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Ramallah Withdrawal Sends Mixed Message

Palestinians could think America's focus on Iraq ties Israel's hands.

by Leslie Susser

October 3, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Palestinian police check damage to Yasser Arafat's compound, following Israel's withdrawal on Sept. 29. Photo by BP Images/JTA

Palestinian police check damage to Yasser Arafat's compound, following Israel's withdrawal on Sept. 29. Photo by BP Images/JTA

The scenes from Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah this week played tricks on the mind. The gaping ruins seemed to epitomize the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and demonstrate the Palestinian Authority president's impotence. But Arafat's smiling emergence after Israel withdrew its tanks under heavy American pressure seemed to say just the opposite: that a resurgent Arafat was back in control, stronger politically than he had been for months, and that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's attempt to humiliate the Palestinian leader had backfired.

But that was not the worst news for Sharon. The more dangerous problem, analysts here said, is that Israel's 12-day siege of Arafat's headquarters had cemented a subversive linkage in the Palestinian mind between the Palestinian and Iraqi issues.

It appears obvious that President Bush had so bluntly insisted on an Israeli pullback because he believed the siege was interfering with American plans for a war against Iraq. The sight of America's strong ally humiliating an Arab leader did not play well in the Arab world, where Bush is trying to drum up Arab support for toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The firm U.S. intervention clearly made sense from an American point of view. But for Sharon it creates a tactical problem: The Palestinians might now be encouraged to plan major terrorist attacks in the belief that America's focus on Iraq essentially ties Israel's hands.

In the event of a Palestinian attack, Israel's dilemma would be acute: If it doesn't respond, it risks encouraging more attacks; if it does respond, it risks a showdown with Washington.

Writing in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, argued that Arafat was likely to conclude that by "standing firm against Sharon, he could drive a wedge between the U.S. and Israel.

"The prime minister of Israel must find a way out of that trap before he finds himself, rather than Arafat, under heavy American pressure, and his options after the next suicide bombing even more limited," Indyk wrote.

Israeli intelligence officials are convinced that some Palestinian groups will try to exploit Israel's dilemma by escalating violence before and during an American attack on Iraq. Indeed, one reason Sharon gave for besieging Arafat's headquarters was to show that Israel would not allow its hands to be tied. That effort clearly boomeranged, and Israel now finds itself worse off from a deterrent point of view.

Addressing the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer admitted that "cardinal mistakes" had been made in the siege: No one had anticipated the vehemence of the American response, he said, as a result of which "our freedom of action has been curtailed."

The same perceived constraints could encourage Hezbollah terrorists to open hostilities on Israel's northern border. But analysts insist that Washington would not restrain Israel in the same way if Hezbollah bombarded Israel's northern towns and villages.

"Hezbollah knows this, and so do their Syrian and Iranian patrons," said Ze'ev Maoz, a strategic analyst at Tel Aviv University.

Still, the Lebanese for weeks have been exploiting Israeli restraint in the run-up to an Iraq war to divert the Wazzani River to irrigate villages in southern Lebanon.

After an initial bellicose warning, Sharon acknowledged in late September that, because of Iraq, the time was not propitious for military action, and he said Israel would have to try to resolve the problem in coordination with the United States.

According to left-wing critics of Sharon's government, the Ramallah siege may have another negative consequence for Israel: Arafat's resurrection as a popular hero may have slowed down moves toward change in the Palestinian leadership, moves the Israeli government said could help create a peace partner on the other side.

Critics point out that Palestinian plans to discuss the appointment of a prime minister alongside Arafat, which were to have taken place in his Ramallah compound, were postponed indefinitely because of the siege. The day after the siege ended, Knesset member Ran Cohen of the Meretz Party accused the government of having nipped Palestinian reform plans in the bud.

But other analysts downplay the significance of Arafat's return to center stage. His renewed popularity may well prove fleeting, they say, noting that the forces for change on the Palestinian side remain as determined as ever. For one, Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, the Arafat deputy mooted as a potential prime minister, continues to speak about nonviolence and chart a new political course.

"There were many mistakes in this last intifada, and turning to the use of arms against Israel was the decisive one," Abbas said in an interview this week on LBC, a Lebanese television channel.

Turning the intifada into a peaceful, popular struggle is "the only way to convince the world of the justice of our cause," Abbas said.

So while some Palestinians may try to escalate violence to exploit Israel's current constraints, others are talking nonviolent resistance, hoping to exploit American goodwill after a strike on Baghdad. America may then want to rebuild ties with the Arab world by pressuring Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, and a nonviolent Palestinian leadership would be in a much better position to press the advantage, the thinking goes.

Indeed, according to unconfirmed reports, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators already are looking ahead to the day after an attack on Iraq and are talking peace in a secret channel that bypasses Arafat.

Sharon's representative is said to be outgoing Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy.

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