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Sharon Has Arafat on Defensive, but Israelis Question His Strategy

January 30, 2002
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Just when Ariel Sharon seems prepared to give Yasser Arafat the coup de grace, the Israeli left stands in his way.

First came Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, who said he is determined to speak before Palestinian legislators in Ramallah despite the fervent opposition of the Israeli right.

Then, last weekend, some 50 reserve soldiers and officers published an open letter declaring they would no longer serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and would not fight a “war for the peace of the settlements.”

This comes after Israeli Prime Minister Sharon seemed to have gathered an unprecedented coalition of anti-Arafat forces, ranging from the settlers through Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer all the way to President Bush in Washington.

That coalition made Sharon believe nothing could stand in his way to making Palestinian Authority President Arafat “irrelevant” — not only in the eyes of the Israeli government but also in the Palestinian, Arab and international context.

Critics say that not even the relative lull in Palestinian violence, which lasted from an Arafat speech on Dec. 16 until the assassination of terrorist Raed Karmi in Tulkarm two weeks ago, could convince Sharon otherwise.

Sharon and Ben-Eliezer argued that there was no real lull in Palestinian terror. Pointing to the Karine A ship, captured Jan. 3 as it was transporting 50 tons of weapons to the Palestinian Authority, they argued that the apparent calm was only a cover for the Palestinians to prepare a new wave of attacks.

So, too, they seized on the exposure of a Hamas bomb factory in Nablus two weeks ago and intelligence reports that Hamas had made and deployed rockets close to the border between Israel and the West Bank, threatening Jerusalem and other cities in the heart of Israel.

That provided the justification for Israel’s renewed wave of assassinations, which began with Karmi and continued with a number of Hamas targets in Nablus and the Gaza Strip.

With military escalation seemingly imminent, however, criticism is growing of the way Sharon is handling the intifada.

The most significant criticism came from the heart of the military establishment, when Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelossof came out last week against the wisdom of killing Karmi.

Karmi was a terror ringleader who boasted of killing Israelis, and Israeli officials said taking him out had saved untold lives.

Yet his slaying also led to a renewed wave of suicide bombings and shooting attacks that killed more Israelis.

Critics like opposition chairman Yossi Sarid, of the Meretz Party, said 10 Israelis had paid with their lives for Karmi’s assassination.

Yossi Beilin, former justice minister and one of the architects of the Oslo accords, blamed Sharon for deliberately disrupting any potential dialogue because he lacked a political solution to the Palestinian conflict.

And Burg said: “We do not consider any alternative, except for the alternative of the attacker and the attacked.”

Consequently, more and more Israelis are questioning the way the government handles the intifada.

Last weekend, the daily Yediot Achronot published a public opinion poll showing that though the right still enjoys a solid majority — 65 of 120 Knesset seats if elections were held today — 48 percent of the population sees a similarity between the situation in the West Bank and Gaza and the situation Israel faced in Lebanon, from which it eventually withdrew after years of Hezbollah attacks.

In addition, 58 percent of respondents oppose the destruction of the Palestinian Authority through the temporary reconquest of West Bank land.

According to the poll, the public is split on the question of whether Sharon’s government is heading toward all-out war with the Palestinians.

Sharon enjoys unprecedentedly strong support from the Bush administration, however, as well as the loyalty of the Israeli military establishment.

The new head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi, appeared before the Cabinet this week and placed the entire blame for the present crisis on Arafat.

“Arafat could have prevented” the cycle of violence “if there was a change in his strategic concept, but Arafat has no interest in such a change,” Ze’evi said. “From his point of view, there is no end to the conflict without the accomplishment of his strategic goals: A state within the 1967 borders, including Jerusalem and the holy places, and the Right of Return,” referring to the “right” of Palestinian refugees to return to homes they abandoned during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Yet Ze’evi has said that even were Israel to agree to all of Arafat’s demands, the Palestinian leader would not be willing to make peace.

Columnist Uri Dan, a long-time Sharon confidant, blamed the “leftist group in politics and in the media” — the fervent supporters of the Oslo peace process — for the new wave of Palestinian terrorism.

The Oslo supporters are the ones “who opened the door for the licensed armed murderers” to enter “our homes, the bus stations, the shopping malls and the wedding halls,” Dan wrote in the daily Ma’ariv. “When we finally stand up to defend ourselves properly, they get up and cry that we have no right to do so.”

As Israelis adjust to a situation in which massive terrorist attacks take place every few days, a new alignment of forces is emerging.

Sharon seems to enjoy carte blanche — from President Bush, Ben-Eliezer, even Foreign Minister Shimon Peres — for a policy of gradually eroding the Palestinian Authority.

Moreover, the Arab world, led by Egypt, seems unwilling to help Arafat with anything more than words. A meeting of an Islamic committee for Jerusalem, held last weekend in Morocco, drew only low-level delegations.

Though so many players seem to have given up on Arafat, not all Israelis are ready to overthrow him.

The most frequent complaint is that Sharon has no real plan for what would come after Arafat.

In the past, Sharon tried unsuccessfully to build up alternate Palestinian leaders to the PLO. The “Village Leagues” prior to the Lebanon War were designed to replace the PLO as the main political force in the West Bank, but they were quickly wiped off the political map.

Sharon also failed in his scheme to place Lebanese Maronite leader Bashir Gemayel at the head of a pro-Israeli government following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. Though he indeed was elected president of Lebanon, Gemayel was assassinated before he even took office.

When some Israeli officials hint that Palestinian security chiefs Mohammad Dahlan in Gaza and Jibril Rajoub in the West Bank could be more moderate partners than Arafat, some wonder if Sharon is reprising old plans.

Despite reportedly widespread displeasure with Arafat’s leadership, no Palestinian or Arab leader gives any public indication that he should be replaced.

In fact, the more Sharon tries to humiliate Arafat, the more Palestinians rally to his side. Last weekend Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah supporters rallied in massive demonstrations of solidarity with Arafat.

“Never before, even during the days of the siege on Beirut, has Arafat enjoyed such wide public support,” said far- left activist Uri Avnery, who met with Arafat last week in Ramallah.

That leaves Israel in a quandary. Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer insists that Israel must pursue its present course until “the Palestinian Authority understands that it must stop the violence.” Yet the more pressure Israel applies, the more Arafat digs in his heels.

Left to his own devices, Arafat does little to counter terrorism, and in many cases his bodyguards or his party loyalists are the actual terrorists. Yet when Sharon tries to pressure Arafat into cracking down — for example, by confining him to Ramallah until he arrests the Palestinians who assassinated Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in October — the world asks how Arafat can arrest militants while he is under virtual house arrest.

The question for Sharon — and for all Israelis — is: Could the alternative to Arafat be any worse?

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