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Arafat makes a decision

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer remarked this week that every day that passes spurs 10 young Palestinians to join the army of suicide bombers. One of them, Abdel Basset-Odeh, proved Pesach Seder night how deadly and determined Palestinian terrorists have become: In a strike against Netanya's Park Hotel, he left 20 persons dead, and caused injuries to about 130 others. At the same time, he made a statement about Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's attitude toward terror: the terrorists was named on a list of top terror suspects which Israel had delivered to the PA. Basset-Odeh was never arrested; he was left free to perpetrate the massacre on Wednesday night.

The attack in Netanya was just one in a series of terror strikes which were carried off, or attempted, since U.S. mediator Anthony Zinni arrived in his bid to work out a cease-fire. As days went by during Zinni's visit, it became increasingly clear that the Palestinian side reaped dividends from the attacks, and toughened its positions. Events this week - attacks which were carried out (particularly the Netanya strike), and those which were thwarted (such as the one near Jerusalem's Malha shopping mall), and also the character of the Arab summit in Beirut - moved Israel and the Palestinians one step closer to total war.

Following a consultation, Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer was heard to say: "Either the situation will deteriorate into an escalation that will force us to recapture the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and bring about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, or we will have to do everything, while insisting on our security interests, to reach a settlement."

There was no doubt about which option Ben-Eliezer would choose: he sounds like someone who believes that Israel has no choice other than to reach a political settlement with Arafat - in other words, to accept his conditions. Yet sounds emanating from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's corner were different: In interviews published in Pesach holiday newspapers, the prime minister spoke about Arafat with contempt, and expressed regret about having promised to President Bush that he won't harm the PA leader physically. While Ben-Eliezer struck a despondent chord, Sharon adopted a tough, aggressive posture. Whereas Ben-Eliezer has reached the conclusion that Arafat feels victorious and is not under pressure, Sharon sounds like a leader who senses an opportunity to turn the tables, and extinguish the Palestinian uprising.

The Netanya attack united the prime minister and defense minister - they both favored a policy of responding severely to terror, even at the risk of bringing Zinni's diplomatic mission to an end. The rationale for this policy position was self-evident: Up to now, Israel's government has made all possible concessions to cause Arafat to agree to a cease-fire, and thereby allow the Americans to claim a diplomatic success. It was the Palestinian partner who destroyed this effort. Israel is not prepared to play the fool in a contemptible game of Arafat's making. Even though a stiff Israeli military response to the Netanya attack will play into Hamas's hands (because the militant Islamic organization has pursued the goal of derailing truce efforts), Israel's government is unable to continue with restraint.

Israel's objective was for Zinni to succeed. In the event of the U.S. mediator's effort failing, a secondary goal was to ensure that the world would know who was to blame for this missed opportunity. Israeli officials believed last night that this second goal has been accomplished.

Israel's response

Israel's response to the carnage at the Park Hotel will be influenced by the U.S. position. Up to now, the U.S. has refused to accept Israeli actions which would cause the Palestinian Authority to collapse, force Arafat to leave the region, or lead to reconquest of areas on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Last night it was not clear whether such restrictions would continue to direct the Sharon government's policies. A possible policy shift was in the offing not only from rage at the Netanya attack; another factor is that American policy toward the Israei-Palestinian conflict has reached a breaking point.

The U.S. government has not been able to use its clout as a super-power and turn the Saudi peace proposal into a viable plan, accord historic status to the Beirut summit as a turning point in the Arab world's relations with Israel, and force Arafat to accept a cease-fire.

America's influence was so negligible that Vice President Richard Cheney proved unable to tempt Arafat into accepting minimal terms set as prerequisite for a meeting between the pair. The Netanya strike adds significance to this question of how the Bush administration intends to exert an influence on the Israel-Palestinian dispute. Israel can claim to U.S. officials in Washington that limitations which have hedged its responses to murderous Palestinian provocations - restrictions which satisfied American demands - did not yield desired results. Public anger, and internal political pressures, serve as a basis for a demand that the U.S. acquiesce to drastic Israeli military measures whose goal is to bring about a strategic change in the balance of power between Israel and the PA.

