Better the Arafat You Know...

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lurched into its most dangerous crisis since the onset of the intifada last year. But the danger lies less in the escalation of what remains a familiar pattern of violence, than in the fact that the none of the key players — the government of Ariel Sharon, the Palestinian leadership and the Bush administration — appears to have a clear strategy, and all three are deeply divided over how to proceed.

A new suicide bombing in Jerusalem Wednesday that wounded six Israelis simply underscored the familiarity of the pattern of violence now being accelerated. President Bush again insisted that Yasser Arafat "rout out those who killed," but the fragility of the Palestinian leader's grip on power was demonstrated in Gaza City where Hamas gunmen, supported by thousands of demonstrators, forced Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces to retreat from the home of the movement's leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, whom Arafat had ordered placed under house arrest.

Israel suspended military action against the PA on Wednesday to give Arafat 12 hours to arrest a list of 36 terror-accused supplied by Israel. That follows Tuesday's withering barrage against targets associated with Arafat, which destroyed his helicopters in Gaza and a building adjacent to his Ramallah office. But despite the dramatic visuals, the strikes were a carefully calibrated symbolic use of Israel's awesome military power rather than a frontal assault on the PA. The Israelis were metaphorically shooting at Arafat's feet to get him dancing. The message: Launch a wholesale crackdown on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, or else. And that's a demand strongly supported by the Bush administration, whose statements since the weekend's terror attacks have conspicuously excluded the traditional caveat calling for Israeli restraint.

Mixed Messages

Indeed, it is the impression of the American referee leaving the ring while Sharon puts Arafat in a chokehold that has caused the most alarm in Arab and European capitals over the past three days — particularly when their TV screens are filled with images of terrified Palestinian children fleeing air strikes in Gaza. But despite the impression of Sharon having been given a green light to do as he sees fit, the Bush administration remains deeply divided over how to proceed. Only a week ago the State Department had sent General Anthony Zinni to cajole both sides into a cease-fire and a return to political dialogue. Last weekend's terror attacks appeared to tilt the balance in the White House towards those skeptical of engaging with Arafat. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld attacked the Palestinian leader as a political weakling who has done nothing for his people, and President Bush added that Israel could not be expected to negotiate a peace agreement while it was being terrorized. The result is a mixed message, in which the U.S. now appears to sanction Israel taking some of the very same actions condemned by the administration a couple of weeks ago (such as sending tanks in to areas under Arafat's control) and to downgrade Zinni's mission, but at the same time maintaining a commitment to reviving the peace process.

The administration underlined its anger Tuesday by freezing the assets of the largest Muslim charity in the U.S., accusing it of channeling funds to Hamas. But the tougher U.S. stance is being criticized by Washington's Arab allies, who see Palestinian terror attacks as a symptom of the failure of the peace process to resolve the problem of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Strong U.S. support for Israeli action against the PA without concomitant pressure on Sharon for a return to the peace process is perceived in the Arab world as one-sided. And, most of the funding for Hamas, which maintains both a covert and deadly terrorist arm and a large education-and-welfare organization, comes from U.S.-aligned Gulf states.

Arafat?s problem

For Arafat, of course, Hamas is a major headache, because even as it is openly challenging his efforts to return to the negotiating table, it appears to carry the support of more Palestinians than Arafat himself. Hamas is believed to represent at least 30 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and its suicide bombings enjoy the support of as much as 70 percent. Street-level resistance has stopped Arafat's gendarmes from arresting a number of Hamas activists in recent days, and as the Palestinian leader reportedly rushes to meet Israel's deadline, he risks a damaging showdown with his own people. Arafat's political survival abroad now requires that he take down Hamas, but such a course could imperil his political survival at home.

Right-wing members of Sharon's cabinet — and Benjamin Netanyahu, his popular challenger for the Likud leadership in the next election — are demanding action to destroy the PA and drive Arafat out of the West Bank and Gaza. Even in Washington, there is mounting skepticism over Arafat's value as a peace partner. The Palestinian leader appears to be drifting desperately, with nothing approximating a strategy and his notoriously autocratic leadership style making it difficult for more clear-sighted aides to effect policy, even as his political authority ebbs more and more visibly. And yet even inside Sharon's cabinet, there are countervailing pressures, with foreign minister Shimon Peres warning that any move to destroy the PA would force him to quit the government. But neither the Bush administration nor the Israelis are ready to relinquish Arafat altogether — not because they necessarily believe he's on the verge of an epiphany over ending terrorism, but because they fear that removing him from the equation would simply leave a dangerous power vacuum and even more chaos.

— With reporting by Aharon Klein/Jerusalem, Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem, Scott MacLeod/Cairo and Massimo Calabresi/Washington