ISRAEL: 'Moderates' collapse as Sharon uses iron fist



Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has found a short-term solution to the political crisis within Israel's ruling circles, brought on by the second intifada. He has seized on the recent spate of suicide bombings to stifle dissent over his policy of sheer military brute force to crush the Palestinian resistance.

Prior to the current full-scale invasion of the occupied territories, Sharon's government had been plagued by political divisions. There were constant disagreements within the cabinet and threats of splits from both the right and the "left".

With the beginning of the military onslaught into the West Bank, these whimperings of disagreement, primarily from "moderates" grouped around the Labour Party, have ceased. The only disagreement within the government now is how far should Israel go?

Avigdor Lieberman, co-leader of the extreme-right National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu bloc, said on April 1: "I don't see why we don't erase that Mukata [the compound in which Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is besieged] from the face of the Earth... we have enough F-16s and helicopters, we should simply erase this whole complex, along with ... everyone who's sitting inside."

Arafat, even as he is isolated within the remains of his Ramallah headquarters, poses a political problem for Sharon because he is viewed by the masses across the Arab world as a symbol of resistance to Israel's apartheid. Hence the idea, which just a few weeks ago would have seemed ludicrous, of forcing Arafat into exile.

The April 3 Washington Post quoted a revealing whispered conversation between Sharon and the chief of staff of the Israeli army, Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz, picked up by television microphones: "'We've got to throw him out of here', said the general, apparently referring to Arafat. Sharon smiled nervously and answered, 'I know'. 'We've got the opportunity right now', Mofaz said. 'Be careful', replied Sharon, apparently worried that their conversation might be overheard."

US secretary of state Colin Powell half-heartedly rejected such a move. He told the Good Morning America television show on April 2 that "sending [Arafat] into exile will just give him another place from which to conduct the same kinds of activities and give the same messages that he's giving now".

While Sharon has found a short-term fix for the government's crisis, it is not likely to last long. While disagreements over how to "deal" with the Palestinians has lessened among the political elite for the moment, the peace movement and grassroots opposition forces have survived Sharon's new push for national unity.

On April 3, around 3000 Israelis and Palestinians rallied to demand an end to the war, the occupation and war crimes. The crowd, which included Arab member of the Knesset (parliament) Mohammad Barake, was brutally tear gassed by Israeli police. While trying to escape, protesters were beaten by police.

Four hundred reserve officers of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) have signed the "refusal to serve" letter, at a time when the IDF is calling up more reserves. Twenty-one "refuseniks" have so far been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the occupied territories.

Conflicting messages

US President George Bush has endorsed Israel's war on Palestinians as the Middle East franchise of the "war on terror". In doing so, Bush and the US ruling class face important contradictions, hence the conflicting messages coming from the White House.

On April 4, Bush said that "Israel is facing a terrible and serious challenge. For seven days, it has acted to root out terrorist nests". He added that "America recognises Israel's right to defend itself from terror". This statement was made in the speech which announced that Powell was being sent to the Middle East to try to solve the crisis and "convince" Israel to "halt" its assault.

Bush is not motivated by ending the escalating abuse of Palestinians' human rights. The next target of the US war machine is Iraq. However, forthright US support for Sharon's slaughter of the Palestinians, and the rising anger of the Arab and Middle Eastern peoples, may make it impossible for Washington's Arab allies to make their facilities available to US forces — and may threaten the US-backed regimes' very existence.

Egypt, an ally of the US, has "narrowed diplomatic relations with Israel", an indication of the pressure its authoritarian regime is under. Protests have erupted at universities across the country.

In Jordan, ruled by another cravenly pro-US regime, police have attacked pro-Palestinian protests. Protests against Israel's offensive have mobilised several thousand people.

On April 2, riot police attacked a protest at the University of Jordan. According to the Palestine Chronicle, 89 people were admitted to hospital and one was killed.

From Green Left Weekly, April 10, 2002.
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