JERUSALEM (Sep. 8)
After the resignation of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, several key Israeli officials have reached the same conclusion: The time to expel P.A. President Yassir Arafat is fast approaching.
They argue that Arafat deliberately undermined Abbas and that he will do the same to any new Palestinian prime minister who tries to act against terrorism or make progress toward the “road map” peace plan.
Bush administration officials seem to agree with the Israeli analysis but are wary of the diplomatic and regional fallout of expelling Arafat. They prefer to give Arafat another chance and see how things develop under the Palestinian Prime Minister-designate, Ahmed Karia.
In Israel, frustration with Arafat has intensified in recent months.
When the expulsion idea was bounced around earlier this year, most Israeli Cabinet ministers and senior defense officials were against the idea. They argued that an Arafat gallivanting around the world would be more dangerous to Israel than an Arafat confined to his headquarters in Ramallah, in the West Bank.
But now most Cabinet ministers favor expulsion, and key defense people also are changing their minds.
Perhaps most significantly, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, Intelligence Chief Aharon Ze’evi and Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, who is Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz’s chief political adviser, all now openly speak out in favor of Arafat’s “departure.”
Several months ago, all were strongly opposed to the idea.
Gilad, who is considered the intelligence community’s expert on Arafat, claims that there is a growing understanding in the United States and Europe that Arafat’s “departure from the region is a precondition for progress towards peace.”
A few months ago, the Americans were vehemently against expulsion. But now, says Dov Weisglass, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s bureau chief, there has been a significant modification of the American position.
Just back from talks with high-ranking U.S. officials in Washington, Weisglass says the Americans no longer reject outright the idea of expulsion.
Clearly, however, the Americans do not yet think the time for Arafat’s expulsion is nigh.
In a weekend television interview, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice described Arafat as an “obstacle to peace,” but said “no good would be served” by expelling him.
In another television interview, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, while warning against Arafat’s expulsion, implied that Washington’s position could change depending on Arafat’s behavior. Powell said the United States did not support expulsion “at this stage.”
Meanwhile, one of the most ardent advocates of expulsion, Mofaz, is going to Washington next week to convince the Bush administration of the need to expel Arafat sooner rather than later.
When Mofaz returns to Israel from Washington and Sharon returns from a state visit to India, the expulsion issue is set to top the Cabinet agenda.
The American position at that point will be crucial. Sharon is unlikely to go ahead without a green light from Washington.
The logic behind Israeli policy post-Abbas is based on the removal of what Israel sees as the main obstacles to peace: Arafat and Hamas.
The Arafat problem would be eliminated by expulsion or by forcing Arafat to change course under the threat of expulsion, and the Hamas problem would be eliminated by targeting the group’s political and military leaders.
Israeli leaders believe the policy of striking at Hamas’ leadership — which began before Abbas stepped down — is working.
They say a combination of factors has combined to make Hamas particularly vulnerable:
Since the Aug. 19 Hamas bus bombing in Jerusalem, which killed 22, American criticism of Israel’s targeted killings — including Saturday’s failed strike on Hamas’ spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin — has been muted.
The European Union has declared both the military and political wings of Hamas a terrorist organization.
The Palestinian Authority has confiscated Hamas funds.
Hamas terrorism is coming under increasing criticism in the Palestinian-populated territories because of Israel’s military responses.
All this leads Israeli planners to believe that although they can’t destroy Hamas as an ideological movement, they can smash its terrorist infrastructure and help clear the way to peace talks.
Labor opposition leaders are less sanguine. They contend that fighting terrorists is an insufficient bulwark against terrorism and that what the government needs in the post-Abbas era is a new peace strategy.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak argues that the Abbas experience proves there can be no genuine peace partner on the Palestinian side. Therefore, he says, Israel should withdraw unilaterally behind a security fence while putting a detailed peace plan of its own on the table as a basis for negotiation whenever the Palestinians are ready.
But the Sharon government still is hoping for a negotiated agreement along the lines of the road map.
Much could depend on how expelling Arafat affects Palestinian politics, or, if Arafat stays, whether Karia is able to maintain better ties with the Palestinian Authority president than Abbas did while meeting basic Israeli and American conditions for fighting terrorism.
The botched assassination attempt on Yassin was a warning to Arafat that no Palestinian leader is immune from Israeli action and that, if he doesn’t cooperate with the new prime minister, Israel will take drastic measures against him.
Some right-wing Israelis even have called for Arafat’s assassination.
So far, however, Israeli and American pressure has left the Palestinian Authority president unfazed. He has ignored the expulsion threats, which he read as a ploy to persuade him to reappoint Abbas.
But with Abbas gone, it seems that Karia is now the key player.
An Arafat loyalist, Karia also is a pragmatist with the interpersonal skills and political ties that the more reticent Abbas lacked. Karia used his expertise to good effect in negotiating the 1993 Oslo accords with Israel.
The key question now is whether Karia will be able to use his skills to gain the political power that Abbas lacked, and then use that power to move the peace process forward.