At the Gates of Yassergrad

In order to prepare properly for the next campaign, one of the Israeli officers in the territories said not long ago, it's justified and in fact essential to learn from every possible source.

In order to prepare properly for the next campaign, one of the Israeli officers in the territories said not long ago, it's justified and in fact essential to learn from every possible source. If the mission will be to seize a densely populated refugee camp, or take over the casbah in Nablus, and if the commander's obligation is to try to execute the mission without casualties on either side, then he must first analyze and internalize the lessons of earlier battles - even, however shocking it may sound, even how the German army fought in the Warsaw ghetto.

The officer indeed succeeded in shocking others, not least because he is not alone in taking this approach. Many of his comrades agree that in order to save Israelis now, it is right to make use of knowledge that originated in that terrible war, whose victims were their kin. The Warsaw ghetto serves them only as an extreme example, not linked to the strategic dialogue that the defense establishments of Israel and Germany will hold next month.

At around the same time, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer will visit Washington, and one of his interlocutors there, Secretary of State Colin Powell, will appear in two consecutive days of hearings before the foreign relations committees of the Senate and the House, where he will face trenchant questions about the Palestinians and terrorism in general and about Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in particular. Ben-Eliezer may find himself flanked on the right concerning the Palestinian issue, so much so that he will be left without ammunition for another item on his list of missions - Israel's reservations about the Americans' sale of advanced weapons (particularly the latest model of the Harpoon sea-to-sea missile) to Egypt.

The old and ludicrous slogan of one of his predecessors - "I came to strengthen and I emerged strengthened" - threatens to be manifested in Ben-Eliezer: the Americans are competing with the Israelis in taking an aggressive, suspicious attitude toward Arafat. The transfer of power from Ehud Barak to Ariel Sharon turned out to have less of an influence than George W. Bush's climbing into the hot bed of Bill Clinton. The two most important dates in the history of the present confrontation between the Israelis and the Palestinians are January 20, 2001, when Bush took office, and September 11. Now even the skeptics admit that Arafat made a colossal blunder in his reading of the world map, from the American point of view.

The shares could fall

Despite the images of the armored raid in Tul Karm; despite the headlines, in the wake of terrorist attacks, about an Israeli decision to get rid of Arafat and bring about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority; despite the frequent warnings about Ariel Sharon's "grand plan" - the fact is that all these interpretations have been proved wrong so far, and not by chance. Even more than Sharon hates Arafat, he loves himself. Sharon wants to stay in power and be prime minister until - and after - 2003. A full-scale war in the territories, or even a constant display of impotence in defending Israel's cities and citizens against terrorist attacks, will not achieve that goal for him. In the shadow of the gap between the wish and the decision lie the constraints, external as well as internal. Instead of devouring Arafat whole, as he would do if there were no constraints, Sharon is nibbling at him, nibbling and gnawing.

The dispute between the proponents of the Sharon school of thought (of which Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz is the major embodiment, though his summations in discussions are less militant than his opinions) and that of Ben-Eliezer was sharpened in the past two weeks in the wake of Israel's seizure of the weapons ship Karine A. The subject on the agenda was the entry into the "working plan" of the Central Intelligence Agency chief, George Tenet. Palestinians who are close to Arafat and object to his policy urged the Israelis to take advantage of the sharp downturn in violence - and the easing of the situation for the population - that followed the terrorist attack at Emmanuel and Arafat's speech on December 16, and take up the Tenet plan. They argued that the plan, which includes a degree of mutuality in the operations of both sides, would enable them to demonstrate equality, as distinct from capitulation.

The moderate school in the defense establishment found this proposal positive: the mutuality is one of principle rather than quantity (the burden on the Palestinians is four times as great as that on the Israelis), Arafat is at a low point, the emissary Anthony Zinni is demanding vigorous, quantifiable deeds from him.

Sharon rejected this approach. He has grown fond of the continuing sight, the result of chance - no one planned it - of Arafat under siege in Ramallah and his strength running out. He wants to wait a little longer, exert more pressure, extract the maximum from the situation - he's like an investor who follows the fluctuations in the stock market and refuses to be tempted into buying cheaply a stock that is falling in value, because tomorrow it will be even more worthwhile.

It was into this policy of refusing to shift policy that the assassination of Raed Karmi fell. As with the dozens of assassinations that preceded it, its major dimension - without which assassinations are not authorized - was the effort to preempt future terrorist attacks. To obtain intelligence information and to reduce the risk of revenge, arrests are preferred over assassinations, and hits are limited in terms of surroundings (innocent individuals in the immediate area), level and context. As a rule, there are no assassinations of individuals who are either too senior or too junior - in military terms, no one below the level of platoon commander or above brigade commander. Abu Ali Mustafa ,the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was most senior individual to be targeted, after it became apparent that his political activity could not be separated from his direct responsibility for terror attacks.

The leader of the Tanzim militia in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouti, is defying, by his involvement in terrorism, the ceiling of assassination targets. His main flak jacket now is not Israeli fear of revenge at his death, but Israel's desire to maintain a layer of Palestinian leadership, militant in its methods but moderate in its demands, for the post-Arafat era. Barghouti, who earned the reputation of a fighter through terrorist attacks but does not insist on the right of return as a condition for a settlement with Israel, is considered an acceptable potential candidate.

The assassination of Raed Karmi spawned two conspiracy theories. One holds that it was intended to foment the escalation that Arafat was in fact seeking, but in the form of a deterioration of the situation that would prevent him from rehabilitating his force and obtaining rockets and other weapons. Alternatively (or in addition), the Karmi hit is intended to thwart the attempt to get the sides back onto the negotiating track. Both interpretations are incorrect, or purport to rely on telepathy. The decision on whether to go ahead with an assassination is based on discretionary judgment, not on malice. In the discussions that preceded the Karmi assassination, the small number of people involved talked about the operational opportunity and the need to take out Karmi for instructing his people to plan and execute attacks. One of the generals warned that the intensity of the Palestinian reaction would depend on the display of Israeli responsibility. An official denial, he said, even if it is received skeptically, will reduce the risk of revenge attacks - as was the case with the mysterious explosions that occasionally killed terrorist activists even before the start of the current confrontation in September 2000. If he had thought that in the Israeli reality the policy of plausible denial (according to which Karmi's death was due to a "work accident," meaning a bomb of his own making that accidentally went off) would collapse within hours, the general said this week with regret, he would not have backed the assassination.

The IDF was taken somewhat by surprise by the meager resistance to the forces that entered Tul Karm. Things will be different next time, the IDF believes, especially if Arafat reaches the conclusion that there is no longer any prospect of getting the Americans back into his fold. Logic dictates that this will be the IDF's line of thought: The U.S. successes in Afghanistan were achieved without an Arab or Muslim alliance. The Karine A weapons ship exposed Arafat's two-faced posturing (and no less grave in American eyes, his contacts with Imad Mugniyeh, who works for the Iranians and Hezbollah and was behind the car bombs that took 260 American lives in Beirut). General John Keane, deputy chief of staff, U.S. Army, this week cited the attempt to destroy Israel and establish a Palestinian state in the same breath with terrorist crimes against the United States. After all these developments, Arafat is liable to entrench himself in Ramallah and establish a Yassergrad there as a trap for IDF armor.

He may well order tens of thousands of armed members of the Palestinian Authority security units (and the thousands of armed members of Tanzim and Hamas, whose help he enlisted by ignoring both his commitment under Oslo and the American demand to uproot the terrorist infrastructure) to launch a war of desperation.