13 - 19 June 2002
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Unhurried, ambiguousMohamed Sid-Ahmed discusses Arafat's future after the visits this week of President Mubarak and Prime Minister Sharon to the US
Following the suicide bombing near Megiddo, the public relations firm which represents Israel in Washington recommended that the Israeli army delay its response for 24 hours so that newspapers and television news programmes in the US open with horrific pictures of the bombing and victims' funerals, not the Palestinians' suffering. Although this recommendation was relayed to the offices of the prime minister and defence minister, Sharon and Ben-Eliezer decided to retaliate immediately with an attack against Arafat's offices in Ramallah. The American media gave priority coverage to the assault on Arafat's private quarters, with a bomb hitting his bedroom, while reports of the suicide bombing came in second rank. The intention was to send a message to Arafat that he no longer enjoys any type of immunity.
Indeed, Arafat's future has become the central issue in any discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was the main item on the agenda of Sharon's meeting with Bush last Monday and figured prominently in the Mubarak-Bush meeting in Camp David last Friday and Saturday. Mubarak argued strongly against Arafat's removal, and during his short visit to Israel before the Camp David summit Osama El-Baz cautioned Sharon more than once to "forget about eliminating Arafat".
The Americans reacted with some dismay to Israel's assault on Arafat. In a press briefing, National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack told journalists: "You should ask the Israelis what they are after with this raid against Arafat's compound, because I have no answer to the question." In targetting Arafat's headquarters Israel is playing a dangerous game. What if he is killed by mistake? Has that eventuality been taken into account, or is it in fact what Israel is aiming for? After all, an unfortunate 'accident' is far more acceptable to international public opinion than the cold-blooded murder of an elected leader. There have been ominous hints by Israeli officials that Arafat's life is in danger. Israeli Justice Minister Meir Shitreet said "Both Israelis and Arabs have to carry the burden of Arafat. No one is allowed to touch him. Of course, mistakes can happen. Arafat may be killed by accident -- not that I am advocating this."
Israel's bid to do away with Arafat seeks not only to change the person at the head of the Palestinian Authority but also the nature of the Authority itself, transforming it from a product of the Palestinian liberation movement, with its long history of struggle, into a body subservient to Israel. A similar process was applied in Afghanistan and is being prepared for Iraq. And, unless and until it is applied to the Palestinian Authority, Bush persists in boycotting Arafat, refusing to shake hands with the Palestinian leader or even to speak to him directly. Depriving him of any form of legitimacy, he continues to express "disappointment" with Arafat and to accuse him repeatedly of "not doing enough to combat terrorism".
In the final analysis Israel is trying to chart a different course for the Palestinian movement by neutralising it as an obstacle in the way of Israel's ambitions and defusing its explosive potential, using international conditions, notably the anti-terrorist drive, to attain this end. This has been Sharon's aim all along. That is what he meant by describing Arafat as the Bin Laden of the Middle East. Once reluctant to go along with Sharon's views in this regard, Bush appears to have been won over by the Israeli leader's arguments.
What worries Sharon is how far he can go in his measures against Arafat without antagonising Bush or overstepping the latter's red line. In the meantime he is under increasing pressure from hardliners in his government not to wait for future Megiddo-style attacks before doing away with Arafat. They argue that the 17 killed last week justify his immediate liquidation, and that there is no need to wait for more operations -- which are bound to happen sooner or later -- before taking action.
The US administration's policy toward Arafat is ambivalent. Bush makes no secret of the contempt in which he holds him. But the administration has so far resisted Sharon's appeals to sideline Arafat altogether. Arafat's policy toward Israel is also ambiguous. He talks of the "peace of the brave" but, lacking any gains to show for so much bloodshed, he does not take the political gamble of trying to stop the conflict. Only Sharon is neither ambivalent nor ambiguous. He was opposed to the Oslo peace accords from the very start. He has expressed regret that he did not kill Arafat in Lebanon 20 years ago and for his promise to Bush not to harm him now. But even if Arafat's removal -- or assassination -- leads to chaos, some Israelis believe this would be preferable to the current situation. Chaos will tend to radicalise Palestinian attitudes. Having an openly polarised situation is better than one which Arafat's ambivalences make difficult to oppose outright, and which provides Arafat with considerable credibility abroad.
President Mubarak insisted that a timeline be set for the creation of a Palestinian state, as a step towards reviving Palestinian hopes for diplomacy and diminishing support for terror. But President Bush refused to endorse the idea, possibly because he knew Sharon would reject it, and proposed instead the creation of Palestinian institutions which would pave the way for the state. This seems to indicate that the future state will depend on the extent to which Palestinian institutions conform to Sharon's -- and Bush's -- views regarding the reforms that need to be introduced to the Palestinian Authority. The "talent" that Bush attributed to a new generation of Palestinian leaders is a clear message to those leaders that change in the Palestinian leadership is the key factor at this juncture.
Mubarak went to Camp David with a detailed plan built around American support for a declaration of Palestinian statehood early next year, with negotiations to follow on unresolved issues like borders, Jerusalem and refugees. The plan was aimed at raising the hopes of the Palestinians, curtailing violence and consecrating the international consensus that a just and peaceful settlement in the region must include an independent Palestinian state.
However, Sharon makes any talk of a political settlement and, a fortiori, of a Palestinian state, conditional on the complete cessation of violence. He continues to hold Arafat responsible for the violence, although it is becoming increasingly clear that the suicide bombings are part of a deliberate plan masterminded by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, from which Arafat is excluded, to step up the violence every time there is a glimmer of hope that a political settlement is in the offing. In fact, the suicide bombings are aimed at Arafat before being aimed at Sharon.
Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the Megiddo blast. It is worth recalling in this connection that the Jihad leadership is based in Syria, and that Syria now heads the UN Security Council. The Israelis are demanding that the US call Syria to order, while Egypt insists that the peace process extend to Syria as well.
Sharon and Bush are talking of a conference to deal with these problems, but have yet to fix the time and place. Turkey has been proposed as a venue for a conference to be held next July. Many ideas are being floated on issues of substance, including some which had been raised under the unsuccessful negotiations sponsored by Clinton.
On the other hand, Arafat is trying to bring about a reconciliation between the various Palestinian factions, but Egypt, which insists on clear lines of demarcation between legitimate resistance and terrorist activities, categorically opposes any participation by Hamas or Islamic Jihad in the new Palestinian government. The government was created last Saturday without the membership of any major opposition party, but, separately from the government, a National Unified Leadership was resurrected to represent the members of the Executive Committee of the PLO and the leaders of the various opposition parties.
In any case, Bush is not in a hurry. He wants to help his brother Jeb be reelected, beginning next year, as governor of Florida, a state with an important Jewish community, part of which is shifting allegiance from the Democrats to the Republicans.
Peres recently declared that he has been informed that a compromise solution over a three- year period is in the making, whereby the Palestinians will be required to relinquish the right of return (to Israel proper), apart, perhaps, for exceptional cases related to family reunions, in exchange for Israel's dismantling of all settlements (with, perhaps, exceptions attributed to security needs). Arafat will be required to step down, or accept becoming a figurehead president. This will allow the Bush Administration to concentrate on the issue it considers central to its global anti- terrorism drive: a military strike against Iraq.
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