December 20, 2001
Sharon: No More Words
Trick or treat? That slightly out-of-season challenge reflects Israeli reaction to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's dramatic call on his people for "a complete stop to all armed activities, especially the suicide attacks."
Analysts noted that it was Arafat's strongest call yet -- in Arabic, on Palestinian television -- to end Palestinian terror.
He also mentioned mortar bombing of Israeli settlements which, he claimed, give Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a pretext to strike at the Palestinian Authority. That showed that Arafat's call extended to the territories as well -- and not, as some chagrined Palestinians claimed, only to Israel proper.
However, after Arafat has voiced support for so many cease-fires that never materialized, Sharon did not even deign to react.
Indeed, within hours of the speech Sunday, Palestinian gunmen were again shooting at Israelis in the West Bank and firing mortars in the Gaza Strip. Three Israelis were injured Monday, one seriously, in shooting attacks.
"Israel's patience with empty words and false promises has run out," Sharon told French President Jacques Chirac in a phone call Monday. "Israel wants to see actions and results."
Just 10 days earlier, at Sharon's behest, the Security Cabinet formally declared Arafat "irrelevant" and forswore further dealings with him.
But in the army and the intelligence community, there is a view that Arafat's speech might -- just might -- be a turning point, representing his belated realization of just how precarious his position has become.
Arafat spoke from his office in Ramallah, with Israeli tanks parked less than 300 yards away. Other Israel Defense Force armored units had entered Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank and Gaza over the weekend on search-and-arrest missions that made a mockery of Palestinian pretensions to sovereignty in these territories. Israeli helicopters continued to destroy Palestinian security installations.
Perhaps even more sobering, from Arafat's standpoint, was the fact that the United States was not publicly criticizing the Israeli military moves. It was as though Sharon had a green light from the Bush administration to mangle Arafat's state-in-the-making.
Worse yet, Arafat's standing in the international community, which plummeted drastically after a wave of suicide bombings in early December, showed no real signs of recovery.
Even within the Arab world, Arafat could feel his isolation growing. Egypt and Jordan signaled that they, too, are fed up with Arafat's prevarication and want to see real action against terrorists such as those from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
For Egypt and Jordan, it is not just a matter of the peace process with Israel: The rise of Islamic fundamentalism can spill over into their countries, putting their regimes at risk.
Some Israeli observers therefore say Arafat may have reached a watershed and will finally take meaningful action to quell violence. If he does so, however, he surely will demand a diplomatic quid pro quo -- from Israel, the Americans and the international community.
Palestinian officials said early in the week that they had shut dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad facilities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and arrested 180 activists.
Sharon's circle gave little credence to such claims, or to Arafat's call for an end to violence.
"All bluff," Finance Minister Silvan Shalom said. "Anyone putting any faith in it will quickly be disappointed."
Close aides say Sharon wants to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, but not with Arafat. After endless "last chances," Sharon has concluded that the veteran Palestinian leader is committed to a "strategy of terror."
In Sharon's book, Arafat made his strategic choice back in 1993, as soon as the Oslo peace process began. He doggedly built up illegal armed groups alongside the Palestinian Authority police force -- which itself was allowed to grow far beyond its legal size -- and stockpiled weapons for them.
Moreover, Sharon sees the Hamas and Islamic Jihad activity as part of Arafat's strategy. Ostensibly in opposition to the Palestinian Authority, the fundamentalist factions are, in effect, active members in Arafat's "coalition of terror," Sharon says, a means of bleeding Israel while leaving Arafat ways to profess his innocence.
On Monday, Hamas activists protested Israel's assassination of a senior militant, Yakoub Dakidak. As Dakidak's body was paraded through the streets of Hebron, the more militant Palestinian organizations seemed in no mood for peace.
In a manifest released Monday morning, Hamas and Islamic Jihad called upon all Palestinians to continue violence against Israel. Moreover, in interviews with Arab television networks, the groups announced that they refuse to obey Arafat's order against suicide bombings.
The premier's aides concede that Sharon promised President Bush not to harm Arafat physically or drive him out of the country. That, they say, is the meaning of the Cabinet's "irrelevancy" resolution: Arafat will not be attacked directly, but will simply be ignored and rendered meaningless.
The frustration with Arafat now affecting Washington, Europe and Jerusalem is shared even among some in Arafat's close coterie, Sharon's aides say.
"We are not going to intervene in who leads the Palestinians," the aides say. "But we hope he will be succeeded by someone ready to abandon terror, someone we can speak to. Meanwhile, if Arafat does not do the work of stopping terror, Israel will do it instead of him."
With this kind of mood at the top in Israel, there is little time left for Arafat to prove to the rest of the world -- above all to Washington -- that this time he is serious.
Despite the U.S. veto on the stationing of international observers in the West Bank, America has myriad means to determine whether, at last, the Palestinian Authority is acting forcefully against terrorist groups. "Revolving-door" jails -- in which terrorists are imprisoned with great fanfare, then quietly released shortly afterward -- are no longer featured only in Israeli rhetoric; their existence has been confirmed by American, British and other diplomats who will be watching to see if the latest wave of Palestinians arrested actually remain behind bars.
This is a defining moment, both for Arafat and for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Sharon may be earnest when he talks of his desire to see the last of Arafat. But at the end of the day it will be difficult for him to affect that outcome if the American administration does not agree that Arafat has become dispensable.
JTA Correspondent Aaron Lightman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.