Israeli Leaders Dealing With Season of Discontent

Times Staff Writer

An outpouring of domestic discontent and criticism has caught the Israeli government off guard and heartened some of those urging a change in its aggressive approach toward the 3-year-old Palestinian uprising.

Since September, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Cabinet have come under fire from sources ranging from dissident fighter pilots to the army's chief of staff, who touched off a furor last week by publicly questioning the harsh Israeli crackdown on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

At least two alternative Mideast peace plans have been put forward. Opposition officials and the angry parents of dead soldiers have hammered at Israel's military presence in parts of the occupied territories. And an estimated 100,000 people turned out for a rally over the weekend in honor of the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, the dovish Israeli prime minister who was assassinated eight years ago.

While these hits on the government do not appear to be coordinated or to have threatened Sharon's grip on power, many of his detractors sense a rare opportunity to wrest some of the initiative and keep him on the defensive.

"Something has changed," said Menachem Klein, a veteran peace negotiator and an advocate of one of the two competing peace proposals. "You never know when a few elements will break out and meet other elements and have an impact."

Throw in an imminent general strike by unhappy workers, plus a corruption probe into dealings by Sharon and his two sons, and some opponents detect a whiff of weakness.

Analysts are quick to caution against overestimating any vulnerability in the Israeli government or expecting any major policy shifts. Sharon remains firmly in control, without any serious political challengers from within or outside his party, analysts say.

Still, he and his inner circle have recently suffered a series of embarrassments. The biggest was caused last week by Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the army's senior commander, whose stinging comments indicated a possible rift between military and civilian officials over how best to deal with a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 800 Israelis and 2,400 Palestinians.

Yaalon told reporters that military checkpoints and curfews in the West Bank, which have been especially tight since a suicide bomber struck a restaurant in the Israeli port city of Haifa a month ago, were harming innocent Palestinians and inciting dangerous levels of hopelessness and anger. Such tactics worked to Israel's detriment, not its benefit, in its battle against terrorism, said Yaalon, who supports easing restrictions on the Palestinian population.

Yaalon also suggested that Israel had been too "stingy" in its goodwill gestures toward then-Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, which contributed to his eventual resignation and the collapse of the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the road map.

While disagreement between army officers and politicians is nothing new in Israel, Yaalon broke with usual practice by allowing his name to be attached to his remarks. Furious, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz called in Yaalon for a dressing-down, while other officials lambasted him for airing his criticism in public.

"Once a decision has been made one way or another, that's it -- end of story, and everyone must align with this," said Uzi Landau, a former minister of internal security.

But Yaalon's words appeared to have some effect. On Sunday, the military announced that it would grant 15,000 permits to Palestinians to enter Israel for work and allow public transport to resume in the West Bank. The military described the steps as "confidence-building measures" decided "by the political echelon."

The Yaalon controversy followed another uproar in the armed forces involving some of their most glamorous and prestigious personnel: fighter pilots. In September, 27 pilots signed a letter slamming airstrikes in Gaza as "illegal and immoral" and refusing to take part in such operations.

Shlomo Gazit, a retired general and former head of military intelligence, said the discontent brewing in some pockets of the military stemmed partly from disappointment over what some considered to be missed opportunities to jump-start the Mideast peace plan. That plan envisions the creation of a Palestinian state after both sides fulfill various obligations, including the dismantling of new Jewish settlement outposts and Palestinian terrorist networks.

"The issue is the way the political and military authorities analyzed the road map," Gazit said. "From the military point of view, the road map should have been a turning point in the intifada and brought an end to the violence and the beginning of the political process."

But the plan rapidly bogged down in accusations from each side that the other was failing to keep its end of the bargain.

Sharon's government insists that the road map is not dead. Officials acknowledge that the process has stalled, and they have clearly grown concerned about two competing peace plans, one of them co-sponsored by a former Israeli domestic intelligence chief, the other developed by Israeli negotiators who participated in the Oslo talks of the 1990s. Both initiatives have Palestinian backers as well.

The latter peace initiative, known as the Geneva agreement, has not even been officially released by its authors, yet Sharon and his ministers have already denounced it, going so far as to accuse the Israeli participants of treason in going behind the government's back.

The angry reaction has only helped fuel publicity about the plan, details of which have been leaked to the press. It not only proposes two separate states but also offers possible solutions to some of the thorniest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the status of Jerusalem as a capital for both Israel and an independent Palestine, and the right of Palestinians to return to lands they fled or were evicted from to make way for the establishment of Israel in 1948.

"The hidden message [of Sharon's reaction] was that 'Uh-oh, these guys are very serious,' " said Klein, who helped draw up the plan. "They realized that something is wrong, something must be changed."

The other proposal is the year-old brainchild of Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, and Sari Nusseibeh, a prominent Palestinian moderate who is president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem. Their People's Voice initiative has collected 100,000 Israeli and 60,000 Palestinian signatures endorsing a two-state vision and solutions to the same difficult issues addressed by the Geneva agreement.

Ayalon said the moment was ripe for a broad-based, grass-roots effort because of a steady accumulation of factors.

"First, the situation from the security point of view has not improved. Secondly, politically we discover that we are right in the desert" in terms of international condemnation of many Israeli policies, Ayalon said. "Third, our economy is deteriorating."

He forecasts a shifting political climate over the next six months in which an Israeli military victory will continue to remain elusive while people on both sides of the divide will get fed up with the lack of vision in their government.

Hoping to capitalize on such sentiment, Ayalon's organization set up signature-collecting booths at a rally Saturday night commemorating Rabin, who won the Nobel Peace Prize and was gunned down in 1995 by a Jewish extremist.

About 100,000 people showed up for the event, which the liberal Haaretz newspaper called "possibly the largest left-wing demonstration this country has seen for years." Banners trumpeted left-wing positions, such as Israeli withdrawal to the borders that existed before it captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War.

Sharon's critics hope to build on a reinvigoration of the Israeli left, a sputtering, if not altogether submerged force on the political scene.

They have also taken encouragement from sustained criticism of the government by left-wing politicians and, what is more unusual, from a few parents of slain soldiers who have publicly lambasted Israeli military operations in parts of Gaza and the West Bank.

Experts warn against overestimating the revival of the left -- which could prove extremely short-lived the next time a suicide bomber attacks Israel and the public demands an aggressive response -- or underestimating the popularity and cunning of Sharon, a wily political survivor who is still the leader of choice in Israeli opinion polls.

At present, there is no political leader with the power to challenge Sharon, to offer a credible alternative or to exploit any weaknesses, analysts say.

"Generally, Sharon is very adept at resisting pressure. I think those are isolated things that have not made a dent in Sharon's popularity, if you look at the polls," political scientist Efraim Inbar said of the recent wave of criticism and restiveness.

"Most Israelis are quite satisfied with the policies of the government. So far, it doesn't seem to be threatening in any way or undermining the regime or eroding the trust most Israelis feel about Sharon."

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