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The Israel Defense Force's incursion early Tuesday morning into the town of Beit Jala is a limited military action, but it also holds far-reaching political and security-related prospects.

The main goal of the operation was not to stop the shooting on the neighborhood of Gilo, which cannot be achieved by such an action, but rather to expose the weakness of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. Arafat's distress may push him to make a diplomatic move toward a cease-fire with Israel. Alternatively, it may motivate him to encourage a deadly terror attack that will draw an Israeli response, which will reinforce his status in the region and internationally.

As during the past 11 months of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the IDF had no delusions Monday, before the attack, and Tuesday, during the incursion into Beit Jala, that the action it was taking would be effective. Everybody knew that it is possible to fire on Gilo with machine-guns and mortar shells from places that are further away. The test was whether the attack could be turned into a lever to be used against Arafat.

On Tuesday, there were signs that the PA chairman was under pressure as a result of the criticism of the Palestinian community and Arab and Western indifference. According to these signs, a senior security official noted, the operation in Beit Jala contributed to the feeling that "time is acting in favor of Israel and against Arafat" - even if time is still being measured in years and not weeks.

The timing of the operation helped Israel. Had it been carried out at the time it was originally decided upon, following the deadly terror attack at the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem earlier in the month, it may have caused more vociferous protests from abroad than those made Tuesday by the international community.

The delay of the operation resulted in two separate processes. First, the externalization of an internal decision: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's public commitment to prevent further shooting on Gilo tied Israel's hands and turned Sharon into an automatic pilot. Second, the emergence of President Bush's own clear solution to the dispute within the U.S. administration - coming out against putting pressure on Israel and in favor of pressure on Arafat.

The recurrence of deadly incidents this week was similar to that of previous weeks - the murder of three residents of the Ofarim settlement on the Jerusalem-Modi'in road led to the assassination of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Abu Ali Mustafa, which brought on shooting on Gilo, which triggered the operation in Beit Jala.

But between the terror attack on the Sbarro restaurant and the assassination of Mustafa, Arafat found himself in a weakened position in the power game with Israel.

But, the fact that the IDF entered a Palestinian town apparently played into Arafat's hands. If he continues to do nothing, he will force the IDF to remain where it is and even to proceed further and take action against members of the Ta'amri family, who shoot on Gilo from Beit Jala and Bethlehem. Israel would be seen as the conqueror slowly returning to territories it had relinquished, and this may ultimately bring about realization of the Palestinian demand to internationalize the conflict.

This is a rational analysis that is familiar to the security establishment, and fear of its prospective scenarios slightly delayed the briefing Tuesday of the West Bank division commander Brigadier General Gershon Yitzhak. Some may have thought that Yitzhak would deviate from the text - as did former Gaza division commander Brigadier General Yair Naveh - and announce an intention to remain for "days, weeks or months" in the area. But this analysis ignores the reality, and the facts that are weighing heavily on Arafat: He is the shrewd cat, Tom, who can no longer fool Jerry, the mouse.

Arafat has recently been exposed as someone who cannot protect leaders, citizens or territories. The assassination of Mustafa shocked prominent Palestinian figures close to him, both above and below him on the scale of supporting violence against Israel. Some of them went underground, some of them whispered loudly that Arafat's policy is thrusting Palestinians into an impasse.

Meanwhile, Israeli U.S.-made fighter planes bomb the Gaza Strip and West Bank unhindered. Israeli combat helicopters, also made in the U.S., apparently use the Windows Office program in the territories: They kill senior terror organization members using missiles, which enter their office windows, and the world barely emits a yawn. Arafat's great patron Egypt, which recalled its Ambassador Mohammed Bassiouny for reasons much less serious than a land incursion into Palestinian-controlled Area A, is silent and paralyzed.

Arafat has failed in both the Arab and UN frameworks. The PA chairman, who was used in the past to receiving honors reserved for royalty in Washington and London, today organizes cheap tour packages for himself in Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur.

Without space in which to maneuver, except for carrying out desperate terror attacks, Arafat was pressured Tuesday to enforce his authority on the Beit Jala and Bethlehem sectors. Through U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurzer and more senior diplomats in Washington, in the State Department and probably the CIA, the unequivocal demand was passed to Arafat that he assert his authority and stop any renewal of the shooting on Gilo.

The advantage of the U.S. channel is that such a commitment would be made to a third party, not to Israel alone, and its breach would entangle Arafat with the Americans. But the disadvantage is that in return for the commitment, Arafat could extract some kind of achievement - if not an invitation to the White House, then at least a meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell in Europe. And if not a meeting with Powell, a meeting with Foreign Minster Shimon Peres, who will explain that the entire affair has proved that it is possible to speak to Arafat on a cease-fire - Gilo first - and the rest of the territories later.

According to information that sprinkled Israel on Tuesday, like the sprinkling of mortar shells on Gilo, Arafat understood that if he does not calm things down in the field - a price to be paid to Israel for removing the IDF from Beit Jala - he will be increasingly threatened with a loss of control.

An IDF source noted that Israel expects Arafat to talk to the Beit Jala gunmen, using language along the lines of "hold your fire." He does indeed yearn for this result, and its chances are good. But, at the same time, the Palestinian leader may utter completely different orders - to carry out mass terror attacks.