As these lines were written last night, it was not clear how the U.S. government would respond to these developments. Would it continue to keep a distance from the conflict, or would it intervene on a large scale, after reaching the conclusion that the sides are incapable of stopping the downward spiral of violence on their own?

Sharon tries to decide

On Tuesday afternoon, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was still clarifying the time of the examination of chametz [leavened food] and looking for a window of opportunity to convene the expanded kitchenette cabinet to decide whether Yasser Arafat should be allowed to go to Beirut. By Tuesday evening, it turned out that all this bother had been unnecessary: Arafat had decided to remain in Ramallah.

The indecision about whether to release Arafat from the siege he was under reflected in miniature the total bewilderment of the government about the Palestinian uprising. The current leadership is projecting despair and lassitude; they don't know what to do with Arafat, how to behave toward the Palestinians or what steps to take to improve the security situation.

Three months ago, the government proclaimed Arafat's "irrelevance," but now it turns out that all those who have anything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict view him as a key figure who has influence on the future of the entire Middle East. Israel wants his agreement to a cease-fire; the United States needs his cooperation to obtain the understanding of the Arab world for the attack it plans against Saddam Hussein's Iraq; the leaders of the Arab states are dependent on him for the stability of their regimes; and the Palestinians decide their attitude toward Israel in large measure based on what he says.

Arafat decided not to attend the Beirut summit because, among other reasons, he was apparently took seriously the possibility that the prime minister would not let him return to the territories. He didn't know that in discussions among the members of the kitchenette cabinet, when the inclination was to allow him to attend the Beirut meeting, Natan Sharansky warned that the pressure being exerted on Israel to let him out would be a picnic compared to the international distress Israel would find itself in if it refused to allow him back.

Sharon took an aggressive stance but some ministers formed the impression that at the last minute he would respond positively to the importuning of the United States administration. Ben-Eliezer's view was that Israel found itself in an unfortunate trap over the question of whether Arafat would go to Beirut or not. He thought that it was a mistake from the outset to focus the Israeli demands on Arafat's behavior (an insight that he arrived at only in retrospect, it should be said); and that it was certainly not in Israel's interest to play into his hands and contribute to his ambition to be the center of attention of the Beirut meeting. Ben-Eliezer argued in the discussions that Arafat would be present in Beirut one way or the other - whether physically or via television - so Israel should not block his departure. In this case, the defense minister said, the Israeli position should derive from the American interest, as allowing him to go to Beirut would not entail an infringement of national security. Ben-Eliezer took the view that if Israel wants to ensure the continued support of the United States for the way it is pursuing the war against terrorism, it should not disappoint the Americans.

Cabinet minister Dan Meridor took a similar view, though not necessarily for the same reasons. Meridor thought it was a mistake to let Arafat portray himself as a victim of Israeli abuse. "Boris Yeltsin won glory for himself and the world's admiration thanks to seven minutes in which he stood on a tank, while we are moving tanks to Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and with our own hands are turning Arafat into a hero," Meridor said. His conclusion was that in the complex conditions that were created, it was preferable to free Arafat instead of continuing to hold him under house arrest.

On the other side, Sharansky maintained that the United States would respect Israel for sticking to its opinion on the question and continuing to make Arafat's visit to Beirut contingent on his fulfillment of the demands put to him: calling on his nation to stop the terrorism, agreeing to implement the Tenet report in letter and in spirit, and ordering the terrorist organizations, particularly the Tanzim militia, to lay down their arms.

Sharansky reminded the ministers that a week earlier U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Prime Minister Sharon convened a press conference in which they put forward the conditions under which Arafat would be given freedom of movement: declaring a cease-fire and beginning to implement the Tenet plan. "These are not extreme demands," Sharansky said. "But if we abandon them two days later in order to achieve an effect of two or three days, that causes serious strategic damage. By taking that approach we prove that we can be pressured while Arafat appears in Beirut triumphantly. The conclusion that everyone, including the U.S. administration, will reach is that our hand can be bent but that no concessions can be had from Arafat. That will only heighten their motivation to continue with terrorism."

Even though Sharon indicated that he agreed with Sharansky, the housing minister was far from certain that Sharon would not fold at the last minute in the face of American pressure. Arafat's decision to stay in Ramallah spared Sharon that test.