For weeks, observers were waiting for Ariel Sharon to ask President Bush to cut ties with Yasser Arafat.
In the end, Israel’s prime minister didn’t ask the United States to cut off the Palestinian Authority president, but rather to begin cultivating new leadership within the Palestinian ranks.
“We believe that pressure should be put on Arafat,” Sharon said Feb. 7 in the Oval Office, following an hourlong meeting with Bush. “I hope to have an alternative leadership in the future.”
The call to consider alternatives to Arafat is a “nuanced message,” according to Israeli officials, and something the Bush administration might find diplomatically more feasible than cutting Arafat off completely.
For the last several weeks, highlighted by a visit from Jordan’s King Abdullah, the White House has made it clear that it still sees Arafat as relevant, and powerful enough to take the necessary steps to control Palestinian violence.
Having been advised that the Bush administration would rebuke a request to cut ties to Arafat, Sharon decided to shift gears.
“Israel’s policy is that they are not going to take active steps to destroy Arafat or the Palestinian Authority, but would be happy to see it go,” said Tamara Wittes, an analyst with the Middle East Institute. “Coming in and talking about this idea with Bush is a gentler way of moving this process along.”
The Israeli Cabinet declared Arafat “irrelevant” after a wave of terror attacks in December. A week before coming to Washington, Sharon made a gesture toward seeking an alternative Palestinian leadership by meeting with three other Palestinian officials.
That allowed Sharon to appease the Israeli left wing by negotiating with senior Palestinians, yet satisfies right wingers by keeping his distance from Arafat.
The White House comments came on the same day that Arafat mentioned two of the three officials Sharon met with — the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council, Ahmed Karia, and Arafat’s deputy, Mahmoud Abbas — as his successors in his role as P.A. chairman and head of the PLO, respectively.
The statement won headlines because discussion of Arafat’s successor is considered taboo in Palestinian society. Yet the Israeli daily Ha’aretz noted that Arafat merely was reminding an interviewer of the established succession procedures for the two roles.
In addition, some analysts noted, the reference may help tighten Arafat’s control over Karia and Abbas just at the moment that Israel or the United States may be sounding them out as alternatives.
“By setting these guys up, he cements their loyalty,” Wittes said.
Neither Sharon’s nor Arafat’s gestures means the United States necessarily will deal with any other Palestinian leader but Arafat.
“That’s not our job,” a State Department official said. “We’ve always said we have to deal with the leaders that are there. It’s our interest to work with the popularly elected people of the Palestinian people.”
As State Department spokesman Richard Boucher noted last Friday, however, U.S. officials have met frequently with a handful of Palestinian leaders. The officials don’t ask their Palestinian interlocutors whether their messages come specifically from Arafat — though Arafat maintains autocratic control over Palestinian affairs.
“We’ve always had a very wide number of contacts with the Palestinian Authority, at all kinds of levels,” Boucher said.
Significantly, when Vice President Dick Cheney travels to the Middle East next month, he will bypass the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That would be the first time since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993 that a president or vice president has been in the region and not met with Arafat.
That snub is just the kind of statement Israel is looking for.
“Part of the diplomatic pressure has to be not treating Arafat like a statesman,” said an Israeli official in Washington.
In addition to the Palestinian issue, Sharon and Bush reportedly discussed Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Both Bush and Sharon reaffirmed their interest in an eventual Palestinian state, but the onus clearly was placed on Arafat to control violence.
“I can’t be any more clear in my position, and that is that he must do everything in his power to fight terror,” Bush said.
He also used some of his harshest language to date in describing reports that Arafat himself was tied to a shipment of 50 tons of weapons, seized by Israel on Jan. 3, heading to the Palestinian Authority from Iran.
“Obviously, we were at first surprised and then extremely disappointed when the Karine A showed up, loaded with weapons,” Bush said. “Weapons that could have only been intended for one thing, which was to terrorize.”
But Bush also had a somewhat new angle to his comments: For the first time, he empathized in detail with the economic plight of the Palestinian people.
“I’m deeply concerned about the plight of the average Palestinian, the moms and dads who are trying to raise their children, to educate their children,” Bush said.
He highlighted the $300 million earmarked this year to the United States Agency for International Development to spend on programs in the West Bank and Gaza.
Those remarks were designed for the Arab lobby and Arab leaders who have been critical of what they see as a lack of effort to help the Palestinian people, who have faced increasing suffering since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000.
“Israel too has steps they can take to improve the environment that sustains positive steps by the Palestinians,” the State Department official said. “For Arafat to do what we want him to be doing, there are steps that Israel can take that make for a more fertile environment.”
An Israeli official in Washington said his country would “pick up the ball” on that issue.
“We were asked to look into ways, without compromising on terrorism or Israel’s security, where we can improve the well-being or quality of life of the Palestinian people,” the official said. “We are trying to find the mechanism whereby we can improve the lives of Palestinians, while taking as little risk as possible of terrorist attacks.”
On Friday, meeting in New York for a private briefing with leaders of the United Jewish Communities, Sharon said he hopes to implement a “Marshall Plan” for the Palestinians that would create 100,000 new jobs for Palestinians over the next three years, according to UJC President and CEO Stephen Hoffman.
Sharon addressed the conflict with the Palestinians, Israel’s economic challenges and the Argentinian crisis, according to John Ruskay, the executive vice president of the UJA-Federation of Greater New York.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.