PALESTINE Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat, expected to share the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, has moved to rescue the Palestinian peace process from a violent onslaught by Islamic militants.
Mr. Arafat, who has avoided a head-on confrontation with the Islamic resistance movement Hamas since returning to Gaza in July, now appears set for a showdown with Hamas in its efforts to undermine his claim to leadership of the Palestinian cause.
Hamas, which opposes the Palestinian peace deal with Israel, claims responsibility for Sunday night's terror attack in downtown Jerusalem and the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, whom they threaten to execute at 3 a.m. today unless 200 Palestinian activists are freed by Israel.
``Arafat is caught between a rock and a hard place, and it will be difficult to postpone a test of strength with Hamas much longer,'' a Western diplomat says.
``But it is a political risk for the PLO leader to take Hamas head-on. Neither he, nor anyone else, can predict the outcome of such a step.''
The execution threat was the second act by Hamas in 48 hours, indicating an orchestrated campaign to weaken Arafat ahead of the first Palestinian elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
On Tuesday, Mr. Rabin sealed the border between Israel and the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip and suspended PLO-Israeli election talks in Cairo in response to the execution threat.
Arafat held talks Wednesday with senior Hamas leaders and subsequently ordered a crackdown on Hamas activists. Palestinian police yesterday arrested 300 Islamic militants in an extensive sweep to find the kidnapped soldier. PLO insiders say that Arafat was enraged by the attack, which he sees as a direct challenge to his leadership of the Palestinian cause.
In a speech he delivered in Gaza yesterday, Arafat said that he would ``not allow any defiance'' and vowed to confront any challenge to law and order. He also indirectly accused Iran of meddling in Palestinian affairs by backing Islamic fundamentalist opponents who plunged the Israel-PLO peace process into its greatest crisis by abducting an Israeli soldier.
``We will not allow the misuse of this homeland to serve decisions and orders which are given to some people here from outside,'' Arafat said at a police graduation ceremony.
``Arafat must make a strategic choice of historic proportions,'' Israeli Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein told the Jerusalem Post. ``He has to decide: either peace with Israel, involving a full fight against Hamas terror; or peace with Hamas, which means the collapse of the agreement with Israel.''
Rabin has compounded Arafat's dilemma by turning the plight of the kidnapped soldier into a major test for the year-old Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Rabin telephoned Arafat for the second time Wednesday to tell him that the Palestinian leader would be held personally responsible if the soldier was harmed.
The plight of 19-year-old Nachshon Waxman, a dual United States-Israeli citizen, has received splash coverage in the Israeli media. An emotional televised appeal, broadcast Wednesday, has moved the Israeli nation to hope and pray.
In the video, which was given to Reuters, Corporal Waxman is seen looking scared and dazed in front of a masked Hamas gunman holding up the soldier's identity document.
``The members of Hamas kidnapped me and want their prisoners released,'' Waxman said on the televised video. ``If not, they will kill me. I ask you to do all you can so that I can get out of here alive....''
At the end of the interview, the gunman placed a hand on Waxman's soldier and recalled the fate of Israeli border policeman Nissim Toledano who was abducted and killed by Hamas in 1992.
According to PLO security officials, Arafat has ordered Palestinian police to conduct an intensive search for the soldier.
``I totally reject kidnapping as a means of achieving political aims,'' said senior Arafat aide Ahmed Tibi.
US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in Israel on Wednesday evening said he was ``full of outrage and anguish'' at the kidnapping, and that the Hamas movement wanted ``to kill the peace and keep this region mired in violence.''
Mr. Christopher telephoned Arafat over the kidnapping and said Arafat had assured him he would do all he could to get the soldier freed.
``Arafat realized it was a very serious incident,'' Christopher told reporters in Amman, Jordan, on Tuesday. ``He said that it was aimed at him personally ... that it was a criminal act ... and he promised to do everything that he could to see that the kidnapping ended in a safe and peaceful way.''
``This is a true test for the Palestinian Authority and of your part in the implementation of the agreement between us,'' Rabin said he told Arafat.