Few Options For Sharon or Arafat

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Smoke and flames billow from the heliport of President Yasser Arafat

What is Ariel Sharon's strategy in response to the latest terror attacks?

Aharon Klein (Jerusalem): I don't think there is a strategy. Sharon now has the Americans more behind him — they will approve more than they would have last week, before the latest terrorist attacks. Still, there is not a lot he can do. If you really want to eliminate the threat, you have to disarm all the unofficial Palestinian groups carrying arms, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Tanzim. But this would require that Israel reconquer most of the West Bank and Gaza, and go house to house searching for weapons. The Americans won't approve this course of action. So Sharon today will be able to strike harder, but it's all tactics. There is no strategic change.

Sharon has very little room to maneuver. On the one hand, the Israeli people are extremely angry and depressed, and they want revenge. But hitting here and there won't solve the problem. He needs to put pressure on Arafat to disarm all unofficial Palestinian forces in line with the Mitchell proposals. Otherwise we continue with the same situation. Right now, Arafat is trying to gain some time, trying to prevent a strong Israeli strike, because that further weakens his authority in PA-controlled areas.

In the end, it will be American pressure that forces Arafat to do something. And arresting 75 or 200 is nothing. Israeli intelligence says there has been no strategic change in the PA leadership, despite the poor shape that they're in. And that would mean that even if he cracks down now, some weeks or months later he may be doing something else. He has not decided strategically to eliminate Hamas and Islamic Jihad, even though those around him are warning that he's in danger of losing control of some areas to those groups. Nobody believes Arafat is going to do it.

What are the lines of debate in Israel over how to respond?

AK: The right wing of Sharon's cabinet is saying we should destroy the PA and drive out Arafat, but they don't believe in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other side, there are Shimon Peres and other Labor Party leaders who say what is needed is more pressure on Arafat to force him to stop the violence and terrorism, and then go as quickly as we can to negotiations. But nobody is saying what negotiations. The level of confidence between the two sides is so low it's in the negative. Nobody believes any agreements will be fulfilled; everybody is trying to gain time. Israel is hoping that after bin Laden, they will get American support to put much stronger pressure on Arafat. But Arafat is also trying to gain time, because he wants to gain something from this intifada, which is now a year and three months old. Also, if Sharon strikes against the PA, Arafat will say he is trying to do something and the Israelis are preventing him from doing what he has to do. And putting Israeli tanks back into PA areas has not prevented suicide bombings.

Are the arrests of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders a sign that Arafat is heading into a showdown with Palestinian militants, or is he just playing to the cameras? And how will the latest air strikes on Gaza affect the situation?

Jamil Hamad (Bethlehem): The Israelis are sending Arafat a clear message that they hold him responsible for what happened over the weekend, and it's probably the beginning of a series of steps against the Palestinian Authority in the coming hours and days. If you look at the Israeli domestic political situation, Sharon has no space to give Arafat any more time to act against these groups — the explosions in Jerusalem and Haifa have put Israelis in a no-hope position. And in their experience with Arafat, they've seen him take a few steps against terrorism, and then in a few weeks he may change his mind. The Israelis want Arafat to make a strategic choice against terror, and from their point of view it's very doubtful that the Palestinian Authority is serious about fighting terror. So Sharon has no alternative. He was elected promising security and strong action against terrorism, and if he doesn't deliver he will eventually be removed.

So what can the Israelis actually do right now to retaliate?

JH: The Israeli tactic at this stage appears to be to paralyze Arafat, to make him impotent. The more impotent he becomes, the more easily the Israelis will be able to carry out their own program for fighting terrorism, going into PA areas, arresting and liquidating people. They are going to take the job into their own hands, not rely on Palestinians to do the job for them.

Will Arafat face a Palestinian backlash if he moves against the Islamists?

Yes. Today there were demonstrations in Gaza and Nablus against Arafat's arrests of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders. The air strike on Gaza will strengthen the position of these groups. They will be saying to Arafat, "You are arresting us, but what did you get in return?" And he's going to get nothing. So the Hamas and Islamic Jihad viewpoint will be more appreciated in the eyes of the Palestinian public. The weekend terror attacks were carried out for two reasons — revenge for the killing of a top Hamas leader, and to destroy the American peace mission. Ordinary Palestinians are not very keen on supporting a cease fire because they're not getting anything in return. And if Israeli actions against the PA end up punishing ordinary Palestinians, it's very natural that the man in the street will support the radicals.