Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon walked a tightrope this week, trying to downplay the significance of an Israeli troop withdrawal from Bethlehem to mollify the political right while at the same time giving the green light to proceed with pullbacks elsewhere.
"All that Israel has done is to pull a few jeeps and tank transporters out of the center of Bethlehem," Israel Radio quoted Sharon as telling his security cabinet Wednesday, even as concern increased about Iraq attacking Israel.
Sharon’s comments came after Efraim Eitam of the National Religious Party threatened to bolt the coalition government to protest Sunday’s agreement between Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Palestinian Interior Minister Abdelrazak al-Yahya.
With politics no doubt playing a role, (Ben-Eliezer hopes to run for prime minister at the Labor candidate in the next elections,) Sharon has kept a distance from the "Gaza and Bethlehem first" plan. Considered the most significant security measure in more than it year, it calls for Palestinian police to replace Israeli troops in both Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip and to prevent terrorists from use the area as a base of operations.
Israel has said that if calm prevails in Bethlehem, it might increase the number of permits allowing residents of Bethlehem to work in Israel and ease the closure on the city that remains in effect. In addition, Israel would next withdraw troops from Hebron.
At the security cabinet meeting, Ben-Eliezer reportedly called his plan a "new alternative" to a cease-fire.
Sharon promised that before additional steps are taken as part of the withdrawal plan, he would first confer with the security cabinet.
Housing and Planning Minister Natan Sharansky was quoted as saying the plan legitimized Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority and warned that Israel was slowly "returning to Oslo."
But Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, insisted in a phone interview from Switzerland Tuesday that the government has no intention of returning to the Israeli-Palestinian accords signed in Oslo in 1993.
"Oslo has failed and it has failed tragically," he said. "It was one of the most foolish agreements a sovereign state made by its own volition."
He charged that all of the Israeli casualties since the Palestinian violence began 23 months ago are directly attributable to Oslo. A total of 609 Israelis were killed and 4,478 injured through August 17, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
Shoval called the Gaza-Bethlehem agreement only a "stop-gap" measure and not something on which future agreements could be developed.
"It has been made possible because more and more Palestinians have come to realize that the intifada has failed on the political plane," he said. "The Palestinians are now trying to take what they can from a very difficult situation. There are more and more voices in the Palestinian leadership who understand the failure and utter futility of the intifada. Israel is willing to give them a chance [to reform]. The onus is completely on their heads to see if they can control the security situation."
Shoval attributed the failure of Oslo to the leadership of the Palestinians under Arafat and insisted Israel would never "go back to square one with that sort of leadership. … This should not be seen as giving new life to the present Palestinian leadership. The leadership must be change before negotiations on a future Palestinian entity begin."
Asked about reports of change in the Palestinian Authority, including the establishment of a company to manage all commercial and investment activity, Shoval said: "There’s a lot of make believe, but real change has to come from the top. Unless that happens, it’s just play acting."
Dore Gold, another Sharon adviser, stressed that the talks Ben-Eliezer engaged in were not political and that there can never be political discussions until there is a cease-fire.
"Nobody is very optimistic about this Gaza-Bethlehem concept simply because we have gone through it so many times," Gold said. "But if the Palestinians are quiet, there should be a way to provide them with an incentive for what they have accomplished. At the same time, nobody should interpret Israel’s willingness to work on a local basis in Bethlehem with a willingness to rehabilitate Arafat."
Asked if the Israeli troop withdrawal to the perimeter of Bethlehem would preclude going after terrorists inside the city, Gold said: "Everyone has made it very clear that if Israel understands that there is an imminent threat, it will do what is necessary to remove that threat, wherever it is located."
A similar warning was issued by Ben-Eliezer Tuesday after an Israeli soldier, Sgt. Kevin Cohen, 19, was killed by a Hamas sniper while he was guarding the Jewish settlement bloc of Gush Katif in the central Gaza Strip.
"I told senior Palestinian officials about what happened [in Gaza] and said, ‘If you donít take care of it, we will,’" Ben-Eliezer was quoted as saying. "If they want to live in peace, if they want to live in prosperity, if they want to open our gates to work in Israel…it is up to them."
