Sharon the tactician

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Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the cabinet Sunday morning that last week Palestinian security forces smuggled SA-7 Strella anti-aircraft missiles into Gaza from Egypt. These missiles are capable of shooting down commercial airliners and military aircraft.


Mofaz said that the introduction of these missiles to the Palestinian arsenal crossed "a red line," and warned, "If the Palestinians don't get a hold of the Strellas, we will."


This warning naturally begs the question: Which Palestinians are supposed to "get a hold" of the missiles? The Palestinian security forces that (presumably with Egyptian assistance) brought them into Gaza? Maybe Mofaz thinks that democratically elected PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas – who divides his time fairly equally between coddling terrorists, lobbying Arab leaders not to end their state of war with the Jewish state, and telling Israel, the Americans and the Europeans how "moderate" he is – will "get a hold" of them. Perhaps the wanted terrorists whom Israel has agreed not to try to kill or arrest will "get a hold" of them. But, then again, those wanted terrorists might be the same Palestinian security service members who brought them into Gaza in the first place since Abbas has been actively recruiting them into his "reformed" security services.


Back in January Shin Bet Director Avi Dichter told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that if Israel relinquishes control over the Philadelphi Corridor, which links Gaza to the Sinai to the Palestinians, the current "trickle" of arms coming through will turn into a "river." Yet, in a nod to the "cease-fire" Abbas announced he had reached with his terrorists, Israel enabled Palestinian security forces to deploy in Gaza, including in Rafah adjacent to the Philadelphi Corridor. Since then, in a series of photo-ops, the Palestinians have proudly displayed the smuggling tunnels they uncovered. And now we know that in addition to uncovering tunnels, they have been digging them.


But this apparently means little to Mofaz. In his recent visit with Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak he let it be known that Israel is planning to relinquish control over the Philadelphi Corridor to the Palestinians and Egyptians. And now Mofaz is expecting that the PA will "get a hold" of the Strella rockets it already holds.


If the threat such missiles posed to Israel wasn't so tangible, this entire story would be a Vaudevillian farce. But then, this really shouldn't interest us. After all, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon doesn't seem to care.


What is really getting his goat these days is not the specter of Palestinian terrorists/reformed security services blowing up jetliners taking off or landing at Ben Gurion Airport. What Sharon is enraged about at the moment is that someone had the nerve to leak the protocol of US Ambassador Dan Kurtzer's lecture to Foreign Ministry cadets to Yediot Ahronot. The protocol has Kurtzer telling the new Israeli diplomats that in spite of the line Sharon has been selling the public since his visit to the White House last April, the Bush administration never agreed that in a final peace accord with the PLO, Israel would have US support for retaining any Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria.

"Whoever leaked Kurtzer's remarks to the press prepared a strategic attack against Sharon," Sharon's confidantes told Yediot over the weekend. And now the burning question is, who has it in, not for the Israeli public – who now have to worry that anytime they step onto a plane they are liable to be blown to smithereens like so many patrons in a Jerusalem cafe – but for the prime minister.

The silliest thing about the uproar over Kurtzer's reported remarks is that they didn't actually contain any new information. The famed letter Sharon received from US President George W. Bush at that meeting included no American support for the retention of Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria. All Bush wrote was, "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."


And this means absolutely nothing. It is not a promise. It is not a position. It is simply a description of reality.


Bush's letter marked a continuation – not a change – of the US policy regarding Judea and Samaria. Since 1967 American policy has been that Israel's borders will be determined in negotiations with its neighbors and that until such negotiations are completed, the only changes in the status quo the Americans will support are changes that work to the benefit of the Arabs. Hence, for instance, Washington has never launched a protest against Palestinian land grabs around Jerusalem.


The only side that changed its policies in the aftermath of Sharon's visit to the White House was Israel. At that meeting, and in a subsequent letter from Sharon's bureau chief Dov Weisglass to Condoleezza Rice, Sharon agreed (without the approval of his government) to give the US a veto over all Israeli building activities in Judea and Samaria. As Rice's rebuke of Israel over the weekend for the government's intention to expand Ma'aleh Adumim shows, the US vetoes all Israeli building in the areas. So in Washington last April, far from receiving US support for Israeli retention of communities in Judea and Samaria, Sharon accepted the US position that Israel has no right to build them.


Now Sharon is trying to backtrack from his previous lies. At the cabinet meeting on Sunday he admitted, as if stating the obvious, "We can't expect to receive explicit American agreement to build freely in the settlements."


Sunday night, IDF forces arrested a group of Islamic Jihad terrorists who were building Kassam rockets in Jenin. The whole district of Jenin is slated to be emptied of all Israeli presence in the summer as part of the withdrawal plan.


What we see here is a breakdown of Israel's strategic rationality. Sharon, who has made a career out of tactical victories, has lost sight of the significance of strategic realities. It is hard to know what, if any, externalities can force a change in his outlook. But it is clear enough that something has to give.


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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