4 December 2001


Foes to the end?

Adel Darwish reports on the latest show-down between the Middle East’s two old
warhorses, Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, and — in the light of the personal
enmity that exists between them — ponders the prospect for peace.

It was like a scene from the sequel to the 1982 block-buster The Siege of Beirut, starring Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat: the Palestinian leader with his back to the wall, ducking shells as Israeli tanks advanced on his headquarters, already deliberately targeted and damaged by rocket-firing Apache helicopters and F16 fighters on the orders of his old adversary, Sharon. The same actors, the same human emotions, only the location and the roles are slightly changed in The Siege II.
It might have resembled Beirut under siege, but this was Ramallah on the West Bank, politically independent by international agreement, and ruled by a Palestinian National Authority. Mr Arafat is no longer — or so he claims — the guerrilla leader going by the nom de guerre of “Abu Ammar” but, until 48 hours earlier, a respected president of an entity that passed, even in America’s eyes, for an embryonic legitimate state.
Mr Sharon is no longer “Arik” — or the mad deer. No longer General Sharon whose army occupies Beirut, but a democratically elected prime minister of the only western style democracy in the region, who, until 48 hours earlier had been distrusted by the West and was about to get an earful in Washington for not dancing to the United State’s tune. 

As the Israeli army was moving in, re-occupying areas legally under PA control, which it has  vacated a few days  earlier under American pressure, Israeli air force had destroyed most of Mr  Arafat's symbolic presidential status: the runway at Gaza ' International' airport - constructed and financed by the  by west under Oslo agreement-,  his two helicopters, in Gaza and Ramallah, leaving him  stranded  reliving the nightmare of Beirut siege in  and Tripoli siege by pro-Syrian forces in 1983.

It might have looked almost like ' Children squabbling in a dangerous game' as some British press editorials commented on Arik destroying Yasser's toys; but the events of two days earlier, the weekend that started December 2001, had totally reversed the diplomatic gains which Palestinians, and Arab diplomacy on their behalf, managed to score  the previous three months.

In what Israelis call their ' 11th September'; three suicide bombers and  car bomb by Palestinian Islamists - Hamas and Islamic Jihad - that went off in the heart of Jerusalem and on a bus in Hifa, 26 Israelis were killed and scores wounded, mainly teenagers out on a Saturday night. It  was the darkest hour for the Middle East peace process since the start of Intifada 14 months earlier. 

Not only have the bombings and Israel's  retaliation strengthened the hands of those who reject attempts to negotiate peace. They have also prompted a marked change of attitude in the US administration. 
Most significant of all, the events have further weakened - perhaps beyond repair - Yasser Arafat's position in the Palestinian Authority.

The Israelis invited  Michael Bloomberg, the incoming New York mayor  and his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani to  visit Jerusalem on 7th December. An unmistakable  symbol to highlight the view that the targets of the World Trade Center attacks and those of Palestinian terrorism are fighting in the same trench.

Mr Sharon called the Palestinian Authority ' an entity supporting and harbouring terrorism.' 
He demanded that Israel should be allowed to have its anti terrorism war in its own Afghanistan ( the PA area), destroying its own al-Qaedah ( Hamas) and bringing down its own Taliban ( PNA.)

Immediately there has been a  pro-Israeli shift in the Bush administration's rhetoric. President Bush's on 4th December ordered a  freeze on assets of Islamic charities alleged to be financing Hamas.  It was  welcomed by those who had previously accused the White House of operating a policy of double standards on terrorism.
Although  some US officials insist that Mr Bush was responding to the magnitude of the HAMAS bombings rather than signalling an about-turn in US policy towards the Middle East. 

They said Mr Sharon would have made the best of his meeting with Mr Bush in Washington- where he happened to be there when the outrage happened. President Bush's  statement - echoed on the same day by British Prime Minister Tony Blair -  gave green light to Mr Sharon to attack Mr Arafat's PA. '' Israel,'' said the President, '' has a right to defend itself.''
Absent from  America and Britain's statement was the traditional  call on both sides for restraint  and going  back to negotiation.  US hawkish Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld  said Israel should go after the terrorists. 
And the White House spokesman  came so close to repeating Israel's accusation of Yasser Arafat of helping Hamas.  

In a reply to a reporter's question  whether Arafat's rounding up of over 120 of Hamas supporters - as Israel demanded  after that attack-, was enough to meet President Bush's call to the Palestinian leader  to ' Bring those responsible to justice'; he said: ' let us hope the prison this time cells have bars on the back window and not just  on the front.'

Immediately after the attack, Mr Arafat's  administration  condemned the bombings and launched a round-up of suspects - but there seemed little support on the Palestinian street for a crack down on militants, whom many see as heroes of the Intifada. In Gaza, hundreds defied a Palestinian Authority ban to stage a rally to denounce the arrests.
Israeli officials said say they have no faith in Mr Arafat's determination to contain the violence and that the Israeli army will now simply do the job itself.