Several hours later, with no apparent response from Palestinian police, Israeli troops and tanks moved under cover of darkness into the Khan Yunis Palestinian refugee camp opposite Gush Katif. They destroyed two abandoned apartment buildings Israel said were used by snipers to fire on Israeli soldiers and residents of the Israeli settlements.
Despite the Gaza-Bethlehem plan, Israel has continued its forays into other Palestinian cities to hunt down terrorists. It raided the Tulkarem refugee camp in the northern West Bank, touching off a gunfight in which one Palestinian was killed and at least three others wounded.
In Ramallah, Israeli troops shot dead Mohammed Saadat, the brother of the imprisoned leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Israeli authorities said they had wanted to arrest him but that Saadat, 23, shot and wounded two soldiers before being killed.
Hamas, which said it had killed the Israeli soldier in an attempt to disrupt the Gaza-Bethlehem plan, later vowed revenge. Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, termed the shooting of Saadat an "assassination" that warranted the dispatching of international observers to protect Palestinian civilians.
In addition to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and militant members of Arafat’s own Fatah organization have vowed to oppose the cease-fire efforts now under way. The key will be whether Palestinian Authority forces arrest the militants or otherwise thwart their attacks.
Meanwhile, Israel Radio reported Wednesday that Israeli security forces broke up a Hamas cell operating in East Jerusalem. Four residents of East Jerusalem who carried Israeli identity cards and a Palestinian from Ramallah were arrested; further arrests are expected.
Reports said the group was responsible for eight major attacks that killed 35 people, including the bombing of the Hebrew University cafeteria that killed nine (including five Americans), the attack on the Moment Cafe near the Prime Ministerís official residence in Jerusalem that killed 11, the bombing of a gas tanker truck at the Pi Gliliot fuel refinery, and the pool hall attack in Rishon Letzion that killed 15.
Mohammed Uda, reportedly one of the cell members from Silwan, placed the bomb at the Hebrew University and detonated it with a cell phone. He worked at the university as a painter for an Israeli contractor. A day after the bombing, his unwitting boss called and asked him to help repair the damage.
Reports said the group was nabbed by an elite unit as they were coming from Ramallah last Saturday night on the way to carrying out another attack in the center of the country. A bomb they had already stashed on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway for use in the attack was recovered.
In other developments, there was more talk, and some action, about the very real possibility that early next year the United States would launch an attack to remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Matzia Baram, head of the Jewish-Arab Center at Haifa University and an expert on Iraq, said the Israeli government and the military establishment "believe there is more than a 90 percent chance that within a couple of months there will be a war. Early next year is the guess people are operating on." And he said he is convinced that Hussein will use both chemical and biological weapons against Israel once the U.S. attacks.
Israel’s security cabinet on Wednesday authorized 15,000 security and rescue officials for inoculation against smallpox.
Sharon said the U.S. has promised to give him several days’ notice before it launches an attack. But Baram said the Americans will insist that Israelis not be notified and that no mass inoculation be started at that point. He said mass inoculations would only be started once Saddam actually launched a biological attack because the smallpox vaccine can be fatal in some people.
But Hirsch Goodman, deputy director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, said he believes the "probability of an American attack is very low. Sometimes [all of the talk of war preparations] helps in deterrence. It doesn’t harm Israel for there to be stories that we are going to nuke them [if they fire chemical or biological weapons]."
During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq fired 39 conventional Scud missiles that caused damage but no injuries.
In politics, Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, who announced his candidacy for the Labor Party leadership two weeks ago, has apparently taken the party by storm. Opinion polls show him far outdistancing Ben-Eliezer, the current party chairman. According to the Maariv newspaper, Mitzna has the backing of 57 percent of Labor voters and Ben-Eliezer 10 percent. Haim Ramon, who was also vying for the leadership spot, garnered 22 percent of the vote.
Mitzna has taken a dovish position, declaring that the day he is elected he will call for negotiations with the Palestinians "without preconditions" and be prepared to dismantle settlements.