Israel Confronts 'Post-Arafat' Perils

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A Palestinian boy rides his bicycle in front of an Israeli tank in Ramallah

Yasser Arafat was officially pronounced dead — politically, at least — by Israel on Thursday. After Palestinian gunmen killed 12 Israeli settlers on a bus in the West Bank, the government of Ariel Sharon declared Arafat "irrelevant" to the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. Sharon vowed to break off all contact with the Palestinian leader, and to send his own army to do what Arafat has failed to do — stop terror attacks on Israelis. By Friday, the Israeli Defense Force had mounted some of its heaviest attacks yet on Palestinian Authority-controlled areas, sending in troops and tanks to conduct mass arrests and bombing Gaza with F-16s.

U.S. reaction to the latest developments was predictably mixed. President Bush wholeheartedly backed Sharon's right to defend Israelis any way he sees fit and laid all blame for the crisis of the past year at Arafat's door. Secretary of State Colin Powell, to whose department the Quixotic challenge of brokering a truce has fallen, sought urgent clarification on the meaning of Sharon's statement, and asserted that Washington would continue to work with Arafat. Still, the Israeli decision left little reason for General Anthony Zinni to remain in the region hoping against hope to broker a cease-fire by prevailing on Arafat to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Implicit in Sharon's announcement was the assertion that Israel is no longer expecting a truce with Arafat, but essentially looking instead to replace him. In an interview published Friday, Sharon said Arafat was "history" and that Israel would seek to negotiate with local-level Palestinian leaders. "And if in our negotiations with a new Palestinian leadership we do not come to a peaceful solution, the Israeli military will move into the Palestinian territories to see to order there," Sharon told the German daily Bild.

Nothing left for Arafat

Still, despite Sharon's dramatic tone and escalation of attacks on Palestinian Authority (PA) targets in the West Bank and Gaza, the portent of his latest message is not yet clear. Pronouncing Arafat "irrelevant" simply repeats, hyperbolically, what many close observers of Palestinian politics have warned of for months — that the aging leader's political authority has waned over the course of the current intifada to the point that he is no longer able to impose his will on the Palestinian street. Or, he is unable to find the political will to reassert his authority against the tide of Palestinian public opinion. Either way, the upshot is the same.

Arafat on Thursday wanly ordered the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad closed. But Hamas's sprawling welfare operations across the West Bank and Gaza were reportedly open for business that day. And by Friday, the PA had suspended whatever efforts it was prepared to make to round up the militants, claiming the Israeli barrage against its facilities made such action impossible. European and U.N. diplomats are insisting that the only way for the Palestinian leader to save his political hide is to crack down hard on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But that may be wishful thinking, now. It would take an extraordinary leap of the imagination to picture a leader whose epic powerlessness in the face of Sharon is being underlined to his own people on an hourly basis — Arafat is holed up in Ramallah unable to move, with Israeli tanks literally on his doorstep — persuading his security forces to round up fellow Palestinians even as Israeli ordinance rains down on them from the skies.

The logical extension of declaring Arafat irrelevant would be to acknowledge that Israel's sustained military campaign to pressure him into taking down Hamas and Islamic Jihad amounts, essentially, to flogging a dead horse. Critics on the right in Israel derided the latest announcements as insufficient, pointing out that most Israeli military action remains largely focused on targets designed to pressure the Palestinian leader into changing his ways.

Despite the tough talk, Sharon is in a strategic bind. His talk of local-level Palestinian leaders who might prove more pliable than Arafat is somewhat delusional. It is precisely these local-level leaders who have for the most part defied Arafat's periodic cease-fire calls and have vowed to continue the intifada despite the diplomatic maneuvering of their national leader. It is at the local level that the structures of Arafat's Fatah coordinate directly with the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and where even Arafat's own rank-and-file reserves the right to conduct armed attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza even when decisions are taken to temporarily suspend attacks inside Israel.

Israel's problem is not simply that Arafat won't or can't act decisively against Hamas and Islamic Jihad; it's that Palestinian public opinion right now is overwhelmingly opposed to any such action in pursuit of a cease-fire. A majority of Israelis and Palestinians would agree that Arafat is an authoritarian, deceitful and increasingly unpopular leader of a corrupt administration. But right now any Palestinian leader more responsive and accountable to his base than Arafat is would almost certainly be less, not more inclined to comply with the cease-fire terms currently on offer.

Taking it to the streets

Eliminating Arafat from the equation, then, essentially leaves Israel the task of directly taking on the militants in the West Bank and Gaza, which Arafat has failed to do. And that's a lot easier said than done. The assassination of more than 70 leaders of radical groups and periodic incursions into Palestinian towns from which terror cells operate have not stemmed the tide of suicide bombings. And more sustained, long-term operations in Palestinian towns and refugee camps carry the risk of a substantial increase in Israeli casualties for limited tactical benefits. After all, the difference between the first intifada and the current one is that there are now tens of thousands of assault rifles, grenades and makeshift mortars in Palestinian hands — which is precisely why disarming the unofficial militias had been a critical element of the Mitchell cease-fire plan.

Arafat's political demise will be welcomed with equal satisfaction by the Israeli right and by Palestinian militants. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have always opposed the Oslo peace process and have done their utmost to sabotage any moves to restore dialogue. Even much of the rank-and-file of Arafat's own Fatah have long-since given up on the potential for diplomacy to secure Palestinian national goals. The strategy of the militants will be to "Lebanize" the conflict, waging a long-term campaign of violence against Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, combined with sending suicide bombers into Israeli cities, all in the hope of making the cost to Israel of remaining in the West Bank and Gaza unbearable. But the idea of reproducing in the West Bank and Gaza the strategy successfully employed by Hezbollah to drive Israel out of Lebanon is also wishful thinking — as long as they feel their backs against the wall, the Israelis are unlikely to cede any ground.

The rapid deterioration of the conflict poses something of a crisis for Washington's long-term Middle East policy. As long as anyone can remember, that policy has been premised on the idea that the solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are political rather than military. But right now on both sides of the divide, military solutions appear to be the best option.

— with reporting by Aharon Klein/Jerusalem and Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem