Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon returned to the targeted killing of terrorists this week, broadly hinted at an attack on the terrorist infrastructure in the Gaza Strip and ruled out any talk of dismantling settlements.
"He’s sending a signal of a very tough bargaining position vis-a-vis the Palestinians," said Hillel Frisch, a senior researcher at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. "I don’t think negotiations are on the horizon right now. I think he’s not ready to negotiate until there is a successor to [Palestinian President Yasir] Arafat, until they really dismantle the terrorist organizations and break the suicide [bomber] phenomenon."
"I have a feeling that what has occurred to the Palestinians is sort of on a par with Black September [when the PLO was ruthlessly crushed by and exiled from Jordan in 1970] and their ouster from Lebanon [by Israeli troops in 1982]. This is a low point from the Palestinian point of view and Sharon will exploit it to the greatest extent possible."
Sharon’s tough talk comes as a United Nations team of inspectors is expected to visit the Jenin refugee camp to determine for themselves the validity of Palestinian claims that Israeli troops carried out a massacre there during several days of intense fighting.
The group’s composition and mission was changed at Israel’s insistence after the original three-member team was deemed by Israel to be more political and humanitarian in nature rather than conversant in military and terror tactics. Israel claims Jenin was a hotbed of Palestinian terrorism and that any investigation should also include a probe of that assertion.
Frisch said Sharon appears to be on the way to achieving his military objectives and that the United States is inclined to let him.
Although Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Sunday talk shows that Sharon and Arafat "understand we have to get to some form of negotiations," Frisch said he believed the Bush administration was "pretty open to the idea that serious negotiations can’t begin until Arafat is removed from the scene."
Arafat has been confined by Israeli troops to what remains of his compound in Ramallah. Israel has refused to let him leave until he turns over wanted men he is harboring in the compound. They include suspects in the Oct. 17 assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in Jerusalem, and a man accused of organizing the shipment of 50 tons of arms to the Palestinians that was seized by Israeli forces in January.
Israel has rejected a proposal by the Palestinians in which they would try the assassination suspects in a Palestinian court.
Sharon reportedly declared at this week’s government meeting that he would not be evacuating any settlements and has no plans to even discuss the issue before the next election, which is scheduled for November 2003. Doing so, he said, would "only encourage terror and increase pressure" on Israel.
The prime minister was quoted as later telling the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he sees no difference between the settlements of Netzarim and Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip and Tel Aviv.
In an editorial Wednesday, the Israeli daily Haaretz said such assertions belie his contention that once quiet returns to the territories, he was prepared to make "painful compromises" for peace at the negotiating table.
"Removing discussion about dismantling settlements from the political agenda, even if only referring to isolated settlements that are a major security burden, such as Netzarim and Kfar Darom in the heart of Gaza, essentially removes the political horizon from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said the editorial. "The only message the Palestinians can find in Sharon’s statements are that if they put down their weapons, the government has no plans to end the occupation in the foreseeable future."
Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said the issue of settlements is dealt with in the Mitchell plan and that Israel has not ruled out discussing them. But he said that "by the time the situation is stabilized and we begin implementing Mitchell, it will be close to 2003 anyway.
"Mitchell addresses the issue of settlement growth, and as long as you are in the interim period, the principle Yitzchak Rabin introduced of not taking down any settlements holds. Settlements are not the main issue; the division of the land is."
Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh was quoted Sunday as telling a London newspaper that Sharon has an unpublished plan to annex up to half of the West Bank: something Sneh said he finds "incompatible with a two-state solution."
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres confirmed the existence of such a plan, which he called an "unofficial proposal," during an appearance on NBC’s "Meet the Press." He said Sharon seeks that only as part of an interim agreement.
"My judgment is they know this is not a solution," said Peres.
An adviser to Sharon, Zalman Shoval, said the 50 percent idea has been "floating around" for a long time. He said it has been mentioned in a proposal that would give the Palestinians a state on half the property in the West Bank as an incentive to entering into peace negotiations with Israel, which would keep the remaining 50 percent until a peace agreement is worked out.
