Analysis / Is It Too Late for Arafat to Save Himself?

The Palestinian Chairman faces a severe challenge to his rule amid signs that unprecedented U.S. and Israeli pressure to crack down hard and fast on militants was finally registering on him - but perhaps it is too late.

Yasser Arafat Monday faced the most severe challenge to date to his rule in the history of the Palestinian Authority, amid signs that unprecedented U.S. and Israeli pressure to crack down hard and fast on Islamic militants was finally registering on the Palestinian leader - perhaps too late.

A weekend tidal wave of suicide terror that killed more than two dozen people and wounded hundreds in blast after blast in Israeli cities spurred a profound reassessment in Washington of the extent to which Arafat was making good on pledges - rooted in the 1993 Oslo peace accords that created the PA - to curb terror attacks that, administration officials fear, could fan the brushfire Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a full-scale war.

But with the militant, superbly organized Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas a potent force among grass-roots Palestinians, Arafat has been reluctant to respond in the past to calls to round up and jail suspected terrorists and their commanders. Arafat is especially loath to move against Hamas, whose well-armed, well-trained gunmen have in the past trained their weapons on PA police seeking to detain them.

Now, however, Arafat may have no choice. If he is to keep at bay mounting voices within Israel calling for his political head, the wily Palestine Liberation Organization chief must now take action against Hamas and its junior partner in fundamentalist militancy, the Islamic Jihad. In short order, he will also face calls to seize members of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which rocked Israel with the October assassination of cabinet minister Rehavam Ze'evi. Past efforts to move against militants have been met with gunfire from the highly trained, well-equipped groups.

Perhaps most dicey, from the standpoint of a destabilizing domestic backlash, will be demands to act against the Tanzim, the house militia of Arafat's own Fatah PLO wing and the assault rifle-brandishing spearhead of the 14 month-long Palestinian uprising.

Arafat, long a master of tightrope balancing between potentially hostile platforms, has come under mounting pressure even from his own military men to opt for decisive action against militants, whose activities, PA officials now believe, threaten the continued existence of the authority itself.

"You can hear in the remarks of Arafat's commanders the words of men who understand that there is a substantive threat to their rule, that everything could just be lost," says Ha'aretzcommentator Danny Rubinstein. "The threat to Arafat's rule is not only external, it is also internal. If Arafat's rule does not prove that it holds the 'full monopoly over the client base,' others may come to the fore. There are militias operating, and there are coalitions of various organizations and what are essentially private armies. In this reality, (West Bank PA secret service chief) Jibril Rajoub, together with other forces, is an army. And if this is true, there may be no ruling entity."

Arafat can little afford to ignore the Israeli demands for a crack-down, not least because the stern words emanating from Jerusalem have taken on an ominous sounding-board in statements Sunday by Bush administration officials, headed by the customarily judicious secretary of state, Colin Powell.

Rubinstein said that after Arafat sat with Powell's special envoy, retired Marine General Anthony Zinni last week, and pledged strong efforts to foster a cease-fire, the terrorist attacks by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad constituted "a spitting in Arafat's face, nearly a declaration of rebellion against him. This is quite clear now to the entire Palestinian leadership - either you're in charge, or you're not."

Powell's own impatience was much in evidence this week. "It is a moment of truth, Mr. Arafat," Powell said, telling CBS's "Face the Nation" program of a telephone conversation with the PA leader. "The deadline ought to be now. Stop now," he said. "Use all of your legitimate power but more than that, use the power of your position as leader of the Palestinian people to bring this kind of... violence to an end."

Going on the apparent offensive, Arafat's Gaza security chief announced a state of emergency, curbing movement of Palestinians and restricting the rights of Palestinians to carry firearms to PA security personnel only. Also banned were the holding of demonstrations without a license, and use of mosques as a base "for political propaganda against the national goals."

In night sweeps, masked PA police were photographed seizing some of a total of 100 suspected Islamic militants taken into custody. Palestinian security forces also placed Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin under house arrest. Palestinian cabinet ministers said the speed of the round-up was unprecedented. Explaining the campaign to the Palestinian public, Palestinian Planning Minister and senior peace negotiator Nabil Shaath told Voice of Palestine Radio:

"These attacks on Israeli civilians have pushed us into a corner. We live in a world that is busy with the war against Afghanistan and international terror, and we have to keep trying to be part of the international community and not be isolated.".

But Israeli officials said later they found the PA arrests suspect - both in their telegeneity and in the absence of resistance by suspects and militant sympathizers. Moreover, they noted, Hamas members were later observed armed and firing into the air at the funeral of a gunman who killed an Israeli motorist in Gaza early Sunday. "Resistance and holy war will not stop," hundreds of Hamas supporters chanted during the burial ceremony.

As opposed to past crises, this time Arafat will be unable to institute a cosmetic crack-down to salve U.S. ire, Rubinstein concludes. "Arafat will need more than mere cosmetics. Zinni is on site now, he will be the one who sees, he will talks to both sides, he will be the one who decides, and he will be the one who reports back."