Mr Arafat's efforts  seemed too little too late. Israel's veteran diplomat Aba Eban once said,-- and I lost count of how many times I inserted it in my articles during three decades of writing on the Middle East--, that Mr Arafat ' never misses and opportunity to miss an opportunity.'

Having missed the chance to strike a deal- during the dying days of President Clinton administration- with Ehud Barak who slaughtered several scared cows of  Israeli politics- by putting Jerusalem on the table, negotiation of dismantling settlements and return of refugees - 11th September events presented  Mr Arafat with another golden opportunity.

Since the terror attacks on America on September 11, Mr Sharon and other Israeli officials have likened the PA to the Taliban, acting as protector and sponsor of the bombers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  But until last month's suicide bombings , Mr Sharon's aides had enjoyed only limited success in persuading the US that Israel's terrorist enemies were on a par with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Washington instead urged both sides to reduce the tension in the Middle East, in order not to divert attention from Mr Bush's war on terrorism in Afghanistan. 

Mr Sharon was urged to withdraw from territory occupied after the murder of Rehavam Zeevi, the Israeli tourism minister, in October. The Americans  also condemned Israel's  - ' Targeted killing' policy while pressing Mr Arafat to bring Palestinian militants under control. Even some Palestinians conceded that the Bush administration strategy was more even-handed than they were accustomed to. The President mentioned the word ' Palestine' several times and talked publicly about ' a viable Palestinian state' three times, one of them was a pledge during his speech to the UN General Assembly.
Arab diplomats and Palestinians - even the most cynical of them -  welcomed a recent speech by Colin Powell, US secretary of state, which called for the creation of a state of Palestine and stressed the need for security for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Israeli diplomats and the Jewish lobby started a frantic diplomatic efforts to change US attitude, and had little success as President Bush didn't want any diversion from his goal of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan or losing Arab and Islamic support for his action.  The campaign got off to a bad start when Mr  Sharon angered President  Bush by warning him not to appease the Arabs at Israel's expense. "Israel will not be another Czechoslovakia," he declared on October 4. 
American commentators gave Mr Sharon hard time for tickling pre-WWII history and comparing Mr Bush to Hitler's appeasers. Two weeks later he again irritated the Americans  by failing to respond to their  calls to pull out of Palestinian areas.

In fact Washington put Mr Sharon on notice by appointing a totally neutral, former Marine commander  Anthony Zinni as personal envoy with brief that he stays in the area until the two sides agree on all details of a cease fire and  stick to a strict time-table to re-start the peace process. Mr Arafat  also was put on notice that he must quell the militants and stop playing a game of cat and mouse. 

He was told that General Zinni, who was brought up in a tough a neighbourhood of New York where he once worked as foot collectors from gambling shops befor joining the military, do understand the Mafia tactics of letting some thugs lose to destroy your business so he ' boss'  can later on round them up in exchange for ' protection money' you pay him.

The Israelis have been complaining to the Americans and the Europeans that Arafat was not serious about ending Islamists violence once and for all, and that every time he moved to arrest them, the prison had a revolving door. They accused him of keeping the Islamists terror option open in order to use it as a bargaining chip with the Israelis. 
Softer criticism of Mr Arafat's policy was that he allowed things to go out of hand which created an atmosphere of a public opinion, both in West bank and Gaza where he controls the media, and else where in the Arab world - where media applauded suicide bombers as ' martyrs'. Such atmosphere, they argued became Arafat's own Frankenstein monster as it made it difficult for him to move against Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

On 5 December, his police moved to arrest Hamas's leader Sheikh Ahmad Yasin - who, ironically, was in an Israeli jail three years earlier until a foolish attempt by Mossad on the life of  Hamas's man on the streets of  Jordan, forced, the then Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu to free him, among others, to calm a furious King Hussein, only to return to Gaza as a permanent headache for both Arafat and Israel -. A calls from the mosque  near Sheikh Yasin's home in Gaza  brought out over a thousand demonstrators who fought with Mr Arafat's police. 
A cynical Israeli official asked as why did Arafat's police tipped off world media before their high profile move? ' They could have done it on the quite, he just wanted to show the world that he can't do it because of public pressure.'

A month earlier when Mr Arafat was in London, Prime Minister  Blair, raised the issue of arresting terrors suspects with him. Mr Arafat gave him four names on Israel's wanted list saying they were in Jail. No 10 Downing Street passed the information to the Israelis, who claimed that only one of them was arrested for a short period.

A British security expert, who  works for the EU, went to Gaza to inspect the claim. He reported seeing  only one of them in prison. An hour later, he, cunningly, returned unescorted to the prison saying he forgot his briefcase in the cell. Before the surprised Palestinian officer could move, the inspector rushed to the cell to find it empty and no sign of the prisoner.

