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Israel Gives Arafat Loophole to Avoid Chance of All-out War

December 5, 2001
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As Israeli bombs and rockets rained down on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Yasser Arafat faced what may be his final chance to draw back from the brink of all-out war.

Israel’s Cabinet, in a stormy late-night meeting Monday, designated the Palestinian Authority a terror-supporting entity that “must be dealt with accordingly.”

The Israeli government also declared that two groups affiliated with Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president — the Tanzim militia and the Force 17 presidential guard — are terrorist organizations.

The Cabinet decisions came after a weekend of terror bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa that left 25 Israelis dead and nearly 300 injured. They demand unspecified “actions more wide ranging than those taken against Palestinian terrorism until now.”

But the Cabinet deliberately left Arafat a loophole.

“This determination is subject to change — by Cabinet decision — if the Palestinian Authority fulfills its commitments, according to the agreements, to prevent and foil terrorism, punish terrorists and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure,” the communique read.

The Cabinet placed the onus on Arafat. Forceful and credible action on his part against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups still could prompt Israel to revoke what is almost a declaration of war against the Palestinian Authority.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had demanded that the decision be deferred for a week to give the Palestinian Authority a chance to show that this time it is serious about fighting terror.

When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected this idea, Peres and his Labor Party colleagues walked out of the Cabinet meeting before the vote.

On Tuesday, an angry Peres said the decision adopted by the Cabinet majority meant Israel would seek to overthrow the Palestinian Authority by force.

Though it has no illusions about Arafat’s responsibility for Palestinian terror, Labor does not want to discredit him as a potential negotiating partner, believing that the lack of a legitimate Palestinian leader would be even worse.

During a visit Tuesday to Romania, where he met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other world leaders to discuss the crisis, Peres said Labor is weighing whether to leave Israel’s unity government.

Yet he sought to portray the Cabinet decision as relatively restrained, arguing that the Cabinet had ordered the army to hit P.A. buildings and property — not people.

Israeli airstrikes on Monday and Tuesday targeted empty Palestinian installations, including Palestinian security targets in the West Bank and Gaza, several of Arafat’s helicopters and the runway of the Palestinian airport in Gaza.

The idea was to avoid harming not only civilians, but also members of Arafat’s security apparatus.

Some Cabinet members may be hoping that Arafat will not take advantage of the loophole. That appears to be the attitude of two hawkish ministers, Binyamin Elon and Avigdor Lieberman of the National Union-Israel, Our Home bloc.

They were at the forefront of efforts to convince Sharon to declare the P.A. an “entity that supports terrorism.”

In Sharon’s own Likud Party, too, there are ministers — among them Finance Minister Silvan Shalom — who don’t hide their desire to see Arafat toppled and sent into exile.

But political observers here still believe Sharon has not been given a green light by the United States — assuming he needs one — to topple the Palestinian Authority.

President Bush and other top U.S. officials supported Israel’s right to act in its own self-defense this week, statements that gave implicit support for the Israeli air strikes.

Bush and Sharon met in the White House on Sunday, before Sharon cut short his U.S. trip to deal with the escalating situation in Israel.

In addition, the Bush administration greatly increased its pressure on Arafat to clamp down on terror.

“The president believes very strongly that this is a moment for Yasser Arafat to demonstrate that he stands with those who seek peace,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday.

“The president thinks that this is the chance now for Yasser Arafat to demonstrate real leadership that is lasting, that is enduring, that puts people responsible” for terror “away, and does so in such a way that they cannot get out again and commit more terror.”

Just the same, there is no evidence that the Bush administration has written off Arafat.

If this reading of the American role is correct, Washington can be expected to make behind-the-scenes efforts in coming days to keep Labor from leaving the government.

Just two weeks ago, the Bush administration offered its vision for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. If Arafat is seen to be making a real effort against Palestinian terror, the U.S. could resume its pressure on Sharon to respond with concessions that ease Arafat’s political predicament.

That, indeed, has been Peres’ prescription all along. However, if Labor leaves the government, it would be easier for the hardline ministers to convince Sharon to use the Cabinet resolution as a basis for all-out war.

Significantly, Sharon repeatedly stressed his commitment to the unity coalition when he addressed the nation Monday evening.

He said he was “jealous” of the unity that prevails in the United States during its war on terror. He also urged his Cabinet critics to stand behind him.

Whether that call from the prime minister, or American influence, can affect Peres and his Labor colleagues remains to be seen.

Labor insiders said this week that while Peres may be ready to quit, other Labor ministers are less eager to do so.

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