The leader of a major West Bank settlement bloc threatened to lead a move to oust the Sharon government if it bows to American pressure not to place Ariel and other large Jewish settlements within the security barrier now under construction.
Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the Regional Council of Gush Etzion, a bloc of settlements just south of Jerusalem with a strong historical and emotional tie to Israelis, said that if the Sharon government runs the barrier along the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border, "it will become a political fence, not a security fence."
The U.S. has insisted that the barrier be placed along the Green Line to avoid slicing deep into the West Bank to encompass such Jewish communities as Ariel in the heart of the West Bank. It increased the pressure Tuesday when it hinted it might deduct money Israel spends on the barrier from its $9 billion loan guarantee package, just as it plans to do with money Israel spends on settlements.
"We have made our concerns known," White House Press Secretary Scott McCellan said Tuesday about the security barrier. "We will continue to talk about these concerns with the Israel government."
That night, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon postponed the next day’s meeting of his security cabinet, which was to have approved construction of the security barrier north of Jerusalem near Ramallah in the West Bank.
Goldstein, during a visit here, pointed out that Sharon had personally promised that the barrier would encompass Ariel and other major settlements before he made his last trip to the White House.
"If it is now a totally political [barrier], it means Sharon has surrendered to the Americans on this crucial issue," he said. "We will then have to lead a struggle against the government and end its term. … And if this is the threat of the Americans, we should reconsider the whole issue of the guarantees."
The guarantees were sought by Israel to help its ailing economy following three years of Palestinian terror attacks that have crippled the economy and the tourism industry. The American-led war against Iraq compounded Israel’s economic woes. But Goldstein argued that Israelis should not have to "give up our homeland" for the sake of money.
Eran Lerman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East Office, said Sharon delayed the cabinet vote in an effort to "reach an understanding" with the Bush administration. He said that might include building the fence along the Green Line, as well as constructing separate fences around Ariel and other major Jewish West Bank settlements.
"But we are not going to create a situation whereby we concede the 1967 line [Israel’s border before the Six Day War] by taking actions on the ground," Lerman said.
"That would give the Palestinians a victory," he added, referring to Palestinian demands for a state on all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that Israel conquered in 1967. "That is not going to happen. Anyone who thinks otherwise is not reading the mood of the country or the Israeli cabinet, which is tilting away from Sharon’s position of compromise."
Even though 90 miles of the fence have already been built, Goldstein said he believes the whole venture may prove to be foolhardy because its 400-mile length makes it vulnerable to vandalism.
"There are not enough troops to guard it," he said.
And when it is vandalized, he said, troops will be deployed to guard the fence, leaving Jewish settlers vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
UN To Protect Arafat
At the same time the U.S. was placing pressure on Israel, it was defending it in the United Nations Security Council against an Arab-sponsored resolution calling on Israel not to carry out a threat to expel or harm Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. The U.S. vetoed the resolution (citing its failure to condemn the actions of three leading Palestinian terrorist groups) just one day after Israelís threatened moves against Arafat was widely condemned by the international community.
But the belief that Israel must do something to remove Arafat is winning wide support among Israelis. A poll in the Israeli daily Maariv last week found that 58 percent support expelling him. And another 64 percent approved of Israelís targeted killing of the leaders of Hamas, a major terrorist organization. Israel was also said to be considering killing Arafat, a claim discounted by Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
Gila Finkelshtein, a Knesset member from the National Religious Party, said that in light of international objections to expelling Arafat, she believes he should be arrested and "put on trial just like we did [Adolf] Eichmann." Eichmann was tried and executed in Israel in 1962 for his role as the architect of the Holocaust.
"Arafat murdered women and children: innocent civilians," she said during a brief visit here.
The same newspaper poll found also that 65 percent of Israelis believe the country should deal with Ahmed Queria, who was appointed by Arafat to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as prime minister after he quit in disgust earlier this month.
Even as Queria, also known as Abu Ala, was seeking this week to form his cabinet, Arafat’s new national security adviser, Jibril Rajoub, was proposing a comprehensive cease-fire, provided Israel agree to stop its targeted killings, cease construction of settlements, stop building the security barrier and lift all blockades and closures.
Unlike the last cease-fire by Palestinian terrorist groups, which ended after seven weeks on Aug. 21 with a suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed 23 people, this one is supposed to be permanent.
Israeli officials quickly rejected Rajoub’s cease-fire offer, saying the Palestinian leadership should instead concentrate on destroying the terrorist infrastructure in the territories, as pledged in the Road Map. Queria, like Abbas before him, has said that is not an option because he wants to avoid a Palestinian civil war.
Lerman, however, said the offer would not be "dismissed in its entirety" but needed further exploration and refinement. He added that Rajoub "understands the Israeli environment very well" and is "not tainted by terrorism."
Stephen P. Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, disagreed, saying, "Israel is not going to take any IOUs from the Palestinians … when it is so clear that Arafat is the dominant force.
"Only when there are serious negotiations and a serious political horizon do they have a chance to stop Hamas and Islamic Jihad [from carrying out terrorist attacks]," he said.
Cohen added that Palestinian leaders told him last week that once Israel spelled out its vision for a two-state solution, they were prepared to "remove Hamas as a military force."
Catch-22 On Arafat
Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum of the Council on Foreign Relations, said she believes the international community must send observers to the area to enforce each step of the road map for peace. Unless that happens, she said, each side will wait for the other to move first.
"It [the road map] has to be imposed and there has to be consequences for not doing it," she said. "You don’t need international troops [to enforce it], you need political will and it has to come from the White House. … And you still have to work with Arafat, directly or indirectly, because nothing happens without him."
But Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said that as long as Arafat is still on the scene, peace efforts will be stymied.
"Israel and the U.S. are caught in a Catch-22," he said. "We can’t live with Arafat because it is clear he will not allow any Palestinian successor as prime minister to do what is necessary to fight terrorism. And yet, the international community says don’t kill him. As a result, it condemns Israel and the Palestinians to live in perpetual conflict."
Daniel Kutner, director of the Division of Palestinian and Jordanian Affairs for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the Palestinian public supports a political solution to the conflict with Israel. That is why Mahmoud Abbas, the former Palestinian prime minister, generated "widespread support for the principles he represented" when he assumed office.
"He wanted to put an end to the armed intifada and continue the struggle by political means so as to improve the social and economic conditions of the Palestinian people," he said. "He wanted to put the political process on a track that would lead to the fulfillment of the national aspirations of the Palestinian people: something that during the intifada didn’t seem possible."
But Abbas lost popular support during his four months in office because he was unable to fulfill the "high expectations" created after he arranged a cease-fire with Palestinian terrorist groups, Kutner observed.