To Israel, Arafat a necessary evil

A 10-day siege of Yasser Arafat's compound ended this week, leaving the Palestinian leader in power.

Judging from the heaps of rubble that used to be the nerve center of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has narrowly escaped the rubbish bin of history.

But endangering Mr. Arafat is one thing. Killing or exiling him in the face of US opposition is another. And replacing him with new leaders is simply not in the cards, according to leading Israeli and Palestinian analysts. In fact, they say, despite Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's talk of reforms, they are the last thing the Israeli leader wants since they could mean territorial concessions and the break-up of his coalition.

They see Mr. Sharon's decision to order an army attack on Arafat's compound precisely at a time when Palestinian reformers were pressing their leader to relinquish power as a clear sign that Sharon is not seeking credible new Palestinian leaders.

"He is looking for quislings, people who do not exist," says Akiva Eldar, a columnist for Ha'aretz daily newspaper. He suggests that there are no potential puppet leaders who would do Israel's bidding. He says the conditions the government is setting for talking to any new leaders, such as crippling Hamas without any Israeli concessions, are impossible to meet.

Sharon told the Jerusalem Post in an interview published Friday that a new leadership would need to take "clear action on the ground" by arresting "all the terrorists from all the organizations," dismantling Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and militias belonging to Arafat's Fatah faction, confiscate all illegal weapons, engage in "serious preventative operations" to prevent terrorism, and end incitement. "If these are not met it will be impossible to advance in a diplomatic process," he said.

The siege of Arafat's offices was ordered after a suicide bombing by Hamas in Tel Aviv killed six people.

Ephraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, says that at the moment it is "not easy" to find a Palestinian partner to such an approach. But he says he is convinced Sharon is sincere in hoping for one, noting that the prime minister stressed in the same interview that there is no military solution to the conflict and that he does not envision Israeli troops "staying forever" in Nablus and Hebron.

"Sharon has been very clear that any agreement will be interim and that the Palestinians will get 40 percent of the West Bank, which he could increase. That is what in the cards. This would be a difficult choice for any Palestinian leader, but the circumstances are that they started this war and lost, so that is what they get."

If no Palestinian leader emerges to make such a deal, that would not necessarily be a setback, Mr. Inbar adds. "Chaos in the short term is not against Israeli interests. It might mean more terrorism, but it would also mean introspection by the Palestinians.... They might have to open up other options, such as involving Egypt in the Gaza Strip and possibly a role for Jordan [in the West Bank]." Inbar also envisions a possible emergence of Palestinian cantons in the West Bank, each with its own leader, who would "make separate deals" with Israel.

Avraham Sela, a Hebrew University specialist in Middle East politics, says Sharon wants to avoid negotiations and keep building Jewish settlements. Because of Sharon's alliance with political partners even more ardent in their nationalism than he, "even a facade of negotiations would be too dangerous for the coalition he wants to keep together."

Because Sharon is not offering any tangible concessions to the Palestinians, it is unrealistic to expect any alternative leadership to emerge, Mr. Sela says.

"Any Palestinian leader would have to calculate that they would get nothing from Israel. They don't want to look like clowns. They would need a real temptation, and this is not being offered."

Had Sharon wanted an alternative Palestinian leadership, Israel could have stood aloof and let the reformers in Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction push him aside, Sela says. The reformers had already toppled the cabinet on Sept. 10. "But instead Sharon brought Arafat back to center stage" by attacking his headquarters, he said. Sela notes that thus far the Israeli campaigns against Arafat haven't actually toppled him. "If you think about it, Israel is keeping Arafat dead and alive at the same time. This keeps Fatah and the Palestinian leadership paralyzed."

Ramadan Safi, a Fatah activist in Ramallah, says that no emerging leader would attack Hamas, in keeping with Israeli demands.

"Hamas became a liberation movement in the eyes of the public, like Fatah used to be. No one could dare do it." He stresses that those in Fatah who are challenging Arafat do not fulfill Israel's criterion for future partners. They seek "a new style of government," he says, with separation of powers, democracy and financial accountability. But when it comes to peace negotiations, he adds, the reformists would be more hard-line than Arafat.

"We still believe that we made a big compromise by recognizing Israel within its 1967 borders," Mr. Safi said. "We can talk about some limited border adjustments, but we cannot do anything else. The public feels we have given up enough. The fact is that the one leader who could compromise the most with Israel is Yasser Arafat. He still has the history and the symbolic power."

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