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A year to the day since his election, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flies to Washington to press home his advantage in what has been the central, if not the sole, achievement of his premiership: the freezing-out of his nemesis, Yasser Arafat.

Sharon – who has indicated regret that didn’t order the killing of the wily Palestinian leader when, as defense minister, he cornered Arafat in Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon invasion – has been buoyed of late by unprecedented U.S. understanding of his unbending efforts to keep Arafat under an armor-plated bell jar in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Even European and Arab officials, exasperated with their traditional ally Arafat's failure to respond to pleas that he take immediate and substantive action to curb Palestinian militants, have demonstrated a measure of acquiescence to penning-up the living symbol of the struggle for an independent Palestine.

In Washington, as American officials pondered the second stage of their war on terrorism, Israeli officialdom had already launched the next phase of its war on Arafat, hoping to press a wedge between the PA Chairman and a brace of highly placed officials viewed as much more amenable to compromise and return to peace talks.

Sharon himself led the charge last week, meeting with Arafat's veteran deputy Abu Mazen, Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Abu Ala, and senior Arafat financial advisor Mohammed Rashid behind closed doors in Jerusalem.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer then picked up the ball, flying to Washington this week for talks with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in which he explicitly declared that there was an alternative leadership to Yasser Arafat in the territories, and that efforts should be made to foster its influence.

Ben-Eliezer said that Israel, the United States and the European Union could encourage the process by keeping the pressure on Arafat, while at the same time opening an ongoing dialogue with other Palestinian leaders. "This will create a reality in which all the messages and all the dialogue will be with this same leadership which surrounds Arafat, the leadership which Arafat is blocking from discussions and from the negotiating table."

Asked after the Powell meeting to identify the alternative Palestinian leadership, the Defense Minister singled out Abu Mazen, Abu Ala, and Palestinian security officials Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan as figures with whom Israel could reach an eventual peace agreement. All four played key roles in the U.S.-mediated peace process snuffed out by nearly a year and a half of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, among the trailblazers on what has come to be known – in an ironic reference to roads built for settler use – as the "Arafat Bypass Highway," took evident satisfaction from the widening of Israeli-Palestinian contacts, widely criticized by rightists as a contravention of Sharon's bedrock vow to avoid "negotiating under fire."

Sharon himself took encouragement Wednesday from official American positions that appeared increasingly congruent with Israel's. Where Washington – especially a Republican-ruled Washington – had for decades taken pains to exhibit even-handedness in its relations with Israel and the Palestinians, Powell was unequivocal in a message he gave first to Abu Ala in private, and later to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Breaking new ground in U.S. pressure, Powell cracked a verbal whip on Arafat, telling the panel that the Palestinian leader "must act decisively to confront the sources of terror and choose, once and for all, the option of peace over violence."

"The Palestinian people will never see their aspirations achieved through violence," Powell told the senators.

Underscoring Powell's remarks in a statement that could have been scripted by Sharon, senior Bush administration officials said this week that the U.S. will refuse to resume contacts with Arafat until he fulfills without exception a list of demands recently sent him by Washington. The demands include severing PA ties with Iran and Hezbollah, swearing off importation of weaponry, dismantling Hamas and Islamic Jihad frameworks, and arresting militants on Israel's most-wanted list.

As Ha'aeretz diplomatic correspondent Aluf Benn notes, Peres has been far from idle in his own talks with the PA "alternates," even initiating discussions with Abu Ala, Abu Mazen and Rashid over "a final-status agreement with senior Palestinian officials days after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the same officials that he understands a Palestinian state must arise."

In the talks, Peres has proposed that any deal maintain the status quo in Jerusalem, meaning formal Israeli sovereignty but de facto Palestinian control over the Temple Mount, Benn writes in Wednesday's paper. Peres also ruled out a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees.

"But Israeli sources said the principal disagreement is over borders," Benn concludes. "The Palestinians are demanding a return to the pre-1967 border, though they are prepared for it not to be implemented immediately, while Peres wants it based on UN resolutions 242 and 338."

Peres told Israel Radio Wednesday that what he had proposed was "not that far from some ideas of the prime minister's. But this is not finished, and we must go to work.

"No one has patience," Peres sighed. "Just a week ago people nearly hurled stones at me for all of these meetings. Now, suddenly, it's all fine and dandy, and I'm very happy about that. We must continue to talk. No one has any alternative. Anything else is an illusion."