was offering $5,000 to each al-Qaeda fighter who was prepared to move to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. The paper claimed that as many as 100 al-Qaeda fighters have accepted the money and are now waiting at the Ain Hilwe refugee camp near Sidon until they could be smuggled into the territories.
The report could not be independently confirmed. A Palestinian official at the PLO office in Washington hung up without a word when asked about it. But Kedar said he would not be surprised if it was true.
“The Palestinians are so desperate about their situation and about the betrayal of the Arab states,” he explained.
Ben-Eliezer said that until Arafat changes his mind about the refugees, he does not foresee making peace with him even though he remains “the leader who controls everything.” He added that although Arafat has not changed, “there is a long list of [Palestinian] leaders who are not less nationalistic but more realistic” with whom Israel will talk.
These leaders want to see a Palestinian state, Ben-Eliezer said, but are willing to accede to Israel’s demand that it be demilitarized and “ignore the idea of the right of return.”
He later identified four of them: Abu Ala, Abu Mazen, Jibril al-Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan. Sharon met Abu Ala and Abu Mazen last week. Rajoub is head of Preventive Security on the West Bank; Dahlan holds the same position in the Gaza Strip.
Ben-Eliezer said Israel’s confinement of Arafat to Ramallah through the use of tanks that surround his compound is designed to put pressure on the Palestinian leader to halt 16 months of violence against Israel.
“There is a feeling that Arafat is bringing his people to disaster,” Ben-Eliezer said. “That is not my aim. I am not fighting the Palestinian people. They are not my enemy. I’m fighting the terrorists.”
Perhaps in response to reports that the U.S. is preparing to launch an attack against Iraq in May, Ben-Eliezer said he asked Bush administration officials for advance notice if such an offensive is launched so that Israel is prepared.
“If Saddam Hussein has the feeling that this is going to be his end, he might use what he has [against Israel] and it might be long-range missiles with biological warheads,” he told the Jewish leaders. “And I hope you will be convinced if I say we will overcome.”