Even though, a British diplomat told MidEast News, that all the Americans wanted is  a period of calm to enable General Zinni to start his mission.

The Palestinians say the  November 23, Israeli  assassination of  Mohammed Abu Hanoud, a senior leader of Hamas  Israel claims he masterminded  attacks on its people, was, the spark that ignited the latest bloody crescendo  of the Middle East crisis. The Islamists vowed revenge and delivered its predictable and indiscriminately brutal response by suicide bombings. "Sharon provoked the situation before he went to Washington by assassinating Hanoud," said Bassam Abu Sharif, a former militant who first formulated the shift in Palestinian politics towards a "land-for-peace" compromise in the late 1980s. "He knew very well that killing Hanoud would create retaliation. He wants to destroy any chance of returning to the negotiating table."

But to the Israeli government, already enraged by previous bloody attacks by Hamas, the 1st December suicide bombs became the time-machine that took the  Palestinian movement  back to the position it was in before Arafat, Abu Sharif and other 'Abus' in the exiled Palestine Liberation Organisation opted for the path of a negotiated settlement. 

Some western diplomats agree that the Hanoud assassination marked the start of the escalation. They note that Mr Sharon rebuffed proposals from a European delegation early November to arrange to monitor whether the PA was serious about arresting and holding suspects. "Sharon had no interest in the prisoner monitoring idea," said a western diplomat. As a result no neutral outsider has a clear idea of whether Mr Arafat was actively working to rein in the militants or not.
"Who knows? For both sides, the facts are only part of the story. There's an agenda that has to be pursued," the diplomat said. "Sharon was determined not to be impressed."

Another diplomat said the Israeli authorities had in some cases actively obstructed the work of Palestinian security forces, preventing reinforcements reaching a West Bank trouble spot in November . "The Israelis were not very helpful," he said, while acknowledging that Mr Arafat's efforts to round up extremists were at best "half-hearted".

Despite the change of America's public statements, an Arab diplomat - of a very small minority of optimists- points out, General Zinni the US special envoy, was  still in the region pursuing the "holy grail" of an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire. But he has to deal with two sides not just one.

Early this year, the possibility of replacing President Arafat  was studied by Israeli officials, who leaked the discussion to the press. But the idea was shelved fearing  that factional chaos would ensue in the Palestinian territories. Such danger - of instability still exists - but so does the temptation for Mr Sharon to remove a one-time interlocutor who scarcely any Israeli still regards as a partner for peace. 
"Most Israelis have long lost their confidence that Arafat can be a peace partner. But at least there was a feeling that he could be a partner for a ceasefire," said Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Mr Sharon. "That has also been lost now."

And his replacement Israeli officials have considered dealing direct with local commanders such as Jibril Rajoub, Mr Arafat's preventive security chief in the West Bank or Mohammad Dahaln who heads another security and intelligence organ. Those people have been  co-operating with Israeli officials on specific security issues; yet there is little indication that they would be prepared to take on the leadership at a time when the Palestinian public - and elements of the mainstream Palestinian parties - are becoming increasingly radicalised.

Mr Arafat's departure would  be  a victory for militant Islamists. 
Israel might then find its actions strengthening its enemies.  At least now, a western diplomat says, Israel can blame any future outrages on Arafat's  failure to control the militants. If he were ousted, Mr Sharon's commitment to the Israeli public to guarantee their security might look increasingly hollow.

If Arafat was to go, we would have an intransigent Israeli government, confronting a leaderless and radicalised Palestinian population, with Islamic militants in the ascendancy, they say. Even in a year's time, it would be led by the likes of Bibi  Netanyahu - who currently enjoys 20% lead over Sharon, making  any hope of reviving the peace process would be even further away than they are now. 

Right wing Israeli commentators argue that destroying the Palestinian Authority was no longer the issue. What they see important  was to give a positive signal to the next Palestinian generation, hand in hand with the punitive measures that had to be taken against Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If any future leadership was to be allowed to remain in power, it must rein the Islamists and militants. 

Israel's largest paper Ydiot Ahronot carried a survey that  indicated that 37 per cent of Israelis wanted the government to topple Mr Arafat while 32 per cent said Israel must begin accelerated peace talks without waiting for a ceasefire.

Even if, by some miracle, the Palestinians were to peacefully follow the constitution rules to the letter in the event of Arafat's demise,  Ahamd Quraei - Abu Alla- would replace Arafat within 60 days. That has to be followed by election, few would doubt,  that would give militant Islamists would a landslide victory. Israel, then, would have to live with a democratically elected radical leadership of an Islamic entity  dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state.

At least Mr Arafat and his PA gave up such illusion when signed the Oslo accord eight years ago. 

Copyright © Adel Darwish & Mideastnews and its parent company World Media UK Limited 2001. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means or used for any business purpose without the written consent of the publisher. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that the information contained herein is as accurate as possible, the publisher cannot accept responsibility for any consequences arising from its use. 

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