Deconstructing Yasser

This week George W. Bush allowed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to shrink Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to his true dimensions.

This week George W. Bush allowed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to shrink Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to his true dimensions. The recommendation that emerged in the defense establishment, following discussions that were held ahead of Sharon's visit to Washington and that were renewed in the wake of his meting with Bush and the Rishon Letzion terrorist attack, was to give priority to the establishment of the "Second Authority" - an improved version of the current Palestinian Authority. The image is of dismantling and putting back together, rather than toppling. Did de Gaulle establish the Fifth Republic in France? Well, Bush and Sharon will establish in Palestine - with a weakened Arafat or without him - the Second Authority, which will replace the first one, crafted by Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton.

Bush was demonstratively enthusiastic about the idea, as though Ali Jefferson and Ahmed Hamilton were to hold a series of debates in Ramallah along the lines of "The Federalist." Bush cited the constitution that Palestine doesn't have; if he had taken the time to peruse the documents, he would have discovered that the partition resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on November 29, 1947 called on the two states that were to come into being, Israel and Palestine, to adopt a constitution.

This is a narrow judicial approach, which can be useful if it is invoked to achieve something, or to get rid of someone: Arafat has served as president of the Palestinian Authority for more than six years without new elections, and it is possible to query the validity of his grip on power. The practical question, behind the niceties of the formulation, is who will be the source of authority for civil and security activity.

The answer to that question, according to central figures in the defense establishment, is half-American and half-Arab. In other words, joint pressure wielded by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan could channel Palestinian hyperactivity onto a calmer course. The rehabilitation of the civil infrastructures of the PA and their ongoing operation will be made subordinate to external control and review that will bypass the corruption in Arafat's milieu and upset his "divide-and-rule" tactics. Those who will fill the power vacuum will continue to show respect for Arafat and will refuse to act without his prior authorization, but he will no longer be in a position to maneuver among them, to promote one security chief at the expense of another, and to build up an armed Tanzim militias against all the others.

New law and order

Bush's announcement that he was going to send the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet, to the area, was not preceded by full Israeli agreement on the format of the unified security force that he is supposed to set up in the PA on the ruins of the previous apparatuses. Israel is interested in a force and a half: a uniformed police force that will be in charge of maintaining law and order, together with a secret service along the lines of the Israeli Shin Bet; there will be no army.

The policemen, who will be little more than municipal inspectors, in the format of the "strong local police" force that was conceived ahead of the Camp David agreement of 1978, will be armed only with "short weapons" - pistols. Long and heavy weapons will be removed, though no one will waste time routing out the last of the rifles that have been hidden. The commander of this force will be a local resident, a professional who will not pose a threat to the politicians, or possible a designated leader, such as Mohammed Dahlan, the current head of preventive security in the Gaza Strip - or perhaps a foreigner on the lines of the British general John Glubb, the commander of the Jordanian Legion during Israel's early years.

In the past few weeks, Dahlan prevented the firing of Kassam rockets into Israel, for fear that Operation Defensive Shield would be extended into the Gaza Strip. The IDF tried to decide whether this was enough to absolve him of involvement in terrorist organizations or whether the security apparatus under his control should be attacked, as was the parallel unit, headed by Jibril Rajoub, in the West Bank.

In the meantime, the Shin Bet is continuing to interrogate the Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti. Before Barghouti acquiesced and incriminated both himself and Arafat, a senior figure in the defense establishment said of him, "He is like a submarine, before diving into the depths, we have to let air out of him." And if you decide afterward that you want him as a leader in the post-Arafat period? "No problem, we will inflate him again."

That may sound patronizing and arrogant, but it was said with a smile of understanding of the limitations of Israel's influence on the emergence of the next generation of the Palestinian leadership. A few hours before the terrorist attack in Rishon Letzion on Tuesday night, a general who is convinced that Arafat's presence in the area will thwart any prospect of a settlement with the Palestinians said that, for the first time in a long time, Operation Defensive Shield and the coordination with President Bush have generated a new hope that a lid can be put on the confrontation. That hope is based on the Americans' determination to overthrow Saddam Hussein, a move that will divert Iraq's attention from the Arab-Israeli conflict to developments in the Persian Gulf; on the creation of a different PA that will be Arafat-free (or at least Arafat-lite); on a gradual trend toward the creation of a triple framework of Israel-Palestine-Jordan supported by Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and on the awareness of the Israeli leadership that it has an obligation to contribute to this process by taking a more flexible posture.

Immediately after the Passover eve attack at the Park Hotel in Netanya, officers in the General Staff's Plans and Policy Directorate who, until then, had rejected Arafat's expulsion based on a profit-and-loss calculation, drafted a document headed "What has changed," in which they found that the balance had been reversed.

Negative impact

The support expressed by Major General Giora Eiland, the head of the Plans and Policy Directorate, and by the head of the strategic planning department, Ebal Giladi, for Arafat's expulsion took Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer by surprise - though it was not enough to induce him to join the camp led by Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, deputy chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon, and head of the National Security Council, Uzi Dayan. Ben-Eliezer, who wants to differentiate himself from Sharon and the Likud, cited the opposition of the heads of the intelligence community and of the coordinator of government activities in the territories to the idea of expelling Arafat; but they emphasized that their major concern was for the negative impact such a move would have on Egypt and Jordan.

On Wednesday, one of the supporters of expulsion said that this concern had subsided over the past month, that in any event its true price was bearable, and that there was no need to wait for a massive terrorist attack, which would leave dozens or hundreds of Israelis dead, in order to justify Arafat's return to his half-abandoned headquarters in Tunisia.

Dissociation with Arafat will enhance the prospects of the emerging leadership of the Second Authority, this source noted, but only if at the same time - to prove to the Palestinians that they are better off without Arafat - Israel will act to advance a political agreement, including the surprise evacuation of remote settlements. In Sharon's first year in power, there was no chance of that. Now, after Operation Defensive Shield, after the coordination with Bush, and after Sharon, in internal discussions, has begun to praise the formulators of the broad strategic picture (whom he had previously disparaged in comparison to the combatants), it is no longer impossible.