What to do about Yasser Arafat?
For months now, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been convinced that the main problem in Israel's relations with the Palestinians is the president of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat.
With virtually any other potential Palestinian leader, Sharon believes he would be able to work out a cease-fire and make progress towards peace. That's why in January he defined Arafat as "irrelevant," and why in March he made up his mind to expel him from the Palestinian territories.
In fact, when Sharon walked into the Cabinet meeting in late March where Israel's biggest military operation against Palestinian terror since the 1982 Lebanon War was approved, he was determined to get approval for Arafat's expulsion as well.
But when Sharon raised the idea of exile, he was met by a chorus of dissent. Defense minister and Labor Party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was furious that Sharon had not told him in advance that he planned to discuss the issue. Moreover, Ben-Eliezer said, he was adamantly opposed to expelling Arafat, and Labor would leave the government if the step was approved.
The heads of Israel's various intelligence services backed Ben-Eliezer. The coordinator of government activities in the West Bank, Amos Gilead, a former high-ranking intelligence official, said an exiled Arafat would stir up serious trouble for Israel abroad, particularly in Jordan and Egypt.
The compromise between the Likud and Labor ministers was the bizarre decision to "isolate" Arafat in his Ramallah compound.
If the aim was to bypass Arafat or pressure him into a cease-fire, so far it has failed: All it has done is win worldwide sympathy for the beleaguered Palestinian Authority president.
The Cabinet clash reflects a deep dilemma in the Israeli government over what to do about Arafat. A minority school of thought, led by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, holds that Arafat is the only Palestinian with the authority to push through a deal with Israel, and that the Israeli government has erred in trying to undermine his leadership.
The dominant school, to which both Sharon and Ben-Eliezer belong, maintains that Arafat has no intention of cutting a deal with Israel, and that a way must be found to bypass him. Where they differ is over how to do this.
The Sharon-Ben-Eliezer school was greatly strengthened by a series of damning intelligence reports that emerged late last year. For example, according to Israeli military intelligence, the day before Arafat announced a cease-fire in mid-December, he convened a group of Palestinian intellectuals at the Casablanca Hotel in Ramallah and detailed a long-term strategy for the destruction of Israel.
Israeli intelligence also reported that on numerous occasions, after condemning Palestinian suicide attacks on camera for the world media, Arafat celebrated the bombers' "success" with his confidants, and made it plain that he would like to see more such attacks.
This shows, some intelligence officials argue, that Arafat is not interested in a deal with Israel under any circumstances, and that he has embarked on a fight to the death with the Jewish state.
Others don't go quite that far: They say Arafat does want a peace deal, but only one imposed by the international community, so Arafat can say he was forced into it.
Sharon's aides say it makes no difference: Either way, there is no point in talking to Arafat. Moreover, the aides say, the bottom line is that as long as Arafat is around, the Palestinians won't do a thing to fight terror. They argue that the Tanzim, which has been carrying out most of the suicide bombings, is part of Arafat's own Fatah organization, and would not act unless it had a "green light," whether explicit or implicit, from the president.
As long as Arafat gives the green light to terror, they say, Palestinian security chiefs like Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub won't dare lift a finger against it.
Sharon is no longer prepared to tolerate Arafat's double game of condemning terror while encouraging the terrorists, or to allow the Palestinian leader to subvert every attempt to reach a cease-fire, including the latest mission by U.S. envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni in March.
The trouble is that Sharon doesn't have very good options. He feels he can't kill Arafat, because he promised the American administration that he wouldn't. Sharon made the pledge in his first meeting as prime minister with President Bush in March 2000 -- and, he says, the Americans have gotten him to repeat it in every high level meeting since.
In addition, killing Arafat could inflame not only the Palestinian territories but the entire Middle East, and turn world opinion squarely against Israel.
Sharon can't isolate Arafat indefinitely, because world public opinion also isn't likely to stand for that, and because he has promised to pull Israeli forces out of Palestinian towns and cities as soon as the current military operation is over.
He also can't expel Arafat unless the Israeli Cabinet relents -- though he publicly stated Tuesday that he would offer Arafat a "one-way ticket" out of Ramallah into exile. Arafat rejected the idea outright.
In an attempt to simply circumvent Arafat, Sharon began meetings in February with other Palestinian leaders, including Ahmed Karia, known as Abu Alaa, the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council; Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, Arafat's deputy in the PLO; and Arafat's confidant and economic adviser, Mohammed Rashid.
But those figures very quickly -- and publicly -- made clear that the meetings had been sanctioned by Arafat, and that they would report back to him. Sharon's ploy did nothing to weaken Arafat's hold on power.
Sharon's problem is this: If Arafat is not killed, expelled or replaced by alternative Palestinian leaders, and if he emerges unscathed from his isolation in Ramallah, he would win an enormous prestige-enhancing victory, and Sharon would have to eat humble pie.
So now Sharon has starting telling visitors, like European Union official Javier Solana, that Solana can see the "isolated'' Arafat on one condition: That he take the Palestinian leader with him into exile when he leaves the country.
If Solana or anyone else agrees, Sharon will worry about persuading the Cabinet.