With Ramallah Under Israeli Siege, It’s Unclear What’s on Sharon’s Mind
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With Ramallah Under Israeli Siege, It’s Unclear What’s on Sharon’s Mind

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On the face of it, sending in tanks and bulldozers to demolish most of Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

For months, Sharon has been trying to weaken the Palestinian Authority president. Now, just when Arafat appeared to be tottering, the siege in Ramallah has given him a new lease on life, at least in the short term.

Thousands of indignant Palestinians, in recent weeks impervious to Arafat’s fate, have been demonstrating in support of their humiliated leader. World and regional leaders, alienated by Arafat’s persistent deceit, are again showing sympathy for the underdog. And the U.N. Security Council, as is its wont, convened to debate Israel’s actions — overlooking last week’s suicide bombings that precipitated the Israeli attack.

But Israeli leaders claim there is method in the madness: regime change.

Sharon has made it plain that he wants to expel Arafat. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and the defense establishment — including Defense Minster Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and the Israeli army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon — argue that it would do far more harm than good.

By chipping away at Arafat’s compound, pundits say, Sharon has created a situation where there will be nothing left to demolish after future bombings, and no sanctions left to impose on Arafat but expulsion.

“Sharon in his inimitable way is leading Ben-Eliezer and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to the inevitable decision to expel,” analyst Nahum Barnea commented in the daily Yediot Achronot newspaper. “It will happen after the next Hamas terror attack. More than Arafat is our captive, he is a hostage of the Hamas, who couldn’t have asked for a better prize.”

Palestinian officials, too, seem to have gotten the message. Arafat security adviser Mohammad Dahlan reportedly warned Hamas and Islamic Jihad that Arafat would be expelled if they carried out more attacks; in that case, he told them, Arafat’s blood would be on their head.

Arafat himself, according to some reports in the Israeli press, said that if released he would work to restrain the Palestinian terror groups, including the Al-Aksa Brigades of his own Fatah movement — though in the past Arafat has made so many similar promises that by now they impress few Israeli leaders.

Some Israeli pundits worry that Palestinian lawmakers and Fatah reformers, who in recent weeks were becoming unprecedentedly bold in their challenges to Arafat, would now feel obligated to rally around him to avoid appearing as Israeli stooges.

However, Ben-Eliezer believes the Ramallah operation, designed to chip away at Arafat’s authority and status without expelling him, will accelerate regime change.

The more Arafat is seen to be impotent, the thinking goes, the greater the incentive to replace him and the less fear reformers will have of his wrath.

Ben-Eliezer’s hope is that a new leadership that witnessed Arafat’s demise — and the toll terrorism has taken on Palestinian society — would be more willing to carry out political, security and economic reforms, to fight terror and to talk peace.

Ya’alon, the army chief, maintains that before this can happen, the Palestinians must internalize the fact that their violent uprising has failed. The destruction in Ramallah, he believes, will make this plain and accelerate the search for a new beginning.

The Ramallah operation is code-named “A Matter of Time.” Though at first the siege may seem to have backfired, Israeli leaders believe that over time — weeks rather than months — Arafat’s decline will be self-evident and the operation will be judged a success.

Even with the siege in full force, they note, Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, convened a meeting to discuss the appointment of a prime minister to share power with Arafat.

Though Abbas is a close Arafat associate, Israeli officials see this as a major step toward reforming the Palestinian political establishment and enabling a more moderate leadership to emerge.

One of the more prominent mid-level Palestinian leaders declared openly on Israeli television that the Palestinians need a prime minister alongside Arafat as part of their political reform, but claimed this was not tied to the siege in Ramallah.

However, there is by no means a consensus around Abbas or any other potential leader, or even about the need for a prime minister. Young leaders of Fatah’s Tanzim militia say Abbas and the group of Arafat cronies, most of whom returned from lives of luxury in Tunis to the West Bank and Gaza after the Oslo accords, don’t speak for the Palestinian people.

In other words, even if the Israeli strategy works and there is a regime change, it might end up empowering a more militant Palestinian leadership, made up mainly of Tanzim and/or Hamas radicals.

Though the focus for now is on Arafat, the army has made it clear that Hamas leaders too will be targeted if the organization continues its bombing campaign.

The government reportedly has decided in principle to deport Hamas’ leader, Sheik Ahmad Yassin, but the army is waiting for the opportune moment.

“We have not finished our job in Gaza,” Sharon declared Monday. “The day will come when we will have to concentrate forces there and deal with Hamas.”

Still, the main focus remains Arafat. He is blamed for the failure of the Gaza/Bethlehem First cease-fire effort, under which Israel turned over security responsibility to Palestinian forces in those areas as a test that could be extended to other areas.

Yet even in the Gaza Strip, where P.A. security forces remain fully intact, they did nothing to fight terror, and Arafat himself intervened to prevent his forces from keeping the situation too quiet, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

The re-emergence of the bombers last week led Israel to reimpose its hold on Palestinian cities, rather than loosening it as envisaged in the rolling cease-fire plan.

On the Israeli left, the siege on Arafat and the retightening of the screws in the West Bank sparked public skepticism about Sharon’s motives. Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid accused Sharon of playing to the Likud gallery, pointing out that the party is due soon to elect convention delegates who will decide whether Sharon or former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the party in the next election.

Labor’s Yossi Beilin describes the Ramallah operation as “Sharon’s horror show,” and accused Ben-Eliezer of being “stupid enough” to go along with an attempt to destroy chances for a peace process.

Indeed, the left wingers ask, what would Sharon do if he got the moderate Palestinian leadership he claims he wants? What would he offer them?

The Ramallah operation also led to the first real tension in months between the Israeli government and the American administration. Escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian arena was the last thing the Americans wanted as they seek to build Mideast support for a possible strike against Iraq.

Some Israeli pundits were quick to see in those open differences a portent of things to come. Once the Americans deal with Iraq, they say — and especially if a moderate Palestinian leadership emerges — there could be heavy U.S. pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians as part of an American bid to rebuild ties with the Arab world.

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