Israelis come to view Arafat as the problem


JERUSALEM, June 12 (JTA) — “Enough of trying to understand” Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, a prominent, dovish Israeli columnist wrote midweek in the liberal newspaper Ha’aretz. “I am sick and tired of it.”

The columnist’s outburst of exasperation reflects current opinion on the Israeli left.

More and more opinion-makers — in politics, the media and the academic community — are openly voicing the thought, eight years after Oslo, that as long as Arafat heads the Palestinian national movement no peace and reconciliation with Israel is possible.

On the right, people who have long held this view now suggest openly that Israeli government act on it – and remove the P.A. chairman.

The peace camp’s frustration with Arafat came to a boil late last year, when it saw that then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s sweeping concessions to the Palestinians at Camp David and in subsequent negotiations were rejected out of hand.

Despite an Israeli offer that met most of the Palestinians’ ostensible demands — to evacuate the entire Gaza Strip and virtually the entire West Bank, dismantle most Jewish settlements, divide Jerusalem and give the Palestinians operative control over the Temple Mount — the Palestinians refused to declare an end to the 100-year conflict with Israel.

For months, Israeli leftists agonized over what had gone wrong, wondering whether Barak’s gruff style had offended Arafat or whether President Clinton’s zeal to reach a deal had unnerved Palestinian negotiators.

The outbreak of the violent Palestinian uprising, and especially its intensification in recent months, has brought disillusionment with Arafat to a new peak — and some wonder whether it has become impossible to clamber back from this peak to the modicum of confidence necessary for a peace agreement.

All but the most marginal factions on the Israeli left have become convinced that the present Palestinian leadership is “not a partner for peace,” in Barak’s words.

Not even the reported Palestinian acceptance late Tuesday night of CIA director George Tenet’s cease-fire plan was likely to significantly reduce Israeli skepticism about Arafat’s intentions.

In Israel, the feeling was that Sharon’s self-restraint, widely praised at home and abroad, could not withstand one more major terror attack. Another suicide bombing, it was felt, would unleash an Israeli military retaliation so strong that it would put paid to peace diplomacy for a long time to come.

Here the question of Israel’s attitude to Arafat may become immediate and practical. As left and right alike have come to hold Arafat personally responsible for the past months of bloodshed, some suggest that he could become the direct target of a new Israeli reprisal policy.

Until recently, such thoughts were confined to the fringe right. Mainstream politicians, however militant, discouraged such speculation, noting that no responsible country tries to choose its neighbors’ leaders.

The consensus in the intelligence community, moreover, traditionally was that Arafat and his coterie are preferable to the Islamic fundamentalists who could jostle for power if the Palestinian Authority loses its dominance.

Those former truisms are no longer considered axiomatic. Israeli analysts — and some politicians — now publicly contemplate whether a Palestinian leadership change would necessarily be a step backward.

If the situation reverts to full-scale fighting, there is talk — and no longer just on the fringes — of Israel deciding to topple the Palestinian Authority leadership and force its top echelon out of the country.

It was then-Defense Minister Sharon, indeed, who used the army to destroy the PLO’s terrorist mini-state in southern Lebanon and force Arafat out of Beirut during the Lebanon War in 1982.

The Palestinian leaders took refuge in Tunis and remained there until Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin allowed them to enter Palestine in 1994 under the terms of the Oslo peace process — which was conditioned on their consent to renounce the path of violent struggle against Israel.

If given the orders, there is little doubt that the Israel Defense Force and the other Israeli security services have the means to effect such a forcible deportation.

Even those who dare to contemplate such a scenario recognize that it might trigger a wider, regional war. But, they argue, Israel cannot sit by waiting for biology to run its course on the Palestinian leaders while, in the meantime, they incite and manage a relentless terrorist assault on the Israeli populace.

Until very recently, the expected strong censure of the international community would have convinced most Israeli strategists to reject such a strategy out of hand.

Lately, however — especially since the June 1 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, which killed a score of Israeli youths outside a discotheque — Arafat’s standing in Western opinion has been seriously eroded, at least temporarily.

That is not to say that direct Israeli action against Arafat would be condoned internationally; indeed, some believe that so much time has elapsed since the Tel Aviv bombing that any Israeli military action now would be seen not as a response but as a provocation.

However, once the dogs of war are unleashed, many analysts feel, no amount of international pressure will suffice to rein them in.

The knowledge that Israel was planning a retaliation so severe that it could well topple his regime is considered one of the factors behind Arafat’s call for a cease-fire after the Tel Aviv bombing.

The hope in Israeli political circles is that this very scenario, considered unthinkable until recently, will help persuade the Palestinian leadership to enforce a genuine cease-fire.

Recommended from JTA