Does Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intend to depose Yasser Arafat and dismantle the Palestinian Authority?
This question was being asked with mounting urgency around the world this week as Israeli tanks and infantry dug into positions deep inside Palestinian territory in the West Bank.
Compounding international concerns, Sharon and other Israeli officials are comparing the Palestinian Authority to the Taliban, saying both are harboring and helping terrorists.
The implication was clear: Just as the United States is resolved to destroy the Taliban, so, too, Israel, exercising the basic right of self-defense, is justified in making war on the Palestinian Authority.
During his visit to Washington this week, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres assured Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell that Israel does not intend either to remove Arafat or to bring about the collapse of the P.A.
But does Peres speak for Sharon any more?
Relations within the national unity government — with the Likud and its hawkish allies on one side, and Peres’ Labor Party on the other — approached the breaking point this week as the two sides wrangled over the extent and duration of the military operations.
Perhaps it was the serious suspicion Sharon has resolved to destroy Arafat that prompted the U.S. State Department to issue an unusually sharp statement Monday calling on Israel to withdraw “immediately from all Palestinian-controlled areas.”
The United States clearly wants to defuse the Israeli-Palestinian violence as it seeks to maintain Arab support for its international coalition against terror.
Jerusalem was taken aback by the tone of the statement.
Just the same, the Prime Minister’s Office rebuffed the U.S. call, saying the military operations — the most extensive since the two sides signed their interim peace accords in 1993 — would continue, with the aim of apprehending terrorists and preventing acts of terrorism.
Israel has demanded that the Palestinian Authority extradite those members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine responsible for last week’s assassination in Jerusalem of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi.
On Monday night, meanwhile, close to 100,000 people demonstrated in the streets of Jerusalem to demand that the government “Get rid of Arafat and fight terrorism.”
Organizers of the event, buoyed by the Israel Defense Force’s operations in the West Bank, insisted that the demonstration was not against Sharon — as had originally been planned.
Instead, it was designed to bolster and encourage the premier now that he had adopted a warlike posture following the Ze’evi assassination.
As for deposing Arafat, the conventional wisdom among Israelis has long been that any successor to Arafat would be worse. The fundamentalist Hamas, growing increasingly popular in the Palestinian territories, would seize power.
After more than a year of Israeli-Palestinian violence, there is little love left for Arafat among Israeli moderates.
The conventional wisdom still holds true. But the prospect of a Hamas-led Palestinian entity no longer worries some Israeli hard-liners.
At least, they argue, it would not be wooed by Washington and the West to support the U.S.-led international anti-terror coalition.
Moreover, they say, if Arafat is toppled, the West Bank and Gaza Strip might not fall entirely into the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists.
Instead, the areas might be divided into fragments, in which local warlords –some perhaps amenable to Israeli influence — would divide up power.
In the eyes of these hard-liners, this would represent an improvement over the present, when terror and bloodshed against Israelis both in Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza have become an almost daily occurrence.
Where does Sharon stand in this evolving debate?
The answer, according to one well-placed source with frequent access to the prime minister, is that there is more than one Sharon.
According to this source, the premier, always a complex personality, is torn between competing pressures.
On the personal level, the general-turned-politician does not want to end his long career leading an open-ended war.
He has repeatedly declared that he would be ready to offer “painful concessions” for real peace with the Palestinians. His eight months of relative restraint — in the face of constant violent provocations by the Palestinians — demonstrate his desire to break through to peace.
At the same time, Sharon has not abandoned his fundamental ideological support for the right of Jews to settle everywhere in the Greater Land of Israel.
Add the U.S. pressures on Israel to back off from its military operations in the West Bank, and you have a truly beleaguered prime minister.
Domestic politics further exacerbate Sharon’s dilemma. He wants to maintain the unity government, and especially his partnership with Peres.
But he does not want to alienate his core constituency — the Likud, the Orthodox and the settlers — especially with former and would-be-future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ready to compete for leadership of the Likud.
At Monday night’s demonstration in Jerusalem, the leader of the National Religious Party, Rabbi Yitzhak Levy, demanded that Sharon make his choice: If the P.A. does indeed harbor terrorists, as Sharon has claimed, then the premier must fire Peres, who is visiting Washington making the opposite argument. One government cannot speak with two voices, Levy said.
Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Israel, Our Home Party — which deferred its planned secession from the government following the killing of Ze’evi — demanded at the demonstration that Sharon formally declare the P.A. a terrorist enemy and order the army back into Palestinian areas of Hebron.
Otherwise, Lieberman said, his party would quit — as he had first announced when Israeli troops withdrew from Hebron last week.
Yet to do either of these would trigger an avalanche of American condemnation, and could well push Labor out of the coalition.
U.S. officials have come down hard on Arafat, too, publicly and in private.
They are demanding that he act against the PFLP, though they are not specifically endorsing Israel’s demand that he extradite the perpetrators of Ze’evi’s assassination to Israel.
If Arafat, under this arm-twisting, does take some credible action, this could at least partially defuse Sharon’s dilemma.
He could order the army out of the West Bank cities, claiming that the military incursions had achieved their goal.
In the short term, Sharon would have succeeded in balancing the conflicting pressures facing him.
In the longer term, however, his predicament is unenviable.