Background / Unity Gov't Struggles to Find Its Own Policy Soul

The government line was sounding increasingly fragmented Monday, with hawks demanding Arafat's eviction, Sharon refusing to accede but bashing Arafat nevertheless, and Labor warning it will bolt if the IDF remains in PA areas.

With the hawks in Ariel Sharon's unity government saying the time has come to evict Yasser Arafat, the Prime Minister insisting he is not trying to topple the Palestinian Authority but that Arafat is the equivalent of the Taliban, and the Labor party threatening to bolt the coalition if the IDF remains in PA areas, Bush administration officials must have been scratching their heads Monday trying to decipher the multiple-personality unity coalition.

Peres, flying in the face of the right-wing comparisons of Yasser Arafat with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime, held out a measure of hope in talks to U.S. audiences that the Palestinian leader could once again become a partner in negotiations toward a future peace accord.

Pleading with Arafat to make good on promises to crack down on Palestinian militants, Peres said the Palestinian Authority chairman's failure to arrest men wanted for the assassination last week of Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Ze'evi and other offenses had created "a credibility gap that almost destroyed the peace camp in Israel."

"Arafat wants to belong to the 'club' that fights terror," Peres continued. "But you cannot enter the non-smoking room with a cigar in your mouth."

It's that type of talk the Americans would like to hear from Sharon as well, especially with the fostering of stability in the volatile Arab-Israeli theater a chief aim of the Bush administration as the White House and State Department court broad Muslim support for the assault on Afghanistan.

But, if Peres was a palliative for the Americans, Likud figures like former ambassadors to Washington Zalman Shoval, and Moshe Arens - both in the U.S. - were delivering a very different message than that sounded by the foreign minister, trying to convince administration and Congressional officials that Arafat actively supported a wide range of terrorist activities.

If there were common denominators in official Israeli policy as variously interpreted by Sharon and Peres, they lay in repeated assurances that Israel had no intention either of targeting Arafat for assassination, or in remaining indefinitely in the Palestinian-controlled areas the army invaded and blockaded in response to the killing of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi last Wednesday.

At a time when the battle for international hearts and minds in the Arab-Israeli conflict may exceed in importance the violence on the ground, former Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Liel noted that, "The most important factor in any marketing policy is the consistency of the message. With us, there is no unified message over the most central issue, that of Arafat ... If you tell people one week that Arafat is a partner and the next week that he's a terrorist, they'll laugh at you."

But agitation is growing at the ideological poles of the Sharon-Peres government. Despite the dimensions of the IDF blockade, the widest Israeli military operation against the Authority since the Oslo accords created the PA eight years ago, hawks continued to push for an even more aggressive move - a declaration of all-out war that would unseat both Arafat and the PA.

Labor members, meanwhile, said the "indefinite" nature of the re-occupation was eerily reminiscent of assurances that then-defense minister Sharon gave in 1982 of a strictly limited conflict in Lebanon, where an incursion lasted in various forms for 18 years. Labor leaders held a special meeting Monday to debate the "red lines" that would trigger their mass exit from the government, but despite growing anti-unity sentiment in the party's non-ministerial ranks, no decision was taken to bolt the coalition.

In a Wednesday editorial, Ha'aretz argues that it was a mistake to conclude that the large-scale IDF operation was a sign of a secret master-plan guiding Israeli security policy.

"It's not a secret agenda that lies behind the IDF's actions, but characteristic confusion at the political level, led by Ariel Sharon," Ha'aretz writes. "The government is torn between those who want to evict Arafat and topple the PA and those who see Arafat as the preferred partner for negotiation, despite everything."

Perhaps even more ominous were fresh artillery battles and air strikes in Lebanon, which came hours after Israel's IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon was widely quoted as warning that mounting tensions on the northern border could lead to escalation culminating in a full-scale war with Syria, long the main power-broker in Lebanon.

The unilateral IDF withdrawal from south Lebanon, the breakdown in Israeli-Syrian peace talks, and the change in Syrian leadership, Ya'alon said, had brought Syria "to a point from which [Damascus] could move toward an agreement, or alternatively, return to conflict."