Sharon (With a Little Help) Gets Arafat Back on the Ropes

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Two things Ariel Sharon can usually count on to make his life easier: Yasser Arafat's knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory; and the fact that Arafat's radical Islamic opposition shares the Israeli leader's distaste for the Oslo peace process. Sharon, a month after declaring Arafat "irrelevant" and trying in vain to convince the U.S. to do the same, nearly found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to renew political negotiations with Arafat before two incidents saved him. First, a boatload of weapons apparently meant for the Palestinian authority was intercepted by the Israelis. Then, Wednesday, a Hamas raid killed four Israeli soldiers inside Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. Now the heat is once more on Arafat.

After being briefed by Israeli intelligence officials on the seizure of 50 tons of rifles, rocket launchers and mortars from the ship the Karine A, which the Israelis claim was being used to ferry arms purchased from Iran to the Palestinian Authority, U.S. officials Thursday said they believed that Arafat's administration was involved. And Secretary of State Colin Powell called the Palestinian leader to demand an explanation.

Arafat has ordered an inquiry and promised to punish any member of his administration involved. He also hinted that even in the PA, "there are things that take place outside my realm of jurisdiction." That was unlikely to even slow Sharon's momentum in proclaiming the Karine A as Exhibit A in its case against any further dealings with the Palestinian leader. The crisis for Arafat provoked by the ship's capture raged not only on the diplomatic front where both sides continue to court the United States; it also undermined his position at home. While Arafat unconvincingly condemned the smuggling incident and vowed to punish those responsible, the ship's captain may have been expressing the view of a majority of ordinary Palestinians when he said simply, "It is my people's right to defend themselves." But Arafat is caught in a bind, because even if he has his own doubts about the rewards of diplomacy, the response of the Americans and Europeans to the Karine A incident is an unambiguous reminder that the international peace brokers will not allow him to maintain armed struggle as a fall-back option while pursuing a diplomatic solution.

The interception of the Karine A during the visit of U.S. envoy General Anthony Zinni couldn't have been more opportune for Sharon. With even the Israeli military reporting a sharp decline in violent incidents since Arafat's speech three weeks ago calling on Palestinians to cease firing, pressure had begun to mount on the Israeli leader to lift his siege of Palestinian areas, freeze settlement activities and move towards renewed negotiations — a scenario anathema to Sharon and his own political base. Now, with the help of some Palestinian arms smugglers and Hamas insurgents, he has managed to nimbly shift the onus back on to Arafat.

Even more worrying for the Palestinian leader, perhaps, was the decision by Hamas to abandon its avoidance of attacks inside Israel in order to maintain Palestinian national unity and prevent the collapse of the PA. Arafat's security forces have continued to arrest Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists over the past three weeks, provoking clashes with their supporters. Wednesday's attack was described by the Bush administration as a challenge to Arafat's authority, and the Islamists concurred. A Hamas spokesman defended the attack by posing a challenge to Arafat: "What have you to show for meeting the demands of the Zionist entity and America?" And in the eyes of most Palestinians, the answer is nothing. The renewal of attacks by Hamas may be designed precisely to exploit that sentiment, knowing full well that these will bring a fearsome Israeli response down on the heads of Arafat's authority.

Like Sharon, Hamas and the militant elements of Arafat's own organization believe that the Palestinian leader's strategy of pursuing a diplomatic solution is irrelevant. Instead, they believe they can adopt the long-term guerrilla strategy used by Hezbollah in Lebanon to drive Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza. And the more hawkish elements of Israel's government may be ready to meet them head on, believing that international public opinion will be solidly behind Israel in confronting Palestinian groups pressing their case by force of arms. But the collapse of the latest cease-fire effort threatens not only to sideline Arafat, but also to imperil U.S. Middle East policy, which remains premised on the need to stabilize the region through peace efforts.