Arafat’s Fortunes Up, Sharon’s Down As Siege on Ramallah Compound Ends

Israeli officials did their best this week to quell a storm of public criticism over their handling of the siege of Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters.

On Monday, a day after Israeli tanks and troops pulled back from the Ramallah compound, several Cabinet ministers said Israel had failed to correctly assess the American reaction to the siege.

The decision to lift the siege followed heavy pressure from the United States, which said the action disrupted U.S. preparations for a possible attack on Iraq.

In recent weeks, Arafat had come under growing Palestinian criticism for corruption and incompetence within his government. When he emerged from his compound Sunday, however, he was buoyed by a fresh surge of popular support.

It’s not clear how deep such support is, however, or how long it will last now that he is no longer under siege.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials exchanged accusations amid reports that some of the wanted Palestinians who had been in the compound with the Palestinian Authority president escaped when the siege was lifted.

Last week, the government had said the siege would end only when Palestinian terrorist suspects were handed over. On Monday, Israeli officials denied that most of them had escaped.

Pundits said top officials in Israel’s political and defense establishments had misread American interests.

President Bush’s efforts to rally the United Nations behind his campaign against Iraq should have indicated that this was not the time to take steps that could inflame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came under a hail of criticism from across the political spectrum.

“We did not assess the situation correctly, when we made the decision two weeks ago, the extent to which America had already begun the countdown to an attack on Iraq,” Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky told Israel Radio on Monday.

Before Israel decided to impose the siege, he said, there had been no indications that Washington would object to the move.

Cabinet Minister Limor Livnat said it took a “certain courage” for the government to reverse its decision and accept the American demand to end the siege — though she described the about-face as a mistake.

Critics from the left accused Sharon’s government of lacking political vision and of blundering into a fight with the United States.

The affair shows that “this government is stupid and blind and is incapable of looking one step forward,” said opposition leader Yossi Sarid of the Meretz Party. “It moves in the dark and sends the country into every black ditch.”

From the right, Sharon was assailed for handing a victory to the Palestinians and failing to take more vigorous action to remove Arafat from the political scene.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel should have expelled Arafat, not encircled his compound.

“What has become clear is that halfway measures do not help us, and to a great extent, they actually help” Arafat, Netanyahu told Israel Radio. “Therefore there are two options: Either leave him alone or throw him out.”

Despite the storm of criticism, one commentator said there was a silver lining to the affair.

Writing in Ha’aretz, Aluf Benn noted that the unanimous Cabinet backing for Sharon — both in the decision to surround Arafat’s compound and then to lift the siege — was proof of the power he still wields over the governing coalition.

In addition, by acceding to U.S. pressure, Sharon showed his ability to back down from previous decisions, even at the cost of his pride. This could signal possible flexibility in future political negotiations, Benn wrote.

Ma’ariv commentator Chemi Shalev noted that the affair could cost Sharon some points within his own Likud Party. Sharon would have to score some political gains to head off a widely anticipated challenge from Netanyahu, Shalev wrote.

Meanwhile, most commentators agreed on one point: The end of the siege had assured Arafat another grace period – - at least until the U.S.-Iraq drama plays out.

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