Israel Remains Skeptical of Arafat's Truce

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  • Read Later Will the latest Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire hold?

Matt Rees: What Arafat said on Saturday won’t be enough, in itself, to convince the Israelis that he's interested in a cease fire — the way they are interpreting it is that he had to say something because the Europeans and Americans were on his back after Friday’s attack. And he didn't actually say, "Here's a cease fire." He said, "I'm ready for a cease fire," which sounds as if he wants to negotiate one. As far as the Israelis are concerned, there's no negotiating; the Israelis have had a cease fire for two weeks and they think it's time the Palestinians did the same thing.

What Arafat has done is to issue orders that the shooting should stop, but there's no evidence yet that he's arresting large numbers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad people, which is equally or more important to the Israelis. In other words a lot of the shooting has been done by Arafat's own Fatah people, so he's in a position to say, "Let's stop this." What the Israelis are waiting to see is whether he said "Let's stop this for a little while and then start again," or "Let's stop it and give it a chance." The Israelis have heard statements like the one Arafat made on Saturday before, and the way they hear it is that he's telling his people to stop shooting for the time being.

Sharon is under pressure from settlers to break the cease fire — will that impact his decisions?

If even a matter of days pass and there's no real convincing move from Arafat to arrest the Hamas people, then there could be some attacks from Israel. But there are other things Sharon has to weigh — yes, the settlers want him to smack the Palestinians, but there's also a recognition of two things. Israel has gotten a lot of international credit, as it were, for laying off for a couple of weeks following the F-16 air raids that caused an outcry internationally and even within Israel. He may be reluctant to give up that diplomatic advantage. In a sense, Arafat has laid a trap for Sharon. After the bombing on Friday night, if Arafat had not said what he said it's extremely likely that Sharon would have hit Palestinian targets the very next day. Arafat forced Sharon to give him a few days at least to hash things out. When Arafat is calling every leader in sight saying "We're ready for a cease fire" even if he's not, it becomes hard for Sharon to attack without risking being cast as the bad guy again.

The Israelis appear to recognize that they need Arafat's security apparatus to stop the suicide bombings...

If Arafat's people stop shooting, it allows him to say, "Don't blame me for the bombings. You can't blame me for any of the violence, because there's no shooting; it's not my people." The only way to stop the suicide bombings is through the kind of security coordination, between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the CIA that they had until this intifada began. At that point, there were attacks but they were relatively few. We're not going out on a limb by saying that all the attacks during this intifada, while they were not done by Arafat, were organized by people who very often had been freed from jail by Arafat, and if he'd continued the security coordination, which he'd agreed to, then those bombings wouldn't have taken place.

There's a question of how quickly Arafat could stop attacks on Israelis, and the answer is in a couple of hours. But so far, throughout the intifada he hasn't viewed it as in his interest. Suicide attacks and shootings have been in his interest. He is in a good deal of control. It's kind of an organized chaos in the West Bank.

Are the harsh sanctions imposed by Israel on the West Bank and Gaza over the weekend making it harder for Arafat to sell a cease fire to his own people?

That argument can be made, but the Israeli public demanded that something be done following Friday’s bombing, and whether or not the Palestinians people are riled up doesn't have an awful lot to do with Arafat's decisions, because he is a dictator. He’d have the backing of Israel and the U.S. if he went out and made hundreds of arrests. He's been very unpopular sometimes during his time in power, but he's never been under any real threat because he has this powerful backing and he controls the money.

There are thing Israel could do that would make things move more smoothly, but it doesn't convince more than a tiny percent of Israelis to say that if you didn't have this closure things would be better. The view among most Israelis is that the weaker the closure the more likely it is that one of those guys will come in with a belt of explosives strapped around him. And there have been so many attacks recently that it's hard to fault that logic. The one on Friday got all the headlines, but there were half a dozen car bombs within Israel last week that were defused or didn't go off. And there's a real sense of depression. Not just the mood of the country, but people, individuals, are depressed about their situation. Palestinians are depressed too, but they don't have an immediate effect on what their government, such as it is, does. Israel is somewhat democratic, and the politicians have to respond to the people's mood.