Background / Is Arafat's Tightrope Act Finally Nearing an End?

After decades as the uniformed icon of Palestinian unity, Yasser Arafat now faces a choice of potentially dangerous alternatives: Crack down on militants, or allow radicals to pursue fierce anti-American and anti-Israeli agendas.

After decades as the uniformed "icon of unity" in the struggle for Palestinian nationhood, PA Chairman Yasser Arafat may now be thrust into making a historic choice between potentially dangerous alternatives: Cracking down on the popular, volatile militants in his midst, or taking the risks inherent in allowing them to pursue fiercely anti-American and anti-Israeli agendas.

The delicacy of Arafat's tightrope act, between maintaining the statesman's role of peacemaker and the revolutionary's role of firebrand, has been underscored by the complexities of the current war climate. In this atmosphere, the Bush administration is clamoring for calm in the Holy Land, while Palestinian militants - having adopted Osama bin Laden as a new hero - are demanding a free hand to pursue attacks against Israelis.

Striving to dissociate themselves from bin Laden, who has closely linked his struggle with theirs, Palestinian officials have begun a campaign to arrest Gazans suspected of having taken active roles in violent demonstrations earlier this week, in which Palestinian police firing live ammunition killed at least two protesters.

At the same time, the Palestinian Authority has been under mounting grass-roots pressure to sack senior Palestinian security figures in the wake of the decision to allow use of firearms against protesters.

Speaking Tuesday in Doha, Qatar, Palestinian cabinet minister Nabil Sha'ath denounced bin Laden for broadcast remarks in which bin Laden linked his campaign to the cause of the Palestinians.

Sha'ath insisted Palestinians did not support bin Laden, saying, "If [bin Laden] thinks that he serves the Palestinian cause this way, then let him be responsible for his remarks. We will not be." Bin Laden said in a videotape released Sunday that neither "America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live it in Palestine."

But the militant Hamas, which has claimed in the past to reflect Palestinian public opinion much more faithfully than Arafat's PA, made it clear that it was not about to take the curbs lying down.

"There is strong anger against the Palestinian Authority," said Mahmoud Zahar, a leader of the fundamentalist Hamas, which utterly rejects U.S.-supported efforts for an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, and bitterly opposes U.S. and British air strikes in Afghanistan.

Zahar maintained that Hamas does not want to see confrontations with the PA, urging Palestinians to focus their anger against Israel and the United States. However, Zahar added, "The majority of [Palestinian] people are not accepting the [PA] policies nowadays."

Perhaps most embarrassing for the PA, Israeli media reported Wednesday that Palestinian officials had asked Israel for riot-control equipment to help put down the unrest. The reports prompted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to vow that he would not hand over weaponry of any kind to Arafat.

Other Israeli officials indicated that Israel could hardly afford to assist the Authority with riot-control gear, when Israel lacked enough for its own needs. As Palestinian calls mounted for Arafat to sack senior PA security officials responsible for the order to use gunfire to suppress demonstrations - the first such incident of internal strife since the uprising began more than a year ago - Israeli rightists stepped up their calls for Arafat's ouster.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was particularly strident, quoted by Israel Radio as declaring Wednesday that if he were prime minister, he would make clear to Arafat that "not only is his regime in danger, but his life is in danger, tangible danger."

Alluding to a deadly fight in which Israel's founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion ordered troops to fire on the right-wing militia Irgun's ammunition ship, the "Altalena," for refusing to give up its weaponry to the nascent Israeli army, Ha'aretz correspondent Aluf Benn quotes diplomatic sources in Jerusalem as saying that Arafat "will have to rein in armed Palestinian terror groups," contending that the Palestinian Authority chairman "is drawing closer to his 'Altalena' moment."The sources said that the Palestinian police's efforts to suppress pro-Osama bin Laden demonstrations proves that, "when Arafat is pushed, he acts."

Despite this, Benn continues in Wednesday's paper, "Israel does not believe that Arafat took a strategic decision to suppress the terror movements, and is only undertaking superficial action to demonstrate support for the United States."

According to the sources, Benn writes, "Israel has received information from U.S. administration officials indicating that Washington intends to take action in the future against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. All terror organizations will be dealt with, according to the information, but the United States' first priority right now is to deal with with Afghanistan and bin Laden."