In a satellite address Tuesday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Sharon said Israel’s 23-day military offensive in the territories, dubbed "Operation Defensive Shield," had "opened a window of opportunity to put the peace process back on a different, more realistic track."
Sharon made no mention of the 50 percent proposal, but instead he continued to favor a regional peace conference sponsored by the United States that "can create the framework and modalities to bring about a cessation of hostilities."
President Bush was to meet late this week with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to discuss the Saudi peace initiative that Sharon said needs to be discussed at a regional peace conference. It is at such a conference, Sharon told AIPAC delegates, that he would outline his own three-phase vision for peace: a complete cessation of violence and incitement that leads to terrorist acts; a long-term intermediate agreement, similar to an armistice; and a permanent peace agreement that would end the conflict and establish borders for both nations.
But opposition leader Yossi Sarid wasnít buying any of it, telling Israel television: "The prime minister has no idea whatsoever, even a dream of an idea, of what he is going to do tomorrow. He is a man of no tomorrow, no political horizon whatsoever. If you were not too sure about it, you could come to this inevitable conclusion by listening very carefully to the prime minister saying that he is not going to dismantle or uproot even one single Jewish settlement in the occupied territories."
Shoval said that although Israel had achieved many of its objectives in Operation Defensive Shield, "the fight against terrorism isn’t over."
"I wish it were, but we have to continue," he said. "This was a successful fight against terrorism and it sent a message to terrorists all over the world."
As Sharon continues his quest to end nearly 19 months of Palestinian violence that has claimed the lives of at least 445 Israelis and 1,254 Palestinians, Frisch said the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure cannot be dismantled without incessant attacks.
Armed with intelligence information gleaned from the capture of more than 1,800 men Israel calls dangerous Palestinian terrorists, the Israeli military made it clear this week that it was prepared to do just that by re-entering Palestinian areas when needed to arrest or kill those on its most wanted list.
On Monday night, an Israeli helicopter launched two missiles at the car of Marwan Zaloum, killing him and his assistant, Samir Abu Rajoub, a member of Force 17, Arafat’s personal security detail. Israeli officials said Zaloum was believed responsible for numerous bombings and shootings, including the murder of 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass by a Palestinian sharpshooter in Hebron in March 2001.
Sharon also suggested that he was prepared to launch a military strike in Gaza, where he said "terror attacks have continued unabated."
"There will be no place where terrorists are immune," he vowed.
Frisch, the senior researcher at the BESA Center, said he believes Sharon’s "long-term strategy is to try to move the focus of a Palestinian state to Gaza and as much as possible contain it there."
While the standoff continued at Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, so did the one in Bethlehem, where about 230 armed Palestinians are holed up in the Church of the Nativity with about 50 civilians (reportedly including two 10-year-olds) and a group of clergy.
Israeli sources believe that about 30 to 40 of the Palestinians are senior terrorists who "have blood on their hands," some for killing Israelis who have dual Israeli-American citizenship.
Shoval said that shortly after entering the church at gunpoint three weeks ago, the Palestinians were prepared to surrender.
"But Arafat contacted them and forbade them from leaving," Shoval said.
Three Armenian monks escaped from the church Tuesday and said they had been held hostage by the Palestinians. One of them, Narkiss Korasian, told reporters: "They stole everything, they opened the doors one by one and stole everything. … They stole our prayerbooks and four crosses … they didn’t leave anything."
Israeli sources told The Jerusalem Post that the monks said the gunmen had also begun beating and attacking clergymen.
In negotiations to end the standoff, Israel has insisted on either arresting and trying the wanted men or exiling them. The Palestinians asked to be allowed to seek refuge in Gaza, but Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said Israel had rejected that proposal.
"Let them go to Saudi Arabia," Olmert said. "They like terrorists, so let them go there."