Under Pressure from Inside and Out, Sharon Weighs How to Treat Arafat

As America prepares for war united as rarely before, Israel’s national unity government awkwardly sought its own unified position in a rapidly changing international panorama.

Two days of total quiet. This is now Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s condition for allowing a meeting to take place — as Washington is urging — between his foreign minister and political rival, Shimon Peres, and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

The new position is a delicate distillation of contrary viewpoints. Over the weekend, Sharon found himself battered within his own Cabinet and subject to intense pressure from the Bush administration to prevent further escalation in the yearlong violence with the Palestinians.

Peres, backed by the U.S. State Department and his own Labor Party, has sought to arrange a series of meetings with Arafat that he believes can produce a viable cease-fire accord.

If a cease-fire takes hold, the two sides can move on to implementing the provisions of the Mitchell Commission report, which calls on Israel to redeploy its military, freeze settlement construction, lift closures and other restrictions on Palestinian civilian life — and then to resume peace talks.

Now more than ever, as it painstakingly builds a world-wide coalition against international terror, the United States is demanding quiet and tangible political progress between Israel and the Palestinians.

As Rosh Hashanah was celebrated here under tight security measures, Israeli military sources said there were some signs that Arafat might indeed be ordering his myriad military and paramilitary groups to stop their attacks on Israel and to curb terrorist plans of the more radical groups that function under the Palestinian umbrella.

Sharon plainly is torn. On the one hand, as he told the Knesset in a special solidarity session for the United States on Sunday, he regards Arafat as Israel’s Osama bin Laden.

Sharon holds out few hopes that Arafat, who scuttled the peace process last summer despite what most Israelis considered an unprecedentedly generous offer by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and who repeatedly has sought to combine violence with diplomacy, suddenly will change his methods.

Above all, Sharon refuses to countenance the notion that the United States can court Arafat for its anti-terror coalition while Palestinian terrorism against Israel continues unabated.

At the same time, however, Sharon believes Arafat can be pressured to make at least tactical concessions.

Now, too, Sharon is anxious to preserve his alliance with Peres, respected internationally as the symbol of Israel’s quest for peace.

Peres threatened to quit the government over the weekend after Sharon vetoed a meeting with Arafat that had been planned for Sunday.

Further private arguing between these two old friends and rivals — and friendly but firm pressure from Washington – - resulted in Sharon’s condition of 48 hours of quiet.

Until the fighting stops — and even if it does not — Sharon is being urged to keep its level down. The Palestinians claim that Israel Defense Force incursions into their territory over the past week reflect an Israeli decision to “exploit” the aftermath of last week’s terror attacks in New York and Washington, and especially the wave of rage that has engulfed America.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, however, insisted on Sunday that Israeli operations are not escalating. The Palestinians, he argued, were “obviously going to claim ‘exploitation.’ “

Observers here are sure, though, that if in coming days Israel is hit by another massive suicide attack like the June disco bombing in Tel Aviv or the August pizzeria bombing in Jerusalem, vengeance this time will be swift and sweeping, given the current heightened sensitivity to terror around the world.

Still, the internal and external tensions Israel experienced this week could pale before what it may face as any American military campaign to avenge last week’s terror attacks proceeds.

As in the 1991 Gulf War, it seems that a President Bush will call on Israel to sit on its hands.

Hopefully this time Israel will not be attacked by Scud missiles, though local defense experts predicted this week that Iraq could be a target for the American operation and that Saddam Hussein might send some of the 20-odd Scuds he is believed to possess against Tel Aviv.

Israelis also are unhappy about Pakistan’s request to freeze them out of Bush’s international coalition of “good against evil,” while Israel’s enemies — including states that have more than a passing relationship with terror — are ardently wooed by Washington.

An omen of things to come was Pakistan’s demand, presented as a condition for supporting America, that India and Israel be excluded from the developing coalition.

The rightist parties, represented in the government but not in its Inner Cabinet, are urging Sharon to seize the window of opportunity after last week’s terror attacks to destroy the Palestinian Authority, driving Arafat and his coterie back into exile.

They argue that the mood in America would countenance such Israeli action at this time.

On the left, however, politicians warn that such a move ultimately would harm the chances for eventual peace with the Palestinian people — whether under its present leadership or under a new leadership whose ascent to power might be catalyzed by the impending world war against terrorism.

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