The Grim Brinkmanship of Bush vs. Arafat

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Israeli soldiers take position behind a tank

President Bush is deeply disappointed in Yasser Arafat. The feeling, of course, is mutual, but Arafat has a lot more to lose. The National Security Council met Friday to consider the future of its relationship with the Palestinian Authority, and initial signs are that the administration is inclined to support Ariel Sharon's thesis that the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East is Arafat himself. And also to act on that view, by cutting ties with Arafat and recusing Washington from its mediation role, giving Sharon carte blanche to pursue a military-driven solution.

No statement was released following the meeting, but even on Thursday White House spokesman Ari Fleischer appeared to endorse Israel's confining of Arafat to his Ramallah office by surrounding it with tanks. Where Washington had traditionally condemned Israeli incursions into PA-controlled territory as counterproductive, Fleischer said "the president understands the reason that Israel has taken the action that it takes, and it is up to Chairman Arafat to demonstrate leadership to combat terrorism."

Uptick in violence

Friday's suicide bombing attack in Tel Aviv, in which 24 Israelis were wounded, followed by Israeli air strikes on PA security buildings in Gaza and the West Bank, served as a vivid reminder of the recent sharp increase in violence. The three-week lull that followed Arafat's December 16 cease-fire speech has given way to an almost daily exchange of Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli assassinations of Palestinian radicals. And the Bush administration continues to hold Arafat primarily responsible.

Washington's frustration over the Palestinian leader's failure to rein in militants reached boiling point three weeks ago when Israel intercepted an arms shipment allegedly bound for the PA from Iran. The U.S. has demanded that Arafat provide a satisfactory explanation of that incident, and has written to the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia offering evidence of PA involvement in the transaction and urging pressure on Arafat. But Bush is unlikely to recruit any Arab support against Arafat, for the simple reason that the consensus even among U.S. allies in the Arab world is that Sharon's policies are a far more serious obstacle to Middle East peace than any deceit on Arafat's part. Indeed, even moderate Arab regimes may be inclined to see any illegal arms procurement by the PA as a symptom of the breakdown of the peace process and Israel's escalating military actions.

One man's terrorism is another's 'resistance'

The basic difference between the Bush administration and its Arab allies is simple: Washington sees armed actions by Palestinians as terrorism that must be unconditionally eliminated; the Arabs see it as an inevitable and even legitimate Palestinian response in the absence of peaceful channels to achieve Palestinian statehood. Arab public opinion, subject to daily TV footage of Israeli tanks reoccupying Palestinian towns, is unlikely to look askance at any PA efforts to acquire antitank rockets.

The crisis in the Middle East complicates U.S. foreign policy in a region where political thinking is dominated by daily TV images of the plight of ordinary Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein have made the Palestinian cause the centerpiece of their propaganda efforts, painting their own battles with America as a response to U.S. support for Israel. It's a popular trope on the Arab streets, where Washington is already perceived as responsible for all Israeli actions.

But the post September 11 domestic political climate has seen a sharp increase in support for Israel, not least on Capitol Hill. And in an election year in which all the House of Representatives and half of the Senate are up for grabs, congressional efforts to cut Washington's relations with the PA may enjoy greater-than-usual weight in White House decision-making.

Arafat contemplates his death

Reports from Ramallah of a depressed, disengaged Arafat contemplating his own death suggest the Palestinian leader isn't about to start rounding up the militants even if Washington threatens to cut him off altogether. The lull in violence he managed to engineer following his December 16 speech was based on persuading the various militant factions that a cease-fire was in the overriding national interest of the Palestinians. But those same factions cite continued Israeli assassinations of their leaders and the absence of any easing of the blockade on Palestinian daily life as reasons to keep fighting. Few observers of the region are expecting Arafat to pull a cease-fire out of the hat even if Washington threatens a last goodbye.

If the Americans cut Arafat loose, of course, a Sharon government that has already declared the Palestinian leader 'irrelevant' would lose no time in acting accordingly. The Israeli security establishment has debated whether it should try to encourage a new leadership to take charge of the PA, or else to simply seek deals with local warlords in the scores of Palestinian cantons dotted across the West Bank and Gaza. But the idea of a negotiated political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be put in the deep freeze, and few observers believe even a harsh escalation in Israeli military action will end the current low-intensity war.

The grim prospects for post-Arafat stability may be one reason why Palestinians and their Arab allies aren't the only voices in the Middle East worried about the Bush administration cutting ties. Israeli doves are increasingly alarmed at the prospect of Sharon getting carte blanche to pursue a strategy they believe will void all prospect of Israel living at peace with its neighbors for the foreseeable future. Even foreign minister Shimon Peres is reported to have recently lamented privately that he's unable to criticize Sharon's actions in the face of silence from the U.S. Previously, Israel could rely on Washington to dab at the brakes when it crossed a red line. The prospect of Sharon facing neither domestic nor international political constraints on his most hawkish instincts at the same time as the mantle of Palestinian leadership is effectively handed to the militants is one that has some dovish Israelis publicly contemplating emigration.

But Washington's threat may be part of an elaborate game of brinkmanship: The U.S. believes Arafat won't take the necessary steps until he's confronted with the miserable reality of failure to do so. Unfortunately, Arafat may believe the same is true of his adversaries.

With reporting by Scott MacLeod/Cairo and Massimo Calabresi/Washington