TEL AVIV, Dec. 17 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon brands Yasser Arafat as "irrelevant," and the Palestinian Authority president responds by issuing yet another pledge to crack down on terror. Despite those dramatic developments, Israeli analysts and politicians say Arafat and Sharon — and the publics they represent — are likely to remain mired in the painful status quo. The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot predicted on Friday that Arafat´s regime will soon collapse, and claimed that every move Sharon has taken in recent days was part of a "secret plan" developed by his counterterrorism adviser, Maj.-Gen. Meir Dagan. This theory stipulates that Sharon´s unchanging worldview informed his decision to sever ties with Arafat: He never believed that Arafat was anything but a murderer with whom negotiations should never be conducted, and consistently maintained that the Oslo accords were the biggest disaster to befall Israel in recent history. However, Sharon´s ultimate goal — eliminating Arafat and transforming the Palestinian Authority into a "moderate entity" — required the acquiescence of the United States, Egypt and Jordan. According to this theory, when President Bush voiced tacit approval for Israeli retaliatory measures — and when the United States, Egypt and Jordan failed to issue the usual condemnations of Israeli missiles blasting Palestinian installations — Sharon believed the time was ripe to implement his grand plan. Sharon adviser Dore Gold justified the decision to dismiss Arafat as "irrelevant," saying that Israel "has two choices — to defend ourselves or to do nothing. We´ve obviously chosen the former." Israel and the Palestinian Authority "have gone through eight cease-fires under U.S. auspices. Should we try for nine, or 10 or 22 cease-fires, the number of cease-fires brokered between Arafat and former King Hussein of Jordan in 1970?" Gold asked. "The question is how many Israelis have to die." Gold, like most Israelis, is unconvinced by Arafat´s latest pledge to clamp down on terror groups. With Arafat doing nothing substantive to stop the terror paralyzing Israeli´s cities and economy – in fact, Gold says, half of the attacks are carried out by Arafat-affiliated groups like Fatah and Force 17 — Arafat makes himself technically and operationally irrelevant. According to Gold, Israel will continue to eliminate terrorists in operations like the one in Beit Hanoun over the weekend, when five Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded or detained. In this scenario, Israel is forced to sidestep Arafat and take care of "clearing out the terrorists" on its own, while simultaneously punishing Arafat for his failure to act. However, for the second time in Sharon´s long military and political career, international pressure precludes him from eliminating Arafat. The first opportunity came in 1982 when an Israeli sniper was said to have had Arafat in his sights as the PLO leader boarded a boat to Tunis. The sniper did not receive the green light then, and neither will the Israeli tanks now parked outside Arafat´s Ramallah offices, their turrets trained on an impossible target. The problem for Sharon is that "as long as Arafat is alive, he is relevant. We have tried to write him off but we cannot, because he is the symbol of the Palestinian struggle for independence and he is here to stay, whether we like it or not," says Ehud Sprinzak, an expert on terrorism and dean of the Lauder School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "This declaration of Arafat as ‘irrelevant´ is just another way to pressure him to return to relevancy by acting against terror," Sprinzak notes. Sprinzak also cautions against underestimating Sharon, whom he calls a master strategist. No one really knows Sharon´s long-term goals, Sprinzak says, but it is clear that underlying his policy is a fear of demonstrating weakness and a wish to convey the message that "Israel can damage" the Palestinians "much more than they can damage us." Rather than a watershed event ushering in a new era, shunning Arafat is just another phase in the cycle of violence, as is the Palestinian leader´s pledge to stop terror, Sprinzak says. Eventually, he predicts, the violence will subside and Sharon will attempt to implement a slower, phased peace process with a more pragmatic generation of Palestinian leaders. But since Sharon cannot groom a new Palestinian leader — and since he doesn´t dare dispose of the current one — he must make do with Arafat. The prevailing feeling in Knesset offices and among the Cabinet ministers is that by destroying the symbols of Palestinian sovereignty — including airports, Arafat´s rickety helicopters and security and police installations — Israel can force the Palestinians to give up the violent intifada. "The price for them is much higher," Sprinzak says, "but it takes time. Remember" former Serbian leader Slobodan "Milosovic and Saddam Hussein: Eventually they will have to give up." Despite the Israeli government´s declarations that it has "not ruled out diplomatic options down the road with other Palestinian leaders," the United States, European Union and United Nations have condemned Israel´s attempt to bypass Arafat. In fact, it appears that the window of opportunity for Sharon to act, which opened after the string of suicide bombings in early December, is closing as the death toll of Palestinians rises. Echoes of the word "restraint" are again heard faintly in the corridors of the State Department, the United Nations and even in the Knesset. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently reiterated America´s position that the United States still considers Arafat the legitimate, elected leader of the Palestinian people. The E.U.´s current president, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, said the attempts to discredit Arafat "are initiatives contrary to peace that also undermine his ability to fight terrorism." While praising Arafat´s renunciation of violence Sunday, American officials said the test will be Arafat´s actions, not his words. With 44 Israelis killed in terror attacks in the first two weeks of December — more than twice the annual average of soldiers killed during Israel´s extended occupation of southern Lebanon — Israelis are beginning to wonder how much more the situation can deteriorate. "Violence breeds more violence, and this round will drive us deeper into the mud than we have ever been," says Israel´s former chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. Arafat missed numerous chances for a cease-fire, Lipkin-Shahak believes, but adds that if the Palestinian Authority collapses it will not be replaced by more moderate leaders. Israeli pressure might weaken Arafat´s ability to harbor terrorists, yet it also might implode the P.A., resulting in a power vacuum in the territories and, possibly, even greater violence and chaos. "The level of hatred among the Palestinians is so high, almost nothing we do to them will make it worse," Lipkin-Shahak says. However, if Arafat´s recent pledge to stop violence is serious — similar to a crackdown he launched in 1996 after a series of suicide bombings rocked Israel — the Sharon administration would be forced to recognize it, which might ultimately lead the sides back to the negotiating table. For now, though, the chances of that "look grim indeed," Lipkin-Shahak says.
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