Jerusalem — For three decades, Yasser Arafat has been synonymous with the Palestinian struggle against Israel. Throughout that time, Ariel Sharon has been his most relentless foe. The future of that struggle — unavoidably bound up with America’s war on terrorism — may now rest on a single momentous question: Can both men escape the violent, erratic legacy of their own pasts to negotiate and implement a peace agreement?
Jewish and Arab extremists are betting they cannot. In the wake of a murderous escalation of assassination and counter-assassination, both Arafat, who is president of the Palestinian Authority, and Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, find themselves caught between the extremists’ growing power and intransigence — and the possibility of all-out war if no concessions are made.
The question took on explosive proportions last week after the killing Wednesday of the Israeli tourism minister, Rehavam Ze’evi, by a militant Palestinian faction.
In response, Israeli Defense Force tanks have roared into Palestinian cities, including Bethlehem, in one of the biggest military incursions in the past year. By yesterday, at least 17 Palestinians and one Israeli had been killed in ferocious gunbattles, including two officers of Arafat’s security force and an 11-year-old girl whose elementary school was hit by tank shelling.
Eight Palestinians, three of them bystanders, were killed by Israeli fire, the largest single-day toll in two months.
Earlier in the week a car bombing, believed to be the work of Israeli agents, killed a militant implicated in several fatal attacks on Israelis and two of his associates.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority reportedly arrested 20 members of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which has acknowledged responsibility for Ze’evi’s slaying. But that is unlikely to satisfy Israel, which earlier in the week presented Palestinian officials with a list of suspects in the Ze’evi murder, demanding they be hunted down and handed over for prosecution — a demand that the Palestinian Authority’s minister for information, Yasser Abbed Rabbo, rebuffed as “blackmail.”
Whatever the outcome of the current round of bloodletting, a major crossroads in the conflict appears to have been reached, although no one can predict with any certainty where it will lead. “We are utterly on the highway to hell,” said a demoralized leader of Peace Now, the main Israeli anti-war lobby.
‘ERA OF ARAFAT IS OVER’
Deaf to U.S. pleas for restraint, some Israeli political figures are now calling for the destruction of Arafat’s political organization. “We will act against them in the way currently accepted by the international community,” Israeli Cabinet Secretary Gideon Saar said, in a clear allusion to the U.S. attack on Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.
The Yediot Ahronot daily, a Hebrew-language newspaper with ties to Sharon’s conservative Likud party, reported that the prime minister told his Cabinet on Thursday, “As far as I’m concerned, the era of Arafat is over.” Nabil Abu Rdainah, a close aide to the Palestinian leader, charged that Israel has a “complete plan” to assassinate Arafat and other Palestinian officials.
The United States, anxious to shore up Arab support for its war against Osama bin Laden, his al Qaeda network and the Taliban government, has strongly protested Israel’s targeted assassination policy. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher specifically said the logic for eliminating bin Laden through force does not apply to Arafat, whose effort to establish an independent Palestinian state has been publicly endorsed by the Bush administration.
But many Israelis believe Arafat personally oversaw the suicide attacks and shootings that have racked Israeli cities and Jewish settlements in the occupied territories since the second Palestinian intifada was set off by Sharon’s controversial intrusion on the grounds of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque in September 2000. His reluctance to crack down on militant organizations such as Hamas has fueled those suspicions.
“The full responsibility (for Ze’evi’s murder) falls squarely on Arafat, as someone who has controlled, and continues to control, terrorism, and as one who has not — to this day — taken even one serious step to prevent terrorism, ” Sharon told the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, on Thursday.
But some Israeli experts doubt Arafat exerts such control.
Palestinian extremists “all have a common enemy, Israel, and a common aim —
to embarrass Arafat,” said Gabriel Ben-Dor, director of the University of Haifa’s National Security Studies Center.
Israeli doves also have become highly critical of Arafat. “He has betrayed the Israeli left — which had been talking with him about peace for 25 years —
by suddenly invoking the ‘right for return’ for 700,000 Palestinians who left Israel after the 1948 war,” said Gilad Ben-Nun, research director of Peace Now.
Even Arafat’s diplomatic representative in Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeh, recently said that this demand will have to be dropped if peace is ever to be achieved.
As a result, Arafat finds himself painted into a seemingly impossible corner.
If he hands over suspects in the Ze’evi killing to Israel, as Sharon demands, he will lose what support he maintains in the Arab streets. If he refuses, calls from those Israeli officials to remove Arafat from the scene — through assassination or exile from the occupied territories — may become more persuasive.
Ariel Sharon, no less than Arafat, has been marginalized by the rising power of Israeli extremists, and by a reputation for complicity in violence.
“For us, he will always be the man who opened the doors of Sabra and Shatila to sadistic murderers,” said a member of the Palestinian National Council, referring to the refugee camps where hundreds of Palestinian women and children were massacred in 1982 by Christian militiamen allied to Israel during its invasion of Lebanon.
Sharon, who was Israel’s defense minister at the time, was found by an Israeli commission to have “indirect responsibility” in the massacres for giving the militia a green light to enter the camps in search of PLO guerrillas.
Like Arafat, he is also widely viewed by both Palestinians and many Israelis as a man whose promises are empty. He faced an angry mutiny of conservative politicians on Monday, when — under U.S. pressure to ease military controls in the West Bank — he agreed to withdraw troops guarding Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. Three days later, after the assassination of Ze’evi, Sharon reversed position, asserting that he would never yield Jewish-occupied land to Palestinians, and ordering an end to all contacts between his government and the Palestinian Authority.
“This leader, when all is said and done, does not want to come to an agreement with the Palestinians,” Israeli political analyst Gideon Same wrote of Sharon in the Jerusalem Post.
The essential tragedy of the Middle East, said Peace Now’s Ben-Nun, “is the absence from the scene of leaders with the courage and steadfastness to go forward, toward peace, because of what they believe in.”