Barak Hands Reins to His Former Commander Sharon
Pledging to work for peace but only if Palestinian violence stops, Israeli war hero and long-time politician Ariel Sharon was warmly welcomed to his new position at the Prime Minister's Office by outgoing leader Ehud Barak on Thursday.
US President George W. Bush also welcomed the formation of Israel's new government on Wednesday and invited Sharon to visit him in Washington on March 20, the White House said. And PLO chief Yasser Arafat has already exchanged letters with Sharon regarding the status of peace talks.
By special request, Sharon was sworn into office late Wednesday evening with his hand on a Hebrew Bible, a first for an Israeli prime minister and a gesture his aides said symbolically reaffirmed the Jews' connection to their ancient homeland.
Sharon formally moved into the prime minister's office Thursday, the beginning of the biblical holiday of Purim, a joyous celebration commemorating the deliverance of the Jews recounted in the Scroll of Esther. Sharon took the reins of power from Barak in an especially warm ceremony in which both men had effusive praise for the other.
Sharon said Israel was facing a period "that's not going to be easy," and expressed disappointment that Barak would not be joining the government. "I thought that Ehud was the right person to work with me," Sharon said, turning to Barak. "I saw in you a special mixture [of characteristics] that could produce unique results." Although this was "obviously not meant to be," Sharon said that he "took some comfort from Ehud's words last night that he is now a reserve soldier, waiting to serve the state, and I told him I will not hesitate to turn to him and [learn] from his experience."
Sharon said that the secret of his relationship with Barak, despite their political differences, stems from their military background, where they shared similar feelings of victory, failure, pain, and fear. These shared feelings, he said, create a strong, special basis for their relationship.
Barak, who spoke first, had equally warm words for the man who trounced him in the election: "I want to congratulate you, Arik, as you reach the summit of responsibility. You arrive with the most appropriate possible background and experience for this post." Recalling shared combat experiences during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Barak told his former army commander that "there is one thing which cannot be taken from you: you personify Israel's implacable fortitude, and that strength radiates from you at moments of truth."
Sharon will spell out his diplomatic plan to Bush when the two meet in Washington, a source close to Sharon said Thursday. Sharon discussed the so-called "multi-stage plan" with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Jerusalem last month, the source said.
A diplomatic source in Jerusalem says Sharon's primary challenge, however, during his meeting with Bush will be to cut the linkage created by the new American administration between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and US efforts to isolate Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The American government is demanding that Sharon and Arafat work out their conflict in order to consolidate Arab support against Iraq.
The main thrust of Sharon's peace plan, as laid out in a position paper circulated by his staff, is to "restart the negotiating process by proposing a multi-stage, long-term interim agreement based on something akin to a non-belligerency accord without a set of specific deadlines and timetables, but with a mutually-agreed-upon set of expectations [without the need for any] significant territorial adjustments."
Sharon is also said to have discussed the plan in a first coordination meeting with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Thursday night. Sharon's office said the meeting "was held in a good and serious atmosphere." But ISRAEL RADIO reported that contrary to Sharon's stated policy, Peres, who is also one of four deputy prime ministers, said he thought negotiations with the Palestinians should be resumed even if violence persists.
The gaps between the Sharon plan and Palestinian expectations became clear even in the congratulatory message Arafat rushed to Sharon on Thursday. In the message, Arafat expressed a willingness to return to the negotiating table on condition that negotiations start from where they ended at Taba and are based on UN resolutions calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state, with its capital in eastern Jerusalem. The ideas raised at Taba go far beyond anything in Sharon's plan, and both Barak and former US President Bill Clinton have said that ideas discussed there and at Camp David were not binding.
In his reply thank you note to Arafat later Thursday, Sharon reiterated that he would respect all past written agreements. He also called for an end to the incitement to violence and for a resumption of security and economic cooperation. The only way to achieve peace is through "direct talks and negotiations on the basis of written and signed agreements and obligations," Sharon wrote. "I hope to carry out personal contacts in the near future in order to bring an end to the circle of blood and hostility," he added.
Following the exchange of letters, MK Ahmed Tibi said that Sharon is expected to meet with Arafat in the near future. The prime minister's office responded by saying that a meeting will not take place until the level of violence in the territories decreases or is eliminated.
Senior PA minister Yasser Abed Rabbo told the PA-run AL AYYAM newspaper that the Palestinians will not negotiate with the Sharon government, ISRAEL RADIO reported today. "There is no hope from the Sharon government and it is forbidden to open any door to them," said Rabbo in an interview with the newspaper. He added that the Palestinians have no expectations of reaching an agreement or making any progress with Sharon, and that, although the Palestinians have a long struggle ahead, they would not give up the intifada.
Chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, complained that Sharon's inaugural speech was "too general to analyze." Sharon "did not say it is time to end the Israeli occupation," said Erakat, saying that would be the quickest path to peace. And Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdainah said on Wednesday, "It's a moment of choice for the new Israeli government, a choice between a continuation of dialogue with the Palestinians or the continuation of a policy of siege, of threats and pushing this process into a new escalation."
Meanwhile, new Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer on Thursday conveyed a lightly veiled threat to the PA at his swearing-in ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, telling Arafat that giving a free rein to terror strikes against Israel ultimately endangers his own regime. "We must make clear that the danger inherent in giving Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizb'Allah freedom to act does not pose risks only to the State of Israel, but also to those regimes which give ... [the groups] immunity and the freedom to operate," Ben-Eliezer declared.
Ben-Eliezer also held out an olive branch to Arafat. He declared that Israel should be "prepared to accept painful compromises" wrought by a "long process," in which negotiations with Syria and the Palestinian Authority would feature.
When Likud MK Uzi Landau took over the Public Security Minister from Shlomo Ben-Ami yesterday, police officers in attendance expressed great satisfaction with their new boss. "Finally, there will be someone who will restore order here," one said.
Speaking to ICEJ NEWS in his Purim outfit today, new Housing Minister Natan Sharansky said, "I am happy that we have national unity." When asked about the diversity of the Sharon cabinet, he replied, "It will be difficult, very difficult, but I hope it will work."
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.