Quagmire in Ramallah?

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A convoy of Israeli military vehicles masses near the West Bank town of Nablus

The Bush administration may have persuaded itself that Israel's offensive in the West Bank is a brief interlude on the way to a cease-fire, but events on the ground are starting to suggest a different outcome. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon drew an almost panicky response from Washington Tuesday with his renewed suggestion that Yasser Arafat be exiled from the occupied territories. Sharon had last week bowed to the consensus among his security chiefs, his Labor Party coalition partners and the Bush administration that ousting the Palestinian leader would exacerbate rather than resolve Israel's security crisis, which has seen 41 people killed in the past week. But on Tuesday the Prime Minister urged that European diplomats fly Arafat out of Ramallah on a one-way ticket — a statement that prompted Secretary of State Colin Powell to insist that Arafat had an important role to play in any peace effort, and he should not be forced into exile. Powell once again urged Arafat to do more against terrorism, and said he expected the Israeli operation to be over in a matter of weeks.

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Still, the prospect of a quick Israeli withdrawal may be as remote as the idea of Arafat suddenly doing more to stop attacks on Israelis. Indeed, U.S. appeals for action from Arafat are rendered somewhat moot by Israeli officials announcing that the Palestinian leader right now can't go to the bathroom without their permission. Sharon has made no secret of his belief that rather than cajoling Arafat to act, the best way to fight terrorism is to prevent him from acting by keeping him entirely isolated. His captivity has made Arafat more inclined to embrace the martyrdom language of Hamas than to sign off on the Tenet cease-fire plan. And if the operation's motivation was to stop the suicide bombings that have terrorized Israelis to the point of despair, then the fact that there have been six such attacks in as many days suggest there's no likelihood of an early withdrawal.

It's not only Arafat's personal fate that raises questions about whether Israel's "Operation Defensive Wall" leads back to a cease-fire and negotiations. Israeli officials have made clear they're after a number of Arafat's top aides previously considered immune. Top of the wanted list is Marwan Barghouti, leader of Fatah's Tanzim militia and the Palestinian leader with the most influence over the gunmen on the streets of the West Bank. That may be exactly why Israel wants him behind bars, but the reason he's previously been left untouched by the Israelis is that it's also unlikely that any cease-fire could be enforced without active support from leaders such as Barghouti.

Some of Israel's military operations in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Qalqilya and Jenin also appear to have targeted the Palestinian Authority's own security structures — a number of policemen have been reported killed, and hundreds more arrested

So both the pronouncements of Prime Minister Sharon and the operational details of the current offensive suggest Israel is no longer waiting around for another cease-fire with Arafat. Sharon may have been warned by his security chiefs that Arafat could be even more dangerous in exile, but he clearly believes, unlike Secretary of State Powell, that the Palestinian leader is part of the problem rather than the solution.

Of even greater concern for the Bush administration than Arafat's eventual whereabouts may be the fate of the Palestinian Authority. It was threatening to collapse even before the latest invasion, and even if it manages to survive the current Israeli onslaught, its ability to ensure order will be considerably diminished. Israel, of course, will be reluctant to leave behind a power vacuum in West Bank towns that have cradled Palestinian militancy, and that suggests a de facto reoccupation lasting a lot longer than Powell is predicting.

There's certainly little reason to believe the current operation will bring the two sides back to cease-fire negotiations any time soon. Most top Israeli security officials have expressed doubts that the current occupation will end the suicide bombings, and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told the Knesset on Tuesday, "Whoever thinks the IDF operations can stop terrorism is mistaken. Terrorism cannot be stopped with military maneuvers. The operations are intended merely to disrupt the terrorism and stop as many attacks as possible." He expressed the hope that the operation would lead to renewed political negotiations with the Palestinians.

But a campaign that sidelines Arafat and his authority and deepens the radicalization of the Palestinian population and the whole Arab world against Israel suggests the current pattern of conflict — terror attacks inside Israel; heavy Israeli retaliation in the West Bank and Gaza — could be locked in for a long time to come. The primary building block of what Sharon calls the "infrastructure of terror" is the fact that an overwhelming majority of ordinary Palestinians believe violence is the only way to end Israel's occupation. And as long as there is an endless supply of people willing to die, all they need is belt full of dynamite and a modicum of training. They don't even have to cross a border fence to get into Israel proper.

It's hardly surprising, then, that while Israelis are mostly united behind the current operation, a number of commentators across the Israeli political spectrum have demanded that Sharon explain his endgame. Because if the road from Ramallah doesn't lead to a quick resumption of negotiations with Arafat and his Authority, it may well be that there is no road out of Ramallah for quite some time to come.