Israel Violence Means Big Trouble for Sharon, Arafat and Bush

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Israeli police points their guns at Palestinian gunman Ali Jolani

On Israel, Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat and George W. Bush are reluctant companions in a drifting rowboat that's picking up speed. But while the alarming acceleration of the cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence endangers the political interests of all three, they appear unable to stop the drift back into the vortex.

The daily incident report of violence is once again growing too long to recount in detail. Settlers shot here; an Hamas activist rocketed in his car there; a suicide bombing foiled; a home destroyed by tank fire. The failure of the U.S.-brokered cease-fire to take hold has left the Israelis relying increasingly on their overwhelming technological advantage to track and eliminate Palestinians accused of organizing terror attacks. Last week's laser-guided missile attack that killed eight people in and around a Hamas office in Nablus was followed by further Israeli missile strikes in the West Bank on Saturday and Sunday. And despite the fact that Israel has already killed dozens of Palestinians in such attacks, the pace of attempted terror attacks may even be increasing.

Israel on Monday took the unusual step of publishing the names of seven Palestinians accused of involvement in terror attacks, and demanding that Arafat arrest them. Implicit in the gesture was the threat that if the Palestinian Authority fails to arrest them — which it has vowed not to do — they'll be targeted for elimination. Arafat's prisons are brimming with Palestinian prisoners accused of providing Israel with the intelligence necessary to target the militants with high-tech weaponry, and Arafat is instead appealing to Washington to intercede and stop Israel's track-and-kill campaign. It won't help his case that Palestinian courts hand down death sentences to convicted collaborators, especially now that Palestinian rage following last week's Nablus air strike has pressured Arafat to order mass arrests.


Israel has responded to international criticism of its extra-judicial killings by insisting that they're carried out in self-defense, necessitated by Arafat's failure to stop bombings by Palestinian militants. Still, Washington has condemned the practice — although Vice President Cheney last Thursday revealed a rift in the Bush administration by arguing on television that Israel had "some justification" in carrying out such killings, before being yanked back into line by the White House.

Washington's conflicting messages reveal a deeper dilemma for the Bush administration, where domestic political instincts are coming into conflict with Mideast foreign policy imperatives. Overwhelming support for Israel on Capitol Hill may be a reason for the Bush administration to avoid any positions that may be deemed inimical by Prime Minister Sharon, but Washington's allies in the Arab world have been incensed by the reluctance of the U.S. to rein in the Israelis. The U.S. has been forced to call off new air raids against Iraq because it's unable to find support for such action from Saddam's moderate Arab neighbors. Tension between domestic and regional concerns may become acute in the coming weeks as the State Department develops proposals to send a limited number of U.S. observers to the region to monitor both sides' compliance with the cease-fire. That idea is popular with the Palestinians and their allies, but Sharon sees it as the Trojan Horse of an internationalization of the conflict, which he's determined to resist.


Bush's dilemma, of course, is minor when compared with Sharon's. Six months ago, the Likud leader won a landslide election victory on promises to end the intifada by getting tough. Yet Sunday's shooting attack that wounded eight Israelis in downtown Tel Aviv was a dramatic reminder that Israelis are essentially as insecure now as when they elected Sharon. And the current situation, in which one or two Israelis are killed every week in the West Bank or Gaza may be politically unsustainable in the long run for the Israeli government. After all, it was the deaths of almost 1,000 Israeli soldiers over an 18-year period, rather than any single dramatic defeat, that forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon last year. And that's precisely the effect Palestinian militants want to mimic through a protracted low-intensity war in the West Bank and Gaza. There may be umpteen reasons why Lebanon is quantitatively different from the West Bank, but a steady toll of Israeli lives is unacceptable to the Israeli electorate.

But even for the notoriously hawkish Sharon, the options are limited. Indeed, the Israeli prime minister finds himself in the unusual position of having to restrain hawks in his cabinet and security forces (as well as his challenger for the party leadership, Benjamin Netanyahu) who are urging an all-out offensive designed to destroy the Palestinian Authority and force the PLO leadership back into exile. Sharon knows this would seriously jeopardize Israel's international position, and could even irrevocably destabilize its relations with its Arab neighbors. And the result would simply be to clear the playing field of those Palestinian leaders who had originally championed the peace process and have been engaged with Israel and the West over the past decade, leaving behind only the implacable militants to continue their Lebanon-style war of attrition. On his left flank, Sharon is under diplomatic pressure to offer Arafat some form of political incentive for rounding up the militants — rather than the current policy of creating disincentives for failing to do so — but the Israeli leader remains resolutely opposed to doing anything he perceives as "rewarding violence." That leaves Israeli mired in a strategic stalemate and a track-and-kill policy that appears unlikely to eliminate the terror threat.


Arafat's problem is that the longer the intifada persists, the more remote becomes his cherished Palestinian state — and his own relevance to the future of his people. His own diplomatic and political standing today, and the very raison d'Ítre of the power structure atop which he sits, has been the peace process and turning the PLO from a liberation movement into a government. Without the promise of achieving a viable state through negotiation, he has very little to offer Palestinians in exchange for cooperating with the Israelis. And it's that awareness that helps explain his skittish shuttling between declaring jihad and declaring cease-fires. The extent of Palestinian hostility to cease-fire efforts suggests that Arafat may no longer be able to simply round up Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants without provoking a backlash that could ultimately destroy his own base. Thus Arafat's dilemma: Unless he can revive the peace process he becomes irrelevant, and yet reviving the peace process is becoming a progressively more distant prospect. The aging Palestinian leader has become a prisoner of his own intifada, even as it moves inexorably to eclipse his leadership.