Israel vs. PLO: political checkmate?

The Israelis, speaking with gunboats, have stated their determination to keep Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat guessing on their military intention at least until he has boarded his evacuation craft from Lebanon.

Indeed, they have left open the option of trying to prevent altogether the departure of Mr. Arafat and his some 4,000 loyalists. His forces have been under attack for much of November by Syrian-supported Palestinian rivals and trapped against Lebanon's northern shore ever since.

The Israelis do not seem to be out to eliminate Arafat physically, at least not yet. But in preventing the start of his evacuation with a barrage of shellfire near the port city of Tripoli early Monday, the Israelis did serve notice of their ability to hit Arafat at will.

In a mere 20 minutes, gunboats well offshore hit two vessels anchored in Tripoli Harbor and two warehouses in the port area. ''Accurate hits'' was the phrase used in the Israelis' own account of the predawn strike. Yet, as in a series of earlier Israeli shell salvos throughout last week, the fire stopped short of Arafat's main positions in the city proper.

The main effect of the shelling has been to give all those involved in the evacuation sufficient jitters to postpone the operation.

Greek charter vessels that are to evacuate Arafat and his backers, as well as a planned French naval escort, remained off the isle of Cyprus instead of setting out for Tripoli Sunday night. [The vessels and escort left for Tripoli Monday night, Reuters reports, although it was unclear at time of writing whether Israel gave assurances that it would not shell the ships.]

Western and Arab political analysts in Lebanon - not to mention Arafat & Co. - were meanwhile left to guess Israel's ultimate intentions toward the Palestinian leader.

This, clearly, was just what Israel intended. Israeli officials, cited in news reports from Israel, made it clear that the government has been deliberately vague on that point.

Officials, commenting on speculation that the Israelis want to keep Arafat trapped in Tripoli, were said to have remarked that, generally, Israel and Arafat are bitter enemies. If anyone wanted to read specific significance into the Tripoli shelling, the officials suggested, then so much the better.

Speculation here about Israel's ultimate plans regarding Arafat centered on two main possibilities:

* Israel merely wants to harass Arafat as he and his men prepare for departure, in hopes of preventing the kind of ''victory'' celebration organized around a similar Arafat evacuation from Beirut after the Israeli invasion last summer.

In this case, it would be entirely credible that the departure of Arafat and supporters, even if punctuated by shellfire, might happen safely and relatively soon.

* The Israelis will seek to effect a far longer delay, raising the possibility of more fighting between Arafat and his Syrian-backed rivals and preventing any early bid by him to stage a post-Tripoli diplomatic offensive in the Arab and Western worlds.

Western and Arab analysts remained skeptical even after Monday's shelling that Israel would actually try to kill Arafat as he leaves. They assumed Israel would like to see Arafat eliminated but that the Israelis would think hard before risking the political fallout of such a move.

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