It's Back to the Compound

Israeli latest military action in Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound appears to be more of a furious reflex reaction than any considered policy.

Israeli latest military action in Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound appears to be more of a furious reflex reaction than any considered policy. The atmosphere at the government meeting that approved the operation (after it had begun) was bellicose. Ministers closed ranks to approve Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan and to accept his view that "there are moments in which you either do something, or fail to do anything."

In this militant spirit, the cabinet voted to "do something," and to change Arafat's status as an immobilized leader from de facto to de jure. For the same reason the government also decided to shut down Sari Nusseibeh's offices in Jerusalem.

The government's attitude can be understood as resulting from the feelings of frustration that mounted as a result of last week's terrorist acts. Up to five days ago, the prime minister and his ministers had consoled themselves with a feeling that military pressure exerted by Israel on West Bank cities is the right antidote and the most effective way to extirpate terror. They spoke of victory in the war on terror and the triumph of the just. They believed the long-awaited turnaround had finally come - the Palestinians had surrendered, and were replacing Arafat.

Then came Wednesday's series of terrorist attacks culminating in Thursday's suicide bombing on Allenby Street in the heart of Tel Aviv. Everything changed. The terrorists, it turns out, haven't vanished. They had merely gone on vacation to organize their next attacks.

Security officials provided the argument supporting the offensive against Arafat, rather than against Hamas leaders who constitute the main engine in the terror industry. The IDF Chief of Staff, the Shin Bet security service director and the IDF Coordinator of Activities in the Territories delivered one consistent message - the Palestinian Authority chairman remains the supreme architect of terror; the attacks are carried out due to his inspiration, and he funnels money to finance them.

When discussions brought up the question of whether Israel's response should be directed against Hamas leaders, security officials stated that should the terror strikes continue, Israel's response ought to be aimed at Hamas as well. But for now the aim is to isolate Arafat. Humiliating Arafat was an objective that could be accomplished easily; and so it was chosen as the main policy aim.

Virtually no reservations about Sharon's plan were voiced by his cabinet colleagues. The proposal was not put to a vote, and the discussion ended with a declaration that the IDF's activity in Ramallah was approved "without opposition." This formulation glossed critical comments hazarded by two or three ministers - Ronni Milo, Dan Meridor, Shimon Peres. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer roundly supported the Prime Minister and he complimented Sharon in such an exaggerated fashion that Minister Nissim Dahan proposed that exchanges at the cabinet meeting be kept secret under a classification given to sensitive security matters.

As a practical matter, the Sharon government expects the IDF's operations in the Ramallah compound will make Arafat's life so miserable that he will ask to leave the territories. The problem is that the government failed again to consider that its policy will turn the PA leader into a tormented martyr. The government also hopes Arafat's top aides, whom Israel believes orchestrate terror attacks, will turn themselves in.

The government believes that it has learned lessons from previous episodes in which suspects were besieged (at the Ramallah compound and at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity). This time, Sharon thinks, Israel will not face international pressure calling on it to compromise. Sharon made three concessions during consultations - he backed down from his demand that the IDF be ordered to forcibly capture terror suspects in the compound, he agreed that the IDF should not engage in a physical confrontation with Arafat, and he agreed to omit the word "total" from the original formulation of the policy decision, which held that the IDF's operation is designed to bring about Arafat's "total" isolation.

The government decided that the IDF should concentrate on efforts designed to increase chances that Arafat will be replaced. Sharon stated during one policy consultation: "The time has come for us to stop being content with talk about replacing the PA leadership. Instead, it should be done" so that the world, and the Palestinians, who are about to hold elections, come to understand that the current PA chairman has no relevance for Israel.

In this way, the government has once again ignored the roots of the dispute and it has tried to divert public attention away from the fact that it missed an opportunity during the last month to provide genuine incentives to the Palestinians that might motivate them to end the conflict.