Keep Him Covered So He Doesn't Catch Cold

Remember the famous Hungarian joke about the soldier who wrote to his mother from the battlefront saying: "I captured a Turkish soldier, but he won't let me go"?

Remember the famous Hungarian joke about the soldier who wrote to his mother from the battlefront saying: "I captured a Turkish soldier, but he won't let me go"? That's more or less what is happening today with Arafat. Since we imposed a siege on him, or locked him up in Ramallah, to be more precise, and he goes to sleep at night and wakes up in the morning with the barrel of an Israeli tank staring him in the eye, it's hard to say who is holding whom.

What is clear, however, is that during his four months of imprisonment, violence against us has actually increased, branching out into a wide assortment of methods and techniques. Day after day, warnings of impending attacks are sounded, bringing the whole country to its feet.

Mortar shells have been followed by Kassem-2 rockets. If these rockets are used, Sharon and Fuad cautioned, "we'll take military measures you've never seen the likes of." No sooner said, than three rockets are fired, and we inch that much closer to a Lebanon-style war of attrition. Campaign promises to restore personal security, it turns out, were invented in the fertile brain of an advertising company copywriter - not by a strategic think tank. Sharon has no idea how to bring about security.

Jailing Arafat has created an absurd situation. On the one hand, we demand that he stop the violence; on the other hand, placing him under lock and key weakens him and provides him with an alibi. How can one expect him to dismantle the terrorist organizations, Tanzim and Force 17, collect weapons, and carry out large-scale arrests if he can't move around? Even Ben-Gurion - no comparison intended - did not abolish Lehi, Etzel and the Palmach until he became the head of a sovereign state.

Confining Arafat to Ramallah had a dual purpose -to prod him personally into taking action against terrorism, and to sap his strength to the point where he would be toppled from within and replaced by a new leadership. "We took away his toys. No helicopters, no planes, no globe-trotting," said a source close to the minister of defense. "Sort of a personal penalty for screwing up."

Sharon's associates talk about a strategy of psychological pressure and focusing attention on Arafat's responsibility for the escalating violence. Obviously that is not all. The guess of an outside observer might be that Sharon has "taken out a contract" on Arafat. "No one has given the green light to harm him," says a source in the defense establishment. "But we've created a situation in which no one will be sorry if he is eliminated."

In fact, humiliating and isolating Arafat has achieved the opposite result. In terms of the system, he may be weaker and have an excuse not to act. But on a personal level, as a national symbol and leader, he has grown stronger. Arafat is always at his best as the underdog and the holy saint. The adrenaline starts to flow again. He stutters less and the cloak of heroism envelops him as he calls for a million martyrs to march on Jerusalem.

Solidarity missions are making pilgrimages to his door, and it's been a long time since he has given so many interviews. And even if the Rais is still slapping faces and waving pistols, the Rajoubs and Dahlans don't look like they are about to finish him off.

Locking Arafat up has given him both a certain immunity and a new kind of ammunition. If his goal was to goad Israel into unconventional acts that would send shock waves through the region and anger America, this week he has already chalked up some minor success. Mitchell has accused Sharon of helping to torpedo his plan, and Israel was denounced in unflattering terms for the bombing in Gaza.

During Sharon's visit to Washington, the U.S. administration did not make the special attempts it has made in the past to demonstrate "how much it is with us." Nor did it imply that Sharon, who arrived without any new initiative or plan for political dialogue, is an easier client to deal with than Arafat. What was made clear to the prime minister, in no uncertain terms, was that he has no green light - direct, indirect, or implicit in any way - to harm Arafat or take military steps that would shake the stability of the region and spoil the sheriff's fearless fight against the forces of evil across the globe.

The bottom line is that we have set a trap for ourselves. Aside from the fact that all our military options are gone, we have created a tragic-comic situation in which no matter what happens to Arafat - whether he dies of pneumonia or slips on the stairs - we will be held responsible. Better keep him covered so he won't catch cold.