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The Ties Grow Stronger

During year of terror, U.S. tilts toward Israel, grows sterner toward Arafat.

by Leslie Susser

September 5, 2002 | 8:00 pm

An Israeli soldier on an armored personnel carrier sings and waves the Israeli flag after he and his fellow soldiers withdrew from Bethlehem on April 21, 2002.

An Israeli soldier on an armored personnel carrier sings and waves the Israeli flag after he and his fellow soldiers withdrew from Bethlehem on April 21, 2002.

Launched in the shadow of Sept. 11, the Jewish year 5762 was marked for Israel by two developments directly related to those terrorist attacks: a tightening of ties between Israel and the United States and a growing American disaffection with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Shortly after the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many Americans said they understood how Israelis felt, living in a society threatened by terror. Aside from the immediate emotional identification between the two nations' plights, however, a larger strategic alliance developed in the ensuing months.

In one of the defining policy pronouncements of his early presidency, President Bush said shortly after Sept. 11 that the international community would be divided between those who supported terrorism and those who opposed it.

Arafat ultimately came down on the wrong side, and paid the price in diplomatic ostracism. The discrediting of Arafat in American eyes was, for Israel, the most significant political development of 5762, and appreciably changed the diplomatic balance between Israel and the Palestinians.

The process of discrediting the Palestinian leader took several months. Sensing the political shift, Arafat on Sept. 19 prudently declared a cease-fire in the intifada against Israel. If Palestinian attacks on Israel continued, he realized, he risked being branded as a sponsor of terrorism.

Although the cease-fire failed to hold, even for a few days, Bush gave Arafat the benefit of the doubt, and in early October formally noted America's support for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In November, Secretary of State Colin Powell followed this up with a major policy speech at the University of Louisville in which he called for an end to the intifada, an end to the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

With the Palestinian terrorist onslaught continuing and even intensifying, however, American perceptions began to change.

In late November, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni arrived in Israel as Powell's special envoy, charged with hammering out a cease-fire. Instead, the Palestinians greeted Zinni with a series of terror attacks that, over the course of a single weekend in early December, left 25 Israelis dead and almost 230 wounded. The attacks shattered Zinni's mission.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held Arafat "directly responsible for everything that's happening," terming him "the great obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East." A few days later, after an Israeli bus was attacked outside the West Bank settlement of Immanuel on Dec. 12, killing 10 people and wounding 23, the Israeli Cabinet issued a statement declaring Arafat "no longer relevant," and severing all contact with him.

Signaling his dismay at the Palestinians, Bush temporarily recalled Zinni, but sent him back to the region in late December.

The decisive shift in Bush's attitude toward Arafat came after Israel on Jan. 3 seized the Karine-A, a ship purchased by the Palestinians and laden with arms acquired in Iran. The 50-ton cargo included Katyusha rockets, mortars, anti-tank missiles, anti-tank mines, sniper rifles and other munitions.

Arafat repeatedly denied any involvement, and the Americans at first were reluctant to believe that the arms had been purchased on his authority. Within days, however, Israel was able to prove that the arms had been purchased by Fuad Shubaki, a member of Arafat's inner circle whom the Palestinian leader often used as a financial go-between.

By mid-January, the CIA was convinced of Arafat's direct involvement in the arms deal and of his links with Tehran, which formed part of Bush's "Axis of Evil."

Reportedly livid at the Palestinian leader's lies, Bush several weeks later formally suspended the Zinni mission and announced that he was "disappointed in Arafat." In early February, Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Arafat "must confront terror and choose peace over violence. He cannot have it both ways."

Still, the administration stopped short of severing ties with the Palestinian leader.

After months of suicide bombings, culminating in the Park Hotel massacre in Netanya on March 27, in which 29 Israelis, mostly elderly, were killed as they sat down to a Passover meal, Israel launched Operation Protective Wall, a major ground offensive designed to crush the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank.

However, when the Israel Defense Forces trapped Arafat in his headquarters in Ramallah, Powell crossed the army cordon to meet the Palestinian leader in an abortive attempt to broker a cease-fire.

The invasion of the West Bank ended in controversial standoffs at Arafat's compound and at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but Israel did manage to uncover a trove of documents in Palestinian Authority offices clearly proving Arafat's personal involvement in Palestinian terror.

In early June, Sharon convinced Bush that persisting with Arafat was "a cardinal error." On June 24, in a long-awaited policy speech, the president appeared to signal the end of the Arafat era, calling on the Palestinians to elect new leaders "not compromised by terror."

The Bush speech was followed by a joint Israeli-American demand for extensive reform of Palestinian political, financial and military institutions. This was a logical outcome of the new insistence on a Palestinian leadership that could be trusted to keep a peace agreement that entailed major Israeli concessions.

