As Campaign Heats Up, Parties Spar over Terror and Approach to Arafat

This week’s suicide bombing in Tel Aviv has made terror even more of a central issue in Israel’s upcoming election — and highlighted the major parties’ different prescriptions for ending the violence.

For months, Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party’s candidate in the elections, has advocated the construction of an electronic fence between Israel and the West Bank to keep terrorists out of Israeli cities. After Sunday’s attack, Mitzna decided to put the fence idea at the center of his campaign.

In Labor’s first television spot, which aired Tuesday, Mitzna accused Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of the Likud Party of dragging his feet on a fence for “political reasons” — settler pressure and fear that a fence might constitute a permanent border close to Israel’s pre-1967 war boundary.

So far, less than 3 miles of the projected 200-mile barrier between Israel and the West Bank have been built.

“Sharon chose not to build the fence,” Mitzna declared the day after the bombing, “and so the terror continues.”

Sharon, for his part, launched a personal attack on Mitzna in recent days, accusing him of “inexperience” and trying to link him to peace plans backed by the Labor government of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Presented at the July 2000 Camp David summit and afterward, the plans included “irresponsible” concessions to the Palestinians, Sharon said.

Past Israeli elections also have revolved around terrorism, but this one, scheduled for Jan. 28, has a twist.

Terror attacks crippled the campaigns of incumbent prime minsters Yitzhak Shamir in 1992, Shimon Peres in 1996 and Barak in 2001. This time the violence seems likely to benefit Sharon, the hawkish father figure, at the expense of the untested Mitzna.

Sharon’s policy has been to fight terror primarily by military force. He advocates a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but only after terror stops and the Palestinian leadership is replaced.

Mitzna, however, advocates immediate negotiations with the Palestinians without preconditions — and, if those fail, a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank to positions behind the promised security fence.

Another key difference is the candidates’ view of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Mitzna’s program implies that Arafat not only can stay in power, but — as the Palestinian official theoretically most able to “deliver” a peace agreement — may even become a productive negotiating partner.

If Israel is forced to undertake a unilateral separation from the Palestinians — Mitzna’s fall-back position — it doesn’t matter who is leading the Palestinian side.

Sharon, in contrast, has stated repeatedly that the replacement of Arafat is a precondition for diplomatic progress — and even has brought President Bush around to his view.

The aftermath of Sunday’s bombing seems to indicate that pressure to expel Arafat from the Palestinian territories once again is building on Sharon. Though it almost surely won’t happen before an anticipated American-led strike on Iraq, the day of Arafat’s exile may be drawing closer.

Sunday’s attack highlighted Sharon’s difficulties dealing with Palestinian terrorism in the run-up to the expected American strike.

The United States has demanded that Israel refrain from inflaming the Arab world before a possible war on Iraq. In recent days, the United States has criticized even the demolition of terrorists’ homes — a policy blasted by human rights groups, but one of the few Israeli steps that has proven partially successful at deterring suicide bombers.

Given the U.S. pressure, Sharon rejected advice from his top Cabinet ministers to exile Arafat now, but he reportedly assured them that he would review the situation after any war on Baghdad redraws the political map of the Middle East.

Hours after the Tel Aviv bombing, Sharon summoned three senior ministers to a late-night consultation on Israel’s response. All three — Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Silvan Shalom — wanted to expel Arafat from the Palestinian territories.

As long as Arafat is around, terrorism won’t stop, nor is there a chance of serious governmental reforms in the Palestinian Authority, they argued.

Sharon agrees with the assessment in principle but, because of the American pressure, nixed the idea of expelling Arafat. But after the American offensive, aides say, Sharon believes Washington will give Israel far more leeway in responding to Palestinian terrorism, making that the proper time to expel Arafat.

Appearing before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday, Mofaz virtually confirmed that the government is planning to exile the Palestinian leader, saying that the day is “getting closer” when Arafat will no longer be around.

Defense Ministry sources say that Israel aims “to engage the Palestinians in serious peace talks” in the coming year — something that, in Mofaz’s view, “can only happen without Arafat.”

Netanyahu made a similar point in an address to foreign diplomats on Monday when he defended Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinian officials to attend a London conference on reforming the Palestinian Authority. Having Arafat send representatives to discuss reforming his regime was as absurd “as Saddam Hussein sending his minions to discuss reform of the regime in Baghdad,” Netanyahu said.

The Israeli statements against Arafat reportedly are being echoed by senior Palestinian officials. According to Israeli government sources, Palestinians who met top Sharon aides to discuss renewing the peace process “the day after” Israeli elections and war in Iraq said there would be no progress as long as Arafat is around.

Indeed, the Israeli sources said, the Palestinians seemed to feel they were risking their lives merely by talking to Israel.

Labor Party leaders, however, are solidly against expelling Arafat, even after any American strike on Iraq. Haim Ramon, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, says that precisely because of Arafat’s role in Palestinian terrorism, it would be better to keep him “cooped up in Ramallah” than to allow him to travel the world pressing the Palestinian case and raising funds for more attacks.

“No one would replace Arafat in the territories,” Ramon says, “and expelling him would only make things worse.”

For the leaders of Israel’s two major parties, having Arafat around, at least for the next three weeks, may actually make things easier.

For Mitzna, Arafat is a potential partner at best, and is irrelevant at worse.

Regarding Sharon, it may be instructive to recall the headline in one major American magazine after the Likud leader was elected prime minister in February 2001. Noting that Palestinian terrorism had overthrown the most peace- oriented government in Israel’s history, The New Yorker called Sharon’s election “Arafat’s gift.”

Many Israelis say Sharon has no long-term vision for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace, but they don’t care: As long as Arafat heads the Palestinian Authority, they see no hope anyway.

If the polls hold true for another three weeks, Arafat may be giving Israelis the same gift this time around.

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