What Sharon wants: more time

Israel's Sharon was in Europe yesterday to quiet increasing calls for Palestinian statehood.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met with President Bush this past weekend at Camp David. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stopped by the White House on Monday. Now, Thursday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal will again press the Arab view.

The subject of all three conversations is a design for Middle East peace with the creation of a Palestinian state as a backdrop. According to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush will "in the very near future" make clear the US stance on achieving Palestinian statehood.

The stakes for all are extremely high. But for Mr. Sharon, Bush's stance will be a litmus test for the viability of Sharon's current policies and future plans. He is waiting to see how much leeway Israel will have to determine the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where more than 200,000 Jewish settlers live among 3 million Palestinians.

During his visit to Washington, Sharon was clear about what he does not want: Yasser Arafat as a negotiating partner and negotiations while violence continues. But Israeli, Palestinian, and Western diplomatic analysts say his agenda is much larger.

What Sharon wants above all else, analysts say, is time – years of it – for the Israeli army to persuade the Palestinians to forget having a viable state. And for Israel to use the time to consolidate its hold in the West Bank by expanding the Jewish settlements, many of which were planned by Sharon in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

There is widespread support in Israel for Sharon's approach toward the Palestinians. Most here believe that Mr. Arafat's failure to stop devastating attacks, or even encouragement of them, proves that only the Israeli army can safeguard Israelis from attacks emanating from the West Bank and Gaza.

And – in a move that could stall peace negotiations even more – Israeli Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin, a close ally of Sharon, added a new pre-condition for negotiations during an interview Tuesday. He said the Palestinians would have to dismantle their refugee camps and move their residents into other housing within the Palestinian Authority areas.

Mr. Rivlin also insisted that refugee camps in Lebanon and other Arab countries be dismantled and their inhabitants be "integrated into those countries." According to the 1993 Oslo Agreement, the refugee issue is to be negotiated between the parties.

But under Rivlin's vision, such talks would not take place in the foreseeable future, nor would discussions on borders, settlements, or any of the other Oslo final-status issues. Rivlin says dismantling the camps "is a necessary goodwill gesture for [the Palestinians] to take, it is not for the negotiations."

The analysts say that setting difficult or impossible conditions is a way for the Sharon government to block talks. But they stress that Sharon has also shown himself adept in tactical demonstrations of flexibility, such as avoiding a direct rebuff of the Saudi peace plan announced in March. "The idea is to always say, 'Yes, but' to give the Israeli public and his Labor party coalition partners the impression that there can be negotiations," says Akiva Eldar, a columnist for Israel's daily Ha'aretz. "But, in fact, there will be no real negotiations, since that would mean freezing the settlements, which violates his ideology and gives fuel to his rivals in the Likud Party."

Sharon wrote in a New York Times opinion piece Sunday that "Israel has made painful concessions for peace before, and will demonstrate diplomatic flexibility to make peace again, but it requires first and foremost a reliable negotiating partner."

Israeli army actions also furnish proof that Sharon is not headed toward negotiations, says a Western diplomat who requested anonymity. In the diplomat's view, the army's daily forays into Palestinian areas sometimes "do not have much military value." Troops surged into at least five towns and villages on Tuesday in addition to the occupation of Ramallah, which continued yesterday for a third day.

"The army went into Bethlehem refugee camps, but arrested no one. What they are doing is showing the flag, saying we can go wherever we want. That nowhere is off-limits," says the diplomat. "The hope is that the Palestinians will give up in the short term and settle for an interim agreement, and maybe in 10 years they could have a limited state without territorial contiguity."

The army says the incursions are aimed at stopping terrorist attacks and that troops have arrested would-be bombers and uncovered labs making explosives. But the attacks haven't stopped, and several analysts say stalling negotiations only leads to more chaos. Yesterday, a funeral was held for an 15-year-old Israeli girl who was killed in a suicide bombing Tuesday that wounded 11 others in Herzliya. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians reported that a 7-year-old boy had been killed by Israeli army fire late Tuesday.

Palestinian analyst Issam Nassar, speaking from Ramallah as tanks roared in the background, says "there is no doubt Sharon is not interested in any kind of negotiations. Maybe after he breaks down Palestinian society, he would be interested in negotiating the terms of surrender."

"I think the suicide attacks play right into his hands," he adds. "The timing is perfect for him – he couldn't plan it better himself.

Ephraim Inbar, head of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, says that Sharon takes a long-term view of the conflict and ideally would want Israel to have a decade to defeat Palestinian aspirations.

He says that bombings like the one in Herzliya "are bleeding us, but they help Sharon adhere to his long-term vision [for the West Bank]. They delegitimize Arafat and the Palestinian leaders and indicate how dangerous they are."

Mr. Eldar, the Ha'aretz analyst, blames the United States for, in his view, enabling Sharon to make sure that negotiations never actually take place. "If Bush says Sharon is a man of peace, how can the Israeli Labor Party say otherwise?" he asks. "As long as Bush is covering for him, and is satisfied with him, Sharon is quite safe."

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