For the Israelis, the key demand was reform of the Palestinian security apparatus, in the hope that once this was implemented, the Palestinians would be able -- and willing -- to control terror.

One of the immediate implications of Arafat's gradual loss of credibility was that Israel was able to take increasingly tough countermeasures against Palestinian violence as the year progressed. When, after the Oct. 17 assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi in Jerusalem, the IDF moved ground forces into six Palestinian cities. The Americans immediately pressured Israel to speedily withdraw.

The same thing happened soon after Operation Protective Wall was launched in the spring, but that time Sharon kept Israeli troops in place for several weeks.

When, after another wave of terror attacks, Israel moved back into Palestinian cities in mid-July in Operation Determined Path, there was virtually no American protest.

So, too, with Israel's policy of targeted killings of known Palestinian terrorists. While at first controversial, the killings elicited less and less criticism as the year progressed -- though critics argued that at times they were counterproductive.

After Israel's mid-January killing of Raed Karmi, the head of Arafat's Tanzim militia in Tulkarm and a leading instigator of attacks, Palestinians launched a ferocious wave of terror that started with a deadly shooting attack on a bat mitzvah celebration in Hedera in mid-January and culminated in the Netanya attack in late March.

Israel, nevertheless, persisted with its targeted killings. In late July, the air force assassinated the military chief of Hamas, Salah Shehada, dropping a one-ton bomb on his Gaza apartment and killing at least 14 civilians, including nine children. That attack prompted a wave of international condemnation and sparked a new round of Hamas attacks -- and, according to some Palestinian sources, undermined chances for at least a partial cease-fire.

Despite growing American support, Israel faced much international, especially European, criticism for its handling of the intifada. Sharon was castigated in the European press for refusing to allow Arafat to attend Christmas services in Bethlehem or the Arab League summit in Beirut in late March, where Arab countries endorsed a Saudi initiative for normal relations with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders.

But the heaviest criticism came after a heated early April battle in the Jenin refugee camp, where Palestinians claimed a massacre had taken place, involving several hundred to several thousand victims. Though Israel said only 52 Palestinians -- most of them armed fighters -- had been killed, the massacre claim gained credence around the world.

Israel initially agreed to allow a U.N. Security Council team to come to Jenin to investigate the claims, but later reversed its stand when the United Nation's refusal to address Israeli concerns led some to conclude that Israel was being set up for condemnation by a biased jury.

In July, a U.N. report dismissed the massacre claims, but criticized the IDF for allegedly not allowing humanitarian aid to reach Palestinians for several days.

The Jenin battle also coincided with calls throughout Europe to boycott Israeli goods and end contact with Israeli academics and other professionals. Such calls made little progress, but anti-Israel media, anti-Israel demonstrations throughout the Continent and an outbreak of anti-Semitic attacks tied to the intifada showed how low Israel had fallen in Europe's estimation.

The intifada took an enormous economic toll on both Israel and the Palestinians. On the Palestinian side, economic activity ground to a halt, and food supplies grew scarce when Israel imposed long curfews on Palestinian cities to curb terrorist movements.

On the Israeli side, investments dried up; GDP per capita fell by 6 percent over a two-year period; fewer than 400,000 tourists visited in the first half of 2002; and unemployment was rapidly reaching record levels of more than 10 percent. The government introduced a number of austerity programs but failed to reinvigorate the economy or restore public confidence in its economic policies.

On the domestic political front, the Labor Party remained in disarray as it struggled to find a leader, and many members called on the party to leave Sharon's national unity government. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer bested Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg in a disputed election for party chairman, but was expected to face additional opposition when Labor held yet another leadership vote in November.

For a time it seemed that longtime Labor politico Haim Ramon would challenge Ben-Eliezer in November. In August, however, Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, a former general whose initial interviews suggested strongly left- wing views, emerged as a potential challenger.

More ferment was evident on the two fringes of the political spectrum. In March, the far-right National Unity-Israel, Our Home bloc deserted the unity government because it felt Sharon was not being tough enough on Palestinian terror.

On the left, more dovish elements of the Labor Party and some leaders of the Meretz Party debated breaking away to form a new left-wing movement that would focus on social justice and seek to revive the peace process with the Palestinians.

On the religious front, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party threatened to withdraw from the government in May unless Sharon met their funding demands at a time when the government was facing severe budget cuts. Unlike previous prime ministers, who largely gave in to Shas' demands, Sharon stared them down, firing the Shas ministers and allowing them back into the government only when they agreed to vote for his budget.

Yet for many Israelis, political intrigue and realignment seemed an abstract concern in 5762; the main priority merely was to stay alive.

Some pinned their hopes on the construction of a security fence that Sharon approved in June along Israel's convoluted border with the West Bank. But others warned that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not even good fences would make good neighbors.

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