Israeli Siege Complicates U.S. Iraq Plans

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An Israeli army bulldozer hacks away at Arafat's office in Ramallah

Israel calls its latest siege of Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound "Operation Matter of Time," but for Washington it was a matter of bad timing. The return of Israeli tanks and bulldozers to the compound, and a West Bank-wide clampdown, appears to have earned the Palestinian leader a temporary reprieve from the mounting challenge to his diktat within his own Fatah organization. Of even more immediate concern to the Bush administration was the return of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis to the top of the agenda of Arab governments and of the UN Security Council — at a moment when Washington wants them to focus exclusively on Iraq. And the new siege had drawn thousands of armed and unarmed Palestinians into the streets at the weekend to risk their lives in defying Israeli curfews to protest in support of Arafat. At least four Palestinians were killed in the resulting clashes with Israeli forces — the sort of imagery the Bush Administration wants filling Arab TV screens while it tries to persuade its Arab allies that Saddam Hussein poses a greater threat to regional stability.

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Washington last week urged Israel to "consider the consequences" of its action, then on the weekend publicly calling the siege "unhelpful" (and unlikely to stop terror attacks). By Sunday, Israel had ceased demolition activities and opened talks over resolving the standoff. The Bush Administration is also trying to head off a Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli action, because using its veto in support of Israel won't help win Arab converts to the cause of regime-change in Baghdad. But resolving the standoff won't be easy: Israel is demanding the surrender of some 50 wanted men inside Arafat's HQ; the Palestinian leader has rejected that demand and insists on security as well as political talks with the Israelis. Plainly, the besieged Palestinian leader is going to work Operation Matter of Time for all it's worth — and given the extent to which the tide of Palestinian politics has turned against him, Arafat might well have been relieved to see Israeli tanks rolling into his compound Thursday.

Only last week, Fatah had dealt its leader one of the most humiliating blows of his political career by rejecting his picks for the Palestinian Authority cabinet, forcing him to withdraw them rather than lose a no-confidence vote in the Palestinian legislature. And legislators had warned Arafat that if he wants to get his cabinet approved, he'll have to ditch some of his most trusted aides accused of corruption and mismanaging the Palestinian cause. Those who voted against Arafat include a wide range of groupings within Fatah, each with its own agenda. But their open challenge to their leader — unthinkable even a year ago — was the surest sign yet of his waning political authority. It's no longer a question of whether Arafat can restrain Hamas and other radicals; he's no longer able to bend even his own organization to his will. And while they'll rally behind their leader in his hour of need, they're also making clear that they're forging their own political path rather than awaiting his orders.

The siege, then, may yet be Arafat's last hurrah. It may have temporarily frozen his demise, but he's unlikely to regain lost ground. Indeed, nothing will accelerate his fall faster than handing over more men to the Israelis to end yet another siege — the deals he cut to end the previous siege in the Spring were widely condemned by ordinary Palestinians, and particularly within Fatah.

Back then the Bush Administration was forced reluctantly into the fray to attempt a mediation. Vice President Cheney had toured Arab capitals in April hoping to drum up support for action against Iraq, and had been told everywhere he went that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis was a far greater, and more immediate threat to regional stability. That forced the Bush Administration to rethink its Middle East policy, first sending Secretary of State Powell out to literally rescue Arafat, and two months later the President called for Arafat's removal as the precursor to a quick-time march to Palestinian statehood.

But little progress has been made on the issues of Palestinian reform, rebuilding PA security forces, easing the crippling burden of occupation for ordinary Palestinians and withdrawing Israeli forces. The Palestinians cite the Israeli presence as preventing reform; the Israelis say the continuing security threat necessitates their continued military presence. Indeed, they say, the comparative lull of the six weeks preceding last Wednesday's bombing was a result of their security actions foiling hundreds of planned attacks in the same period rather than of any change on the Palestinian side. And so the standoff continues, always on the brink of a major new outbreak of violence.

With Sharon openly pushing for exiling Arafat, the Israelis are signaling that the name "Operation Matter of Time" was a carefully chosen message. While Washington's need for allies on the eve of an Iraq operation may restrain Sharon for now, there's a countervailing pressure in the need to look tougher-on-Arafat than his arch-rival in the Likud Party primary race, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And once a U.S. invasion of Iraq gets underway and Palestinian attacks on Israelis continue, the chances of finding Arafat in Ramallah diminish exponentially.