Showdown

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NASSER ISHTAYEH/AP

Two Israeli tanks move down the streets of Anabta in the West Bank

Yasser Arafat likes his helicopters. Real leaders, military leaders especially, get around by helicopter, and nothing suited the style of the khaki-clad Palestinian boss better than dropping in and out of places with a backdrop of rotors loudly beating, whipping up the air. Choppering between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Arafat's two disconnected realms, had the added advantage of sparing the Palestinian leader the humiliation of passing through Israeli checkpoints on the ground below.

But the three Soviet-made Mi8s that were parked at Arafat's compound in the Gaza Strip are in pieces now, destroyed by Israeli missiles in retaliation for a shocking new round of suicide bombings that killed 25 Israelis in the two days before. The Israelis also shot up various facilities of Arafat's Palestinian Authority, deployed troops and armor within striking distance of the office in the West Bank city of Ramallah where Arafat was working, and later bombed the same bureau. It was a bit like the magician's trick of tossing knives so that they just miss the target. Israel's message to Arafat was clear: we brought you here, and we can take you out.

This is what it has come to. After eight years of on-and-off attempts to make peace with the Palestinians through Arafat, the Israelis have officially declared him, in effect, nothing but a terrorist. The U.S., which had moved considerably in Arafat's direction in recent years, has made it clear it is no longer interested in trying to cool the Israelis' blood. The Israelis swore they weren't actually going to kill Arafat, but they were threatening him with something he's apt to dread as much: irrelevance. With the U.S. behind Israel, the threat was real, more real than any other Arafat has faced since his triumphant return home from exile in 1994, following the historic Oslo peace accords. Says a U.S. official: "We are now trying to create a moment of truth for Arafat."

The latest deterioration in relations began on Saturday night, Dec. 1, when two Palestinian bombers struck a busy cluster of cafes along a pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, killing 10 Israelis, not one of them older than 21. The next day, another terrorist blew himself up on a bus in the northern city of Haifa, killing 15 riders, mostly old people. The perpetrators--as well as the bomber who exploded outside a Jerusalem hotel on Wednesday, killing himself alone and blowing his head through a window of the establishment's fifth floor--were from the militant Islamic organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad rather than factions loyal to Arafat. But because of his lenient treatment of those groups during the current 14-month-long intifadeh, Arafat is held accountable by Israel for their terrorism. "We regard Mr. Arafat as guilty of everything," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told TIME late last week.

When Israel struck back with helicopter gunships and warplanes, killing 23 Palestinians over the course of the week, Arafat fled his Ramallah office and hid at another, undisclosed location. The loss of his choppers left him pinned down in Ramallah, unable to move to his main Gaza headquarters or anywhere else. Still, the Israeli army made clear it was only playing around, so far. "Pyrotechnics," a senior army officer called the attack on the helicopters. "It's a show for the television and public opinion."

The weekend suicide bombings had caught Sharon in Washington, but his meeting with President Bush on Dec. 2 enabled him to return home in a strong position. Until the latest bombings, the Administration had stuck to a policy of calling on the Israelis for restraint in their reactions to Palestinian provocations. This time, that demand was conspicuously not uttered. The change was read on all sides as a dramatic shift for Washington, placing the U.S. seemingly behind attacks on the Palestinian Authority and its infrastructure. Even the Israeli feints toward Arafat did not precipitate U.S. umbrage, though Washington did extract a commitment that Sharon would not kill him.

The Administration's cold stand is rooted in deep frustration with Arafat, going back to his dismissal of a peace offer by Israel at the Camp David talks in July 2000. "The son of a bitch was too stupid to take it," an Administration official groused recently. The Administration, prodded by Secretary of State Colin Powell, had softened a little on Arafat lately, lending U.S. support to the idea of a Palestinian state and initiating a new round of diplomacy aimed at a cease-fire and eventually new peace talks. But the weekend attacks were seen--rightly or wrongly--as a slap in the face, and not just by the White House, which is known to distrust Arafat, but by Powell as well.

With Sharon back in Jerusalem, ministers of his national-unity government met into early Tuesday morning. Right-wingers were buoyed by Washington's stance; they figured the U.S. experience with Osama bin Laden was finally sinking in. This was their chance, they felt, to label Arafat the terrorist they had always taken him for, to declare officially the Palestinian Authority to be a sponsor of terrorism, just as the U.S. had indicted the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is not just extremists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad who have slaughtered Israelis during the intifadeh; Arafat's militias have taken their share of the kills, even though Arafat says he's against the shooting and bombing.

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