The future of Yasser Arafat -- or of the Middle East without him -- is shaping up as the key agenda item when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets President George W. Bush in Washington next week.
With the Palestinian Authority president effectively incarcerated in Ramallah for the past month and a half -- and with Israeli tanks barely 100 yards from his headquarters -- the questions facing the two leaders will be:
Have they considered that continued Israeli military pressure on Arafat may well lead to his overthrow?
Is it their policy to bring about Arafat's demise?
Are they prepared to face mounting international opposition to such a policy?
What alternative leadership or regime do they envision for the Palestinians?
Neither Sharon nor Bush has stated in so many words that his goal is to remove Arafat from the head of the Palestinian Authority.
Sharon came the closest in December, when his Cabinet passed a resolution branding Arafat "irrelevant." But Israeli officials continue to demand that Arafat take action to rein in terror -- which would seem to imply that his irrelevance is not irreversible.
Bush, too, has not publicly and unequivocally written off the Palestinian leader, but statements by the president and his closest aides in recent days have come close to doing so.
In this respect, Washington seems to have aligned itself closely with Jerusalem, to the gratification of Israeli officials.
The key word used by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top U.S. officials is "disappointment."
Bush has said repeatedly that Washington believed Arafat was on its side in the worldwide battle against terror. After the Karine A arms affair -- when Israel intercepted a ship carrying 50 tons of smuggled weapons to the Palestinian Authority -- Bush no longer believes that Arafat sides with the anti-terror coalition.
Rather than fighting terror, Bush noted, the ship affair showed that Arafat was "enhancing" terror.
The president held consultations late last week with his top advisers to reassess relations with the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli experts say the Palestinians' grave mistake was not the initial purchase of the arms that were eventually placed aboard the Karine A, but their failure to stop the shipment after Sept. 11, when it became clear that a new international alignment was taking shape.
What previously might have provoked only a minor crisis now took on entirely different dimensions: The Palestinian Authority was seen to be in collusion with Hezbollah, which the United States considers to be a terror organization, and with Iran, which the United States sees as having reverted to sponsoring terrorism.
Some Israeli experts compare this Palestinian mistake with Arafat's misguided support for Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Nevertheless, much of the international community still is not prepared to write off the Palestinian leader.
This week has seen a surge of public support for the beleaguered Arafat:
Saudi Arabian Nawaf ibn Abdulaziz, the head of the country's intelligence services, sent a public warning to Washington through a New York Times interview that letting Arafat fall would destroy Mideast peace prospects and could jeopardize Saudi Arabia.
China sent a warm message of support to Arafat. According to the People's Daily, the message to Arafat criticized the virtual house arrest Israel has imposed on him and blasted Israel's military attacks and economic pressures on the Palestinian territories.
The European Union's (E.U.) Council of Ministers urged Israel to understand that it needs Arafat as "a partner to negotiate with, both in order to eradicate terrorism and to work towards peace." The E.U. statement also called on the Palestinian Authority to "do everything to put an end to terrorism and the armed intifada."
Yet it was clear -- as several of the E.U. foreign ministers acknowledged -- that Europe was squaring up against what is seen as American support for Sharon's efforts to dislodge Arafat.
After the success of its Afghan campaign, Washington might be able to shrug off the international and Arab criticism. But is that what the Bush team intends?
The answer may become clearer before or during Sharon's visit to Washington.
Sharon will be preceded in the United States by the Labor Party's two senior ministers: Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
The two Labor ministers doubtless will conduct their own contacts with the Bush administration and presumably -- though this is no longer certain -- lobby against overthrowing Arafat.
On the Palestinian side, there also are intensive, informal contacts with Washington. The Palestinian line is as vehement as it is unanimous: There is no credible, moderate alternative to Arafat.
If he is removed, Palestinian officials warn, the Palestinian areas will descend into violent chaos. Worse, the fundamentalist Hamas may make a bid for power.
In either case, terrorism against Israel will increase and the prospects of a negotiated peace, or even an agreed cease-fire, will recede, Palestinian spokesmen argue.
All Palestinian spokesmen and diplomats in the international lobbying campaign describe Arafat as the irreplaceable symbol of Palestinian national pride. If he is humiliated, the Palestinians will never forget or forgive, they say.
What interests observers is whether, beneath this front of loyalty, there are less rhetorical, more practical questions about what will happen the morning after Arafat.
After all, Arafat is aging and infirm, and sensible people had begun to contemplate a future without him long before the present intifada erupted.
Is the Bush administration, whose hostility toward Arafat has surprised much of the world, quietly planning a replacement leadership based on younger security officials like Jibril Rajoub, perhaps together with grass-roots activists and militia leaders like Marwan Barghouti?
What is the Sharon government's real attitude to such a prospect? Would it demonstrate to the Palestinian people that new leadership would lead to an improvement in their living conditions?
Sharon has been saying little in public during recent weeks, and has been criticized for this even within his own Likud Party.
According to his opponents, Sharon says nothing because he has nothing to say. In contrast, supporters say he has deep thoughts that are not yet ripe for sharing.
The question is: Will Sharon let Bush in on his thinking?
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