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Jewish Journal

New—and Risky—Game for Mideast

by James D. Besser

September 20, 2001 | 8:00 pm

The devastating terrorist attacks in Washington and New York changed everything in America, and the repercussions of what President George W. Bush is calling the "first war of the 21st century" will be felt throughout the Middle East, as well.

Already, the crisis has knocked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the nation's front pages. At State Department briefings, the subject is now a sidebar -- if that. But this belies the fact that the drastically altered world situation offers both opportunities and major risks for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

In the wake of the twin attacks, Sharon has gained the most; Arafat, long accused of tolerating or encouraging terrorism, is precariously close to finding himself on the wrong side of the U.S. war effort. But Sharon, too, can lose if he misreads the U.S. preoccupation with its own national emergency and exploits it in his grinding battle with the Palestinians.

The risks for Arafat are obvious.

For years, he has displayed a deliberate ambivalence about terror. Sometimes he renounces it -- verbally, at least -- only to flash the green light when violence suits his purposes.

He has not arrested and prosecuted known terrorists, even when there was an active peace process. Since the new intifada began a year ago, the line between terrorist groups and various PLO factions has blurred to the point of invisibility.

If Bush is serious about making this a genuinely worldwide effort, Arafat will have to quickly and unequivocally abandon that approach -- or he will find himself on the side of America's enemies.

Even strong peace process supporters agree that he has to drastically change course.

Late last week, the administration laid it on the line to Arab governments: they have to become part of the anti-terror coalition, or risk international isolation. That admonition included Arafat.

Arafat has also focused much of his strategy on provoking greater direct U.S. involvement in the negotiations. But in the brave new world, a preoccupied Washington will demand that Arafat take clear steps toward ending a conflict that could spill over and damage the U.S. anti-terrorist war -- and that he do it by negotiating directly with Israel, with a kind of good faith he hasn't shown before.

Images of Palestinians celebrating the American tragedy cannot be countered by his photo-op blood donation for American victims.

The stakes are very different for Sharon, but he, too, faces potential traps. Washington has generally been supportive of his government, but it has still drawn some red lines.

The State Department has labeled Israeli incursions into Palestinian-held territory "provocative"; the administration has objected to Israel's policy of targeted killings. Those criticisms will be harder to make as Washington gears up its own, much bigger anti-terrorist effort and as it tries to destroy Osama bin Laden, the probable mastermind in last week's twin attacks.

Jewish leaders assert that there will be a new understanding of the problems Israeli leaders have faced for decades, and especially in the past year. And with every resource in the U.S. government now directed at coping with the new and unprecedented threat to American security, top officials here will simply pay less attention to each day's developments in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

Those factors may give Sharon a little more latitude in putting down terrorism, but it will last only if he doesn't go too far. Indeed, at press time Sharon pledged to forgo "military initiatives," and Arafat ordered a halt to terror attacks against Israelis.

If Sharon is seen as exploiting the shift in U.S. priorities, it could complicate U.S. efforts to produce a globe-spanning anti-terrorist campaign and trigger a diplomatic backlash.

Sharon may be on solid ground when he argues, as he did over the weekend in a phone call with Bush, that terrorist-sponsoring nations such as Syria shouldn't be part of the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition. But in doing that, he also increases the risk that he will be seen as using the new crisis to score points on the old Mideast battlefield, when the U.S. focus has shifted to a much bigger game board.

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