BY ROHAN PEARCE
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to Washington presented few surprises. It was so predictable that journalists could have written the story even before he left Israel. US President George Bush backed Sharon's bloody military assault on West Bank towns, while minor differences emerged over how to deal with the Palestinian intifada, and, in particular, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its president, Yasser Arafat.
During a May 7 photo opportunity with Sharon at the White House, Bush said that "the prime minister has discussed ... for us to immediately begin to help rebuild a security force in Palestine that will fight terror, that will bring some stability to the region".
Whereas Bush talked about providing "a framework for growth of a potential Palestinian state", Sharon would not clearly state his position. When asked by a journalist whether he supported a Palestinian state, Sharon said, "I think that it's still premature to discuss this issue".
In answer to another, Sharon said: "I think that it's premature now. I think, first of all, steps should be taken in order to establish, or to have a real reform in the Palestinian Authority."
The central committee of Sharon's far-right Likud party is rumoured to be about to pass a motion on May 12 that will oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. A poll of the committee members by Uvdot, a Likud magazine, has indicated that 71% oppose a Palestinian state, but 83% believe one will eventually be created anyway.
According to Likud central committee member Mordechai Taub, "A Likud that does not fight against a Palestinian state is a Likud without ideology".
If the resolution is passed without amendment, all Likud members in Sharon's government, including Sharon, will be required to oppose any action that might lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.
'Reform' the PA
"Reforming" the PA has different meanings for Sharon and Bush. Sharon is more eager than the US president to remove Arafat and replace the PA with another body that will fold more easily to Israeli government pressure, while Bush wants to keep the PA and push Arafat to end the intifada.
Unlike Sharon, Bush and the US ruling class have not totally written off Arafat. White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer said on May 7 that the "president's focus includes Yasser Arafat, but it's broader than that ... Progress can be made by talking with a number of people, including Arab nations, as well as those people who work diligently in the Palestinian Authority to try to find ways to bring about reforms."
On May 9, Bush disputed an Israeli official's claim that he had agreed that Arafat should be replaced. However, a CNN report that day quoted an unidentified White House official who said that the PA "is not centered around one individual but rather a total political structure... We tried starting with the individual to get to the structure, and that didn't work. So now, we have to try building the structure first, Arafat can be in that structure, but the structure can't be Arafat."
Asked if a "reformed" PA would weaken Arafat's position and make him less important, the official replied, "Yeah, absolutely."
The US prefers building a more effective PA repressive apparatus to suppress the Palestinian struggle. Although contradictory attitudes toward the PA and Israel's murderous war the Palestinians exist within the US administration, both wings remain fundamentally committed to Israel's "security", to the stability of Washington's Arab allies and producing a favourable climate for an assault on Iraq. Cultivating a new layer of PA leadership is an area where they also share some agreement.
Rebuilding a Palestinian "security force" is a short- to medium-term goal for Bush. He announced that in order to achieve this, CIA director George Tenet is being sent to the Middle East to "help design the construction of a ... unified security force that will be transparent [and] held accountable" — accountable to the US and Israeli governments, the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.
After Sharon had responded to the May 7 suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv by saying Israel would "continue to uproot the terror infrastructure" — signalling further military assaults on Palestinian civilians — a US official was asked whether Bush had deliberately not called for Israel's "restraint". He replied that "no permission was asked for, none was proffered".
This is a stark contrast to the White House's verbal assaults on Arafat during the period he was trapped in his Ramallah office by Israel's tanks, persistently chiming in with Sharon's rhetoric that he was "not doing enough to stop terrorism".
Despite the free hand the White House has given to Sharon to slaughter and maim Palestinians, US state department spokesperson Richard Boucher also sounded a note of caution to Israel in the wake of the May 7 suicide bombing: "You have the right to safeguard your citizens but you have to think about the consequences of the actions you take."
Before leaving Washington, Sharon signalled that another military assault on Palestinians was near: "He who rises up to kill us, we will pre-empt it and kill him first."
There is little doubt that Bush will back a renewed assault on Palestinian territory by the Israeli military, supposedly in "retaliation" for the Tel Aviv bombing. Whatever differences exist between the US and Israeli ruling classes, they don't extend to allowing human rights and democratic freedoms to be exercised by Palestinians.
The May 7 suicide bombing, which killed 15 Israelis, was allegedly carried out by Hamas. PA forces arrested 14 Hamas members on May 10 in relation to the bombing. Although the Israeli government claims the bomber was from Gaza, Palestinians say he was a former resident of Jenin. According to a report in an Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, Israeli security officials have yet to determine where the bomber was from.
Tanks and troops began massing at the edge of the Gaza Strip on May 10. Israel's foreign minister Shimon Peres told reporters in Italy, "We don't have any intention to conquer Gaza, but to reach points where there are real centres of terror in a very careful and measured way".
That same day, Israeli troops demolished the home of the family of a Hamas suicide bomber in Tulkarem, a West Bank town. Twenty-one people were left homeless and 50 people from a neighbouring building were evacuated after it was badly damaged.
Some officers in Israel's military have questioned Israel's planned attack. One senior officer told Ha'aretz, "Tanks going into Gaza will leave a lot of damage, even if we don't mean to do so. If they tell us to go, we'll follow orders, but that won't reduce our questions about the wisdom of the order."
Ha'aretz also reported that the reserve officers "said unlike [Operation] Defensive Shield, which was perceived as necessary, going into Gaza will break the public consensus".
From Green Left Weekly, May 15, 2002.
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