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As Clinton Returns to Israel, It’s Clear How Yasser Arafat’s Status Has Fallen

January 23, 2002
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What a difference a year makes.

A little more than a year ago, President Clinton detailed a Mideast peace plan that included deep Israeli concessions and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

This week, as Clinton visited Israel for the first time since leaving office, the vision of a “New Middle East” that developed under his watch appeared little more than a pipe dream.

During the past 12 months, Prime Minister Ehud Barak was tossed out of office in Israel and has retired from politics. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat remains in power but is under virtual house arrest in Ramallah, his office ringed by Israeli tanks.

Lately, Israelis see signs that the U.S. administration that succeeded Clinton’s is moving toward the conclusion that Arafat is indeed “irrelevant,” as the Israeli government recently declared.

If so, it’s unclear what that would mean for a future Palestinian leadership, and for that regime’s relations with America and Israel.

The evidence of a policy shift by the Bush administration toward Arafat still is largely circumstantial. Indeed, the most that can be said with assurance is that the policy is still shifting and has not yet reached a definitive position.

The signals of an American shift include:

Qatar-based Al Jazeera television reported Tuesday that the Bush administration’s envoy to the Middle East, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, has asked to end his mission brokering a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians.

The information came from Western sources, the station reported, adding that Zinni asked U.S. national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to be relieved of his mission because he cannot trust Arafat and does not feel his return to the region will result in any progress.

State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said that the report was completely unfounded, but added that no new date was set for Zinni to return to the region.

Even before Tuesday’s Al Jazeera report, the word in Washington was that senior members of the Bush team believed the chances to reduce violence were so slim that it was not worth sending Zinni back to the region for a third round of shuttle diplomacy.

Even if it’s not accompanied by explicit criticism, declining to send Zinni would essentially confirm that the Bush administration “has had it with Arafat,” as Sharon confidants say. The Palestinians have demanded that Zinni return to the region as soon as possible. In contrast, Sharon told visiting American Israel Public Affairs Committee leaders last weekend that sending Zinni would show Arafat that he can avoid moving forcefully against terrorist groups yet still court the United States as Israel’s putative negotiating partner.

The United States conspicuously avoided criticizing recent Israeli military moves, including deep incursions into the West Bank cities of Tulkarm on Monday and Nablus on Tuesday. While the Nablus action was based on pinpoint intelligence and aimed at ranking Hamas terrorists — four were shot dead and a bomb factory destroyed — the incursion into Tulkarm seemed as much a demonstration of Israel’s dominance as a specific policing measure.

As such, the Tulkarm raid was bound to further weaken Arafat’s prestige in the Palestinian Authority, possibly hastening his fall from power. There was a spate of reports here over the weekend — vigorously denied on the Palestinian side — that Arafat was considering resigning or voluntarily going into exile in Tunisia.

When Israel retaliated for last week’s terror attack on a Bat Mitzvah in Hadera by bombing a Palestinian. police station in Tulkarm, President Bush did not criticize Israel but restated his support for the Jewish state’s right of self-defense. The Bush administration appears to remain unmoved by the spectacle of Israeli tanks outside Arafat’s office in Ramallah, and by the sight of them storming into Tulkarm and Nablus.

The Israel Defense Force’s destruction of the Voice of Palestine radio in Ramallah was another step to weaken Arafat by smashing the symbols of his rule. Despite outspoken reservations in Europe, the Bush administration again looked on in silence. For many key figures in the Israeli government and army, this silence is interpreted as a “green light” of approval to chip away at Arafat until he topples.

Even Clinton, the president who invested so much in bolstering Arafat, added to the veteran Palestinian leader’s alienation this week. In an emotion-laden two-day visit to Israel, Clinton did not schedule any meeting with Arafat, and reportedly even declined to speak with him by telephone.

Accepting an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University, Clinton accused Arafat of “missing a golden opportunity” for peace at the Camp David summit in July 2000, and dismissed the subsequent intifada violence as “a terrible mistake.”

Mobbed by well-wishers wherever he went, Clinton urged his Israeli audiences not to give up hope of a miraculous return to the peace process, but he seemed to hold out little hope that, if negotiations did somehow resume, it would be Arafat sitting opposite the Israelis.

If Arafat eventually does succumb to mounting Israeli military pressure and declining American support, what then?

Optimists here and in Washington believe power in the Palestinian Authority could pass relatively smoothly to another member of the present leadership. That could be one of the older generation of Arafat lieutenants such as his deputy Mahmoud Abbas, or one of the younger generation of security officials such as Jibril Rajoub or Mohammad Dahlan.

But many experts call this scenario wishful thinking. More likely, they say, is that power would fragment in the Palestinian territories, strengthening the radical and fundamentalist factions.

One can assume that American policymakers contemplating the prospect of Arafat’s departure are applying their minds, too, to what comes next.

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