Arafat Makes Arrests, but Israelis Doubt He Will Ever Mean Business

Shortly after Sunday’s fatal bus bombing in Haifa, Mohammad Dahlan, head of Palestinian security in the Gaza Strip, phoned Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

His request: Hold Israeli fire and give the Palestinian Authority “a few extra days” to act against Palestinian terrorist groups.

“Just like we did in 1996,” Dahlan said, referring to the strong measures the Palestinian Authority took against Hamas and Islamic Jihad following a similar series of massive terrorist attacks in February and March of 1996.

It’s not known what Peres answered Dahlan, but Israel’s response came indirectly with Monday’s air raid on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Gaza and the demolition of his private helicopter fleet.

With Hamas and Islamic Jihad acting underground, Israel was unable to aim directly at terrorist targets. Instead, it attacked the symbols of power of Arafat, the man it considers responsible for the infrastructure of Palestinian terror.

It was a two-fold message. First, it showed Arafat that his political status, if not his personal security, is on the line. Second, it showed that Israel no longer has any faith in Arafat’s frequent pledges that this time he really, really means it when he says he will crack down on terror.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government does not believe that the reported arrests of more than 100 militants indicate a genuine plan to end Palestinian terrorism. In Sharon’s words, Arafat has built “an empire of lies” that Israel will have to destroy.

In an address to the nation Monday on his return from the United States, Sharon said repeatedly that Arafat himself is responsible for the carnage Palestinian suicide bombers wreaked this past weekend — despite Arafat’s condemnations of the attacks and his initial steps to round up terror suspects.

Past experience has shown many Israelis that it is foolhardy to trust that Arafat means business. Too many times, they say, he has vowed to take action against the terrorists, and he orders some well-publicized arrests. A few days later, however, when international pressure eases, the terrorists are quietly released from jail and attacks slowly escalate to or beyond their previous level.

An eternal question remains unchanged for Israeli policymakers: Is Arafat unable to crack down on the terror groups, or does he simply not want to?

Either choice is bad news for Israel, as it presents little hope of curbing terrorism as long as Arafat remains in power.

Palestinian officials say Arafat is making the utmost effort to curb terror, but that Israel’s military actions push him into a corner.

“Israel does not let Arafat rule,” protested Hisham Abdul Razek, a member of the Palestinian Cabinet. “Arafat cannot act” against the terrorists “because of the way Israel tries to force its will on him.”

Abdul Razek added one more sentence that may serve as a clue to the political mentality of the P.A. leadership.

“The Palestinian Authority desires very much” to put an end to terrorism, he said — “but Israel must allow the Palestinian Authority to do it with dignity.”

“Dignity” is a frequent motif in the Palestinian lexicon. Several years ago, Palestinians complained that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu humiliated Arafat when for a time he refused to meet him or shake his hand. They also complained that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak humiliated them during the Camp David negotiations.

Now, they say, “the air raid against Arafat’s helicopters was designed to humiliate him.”

The political logic behind it is that a humiliated leader cannot convince his people to make compromises.

Many Israelis, however, consider this a cop-out that allows the Palestinians to shirk responsibility for their political ineptitude. Rejection of Israeli peace offers and 14 months of violent uprising can hardly be explained by claiming that Barak spoke brusquely at Camp David or omitted some of Arafat’s honorifics when addressing the P.A. leader.

In any case, taking offense may be too much of a luxury for Arafat right now. Put simply — say observers both here and abroad — his time for sitting on the fence is finished.

“Arafat now has his last 24 hours to make a switch,” Middle East expert Yosef Ginat of Haifa University predicted Sunday.

If Arafat does not take real measures to stop Palestinian terrorism, he will seal his doom, Ginat said.

Still, Israel was not expected to take direct measures against Arafat.

“We have no intention to destroy the Palestinian Authority,” Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said. The message: No one will try to kill Arafat, and his freedom of movement will not be curbed.

However, if Monday’s air strikes in Gaza and the West Bank are only the beginning of Israeli retaliation, further blows to the Palestinian Authority infrastructure could mortally wound Arafat’s standing and lead indirectly to his downfall.

Ghazi Abu-Jihad of the Fatah movement in Gaza advised Israel not to rush.

“Whoever believes that getting rid of Arafat will bring peace and quiet is totally wrong,” he said.

But some Israelis, Sharon among them, do not accept the common wisdom that the alternative to Arafat will only be worse. Sharon has even spoken mockingly of those who threaten that Hamas will take over.

Sharon’s political rival, Netanyahu, has a similar view regarding a possible Arafat successor.

Speaking in New York on Sunday, Netanyahu said plainly that Israel should give Arafat just several hours to “crush” the Palestinian terror groups — and if he doesn’t do it,”out he goes, just like that.”

The identity of Arafat’s successor is irrelevant, Netanyahu said.

“Whoever replaces Arafat will understand that if he engages in terror, he will not survive very long in power,” he said.

Some influential Palestinians, like Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian official in charge of Jerusalem, came out openly against the latest wave of terrorism, arguing that it only damages the Palestinian cause. Others expressed their opinion — quietly — that Arafat is not powerful enough to tame the situation.

If that is the case, Ginat suggested, Israel might one day see the implementation of a plan suggested in the past by a former head of the Mossad, Shabtai Shavit, and currently championed by Avigdor Lieberman of the far-right National Union — Israel, Our Home faction.

Shavit suggested dividing the Palestinian Authority into cantons, each with its own warlord and its own record of behavior. Those with good behavior will enjoy Israeli benefits. while those who support terrorism will be heavily punished.

This might prove an effective formula — on paper, at least.

In practice, however, Israel’s current options are far from ideal.

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