Arafat's familiar balancing act gets trickier

Torn between Palestinian unity and US pressure to nail terrorists, Arafat largely plays to the home crowd.

In the early aftermath of Sept. 11, Palestinians veered between hope and dread. The fear was that Israel would be given free reign against them in a US-led "war on terrorism." The hope was that the United States, in order to build a global antiterror coalition, finally had reason to pressure the Israelis into a peace agreement the Palestinians could accept.

Nearly two months after the terrorist attacks, neither scenario has come to pass. Instead Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat finds himself in a familiar place: torn between trying to maintain the unity of his people and trying to meet the expectations of the West.

At least for the moment, Mr. Arafat is mainly playing lip service to those expectations, resisting demands from US and Israeli officials that he dismantle Palestinian organizations capable of terrorism. That is because meeting those demands, Palestinian political analysts say, might well bring civil war.

Nonetheless, the US is turning up the heat on the Palestinians. A senior US diplomat told a Washington conference last week that the Palestinian campaign of resistance against Israeli occupation had become a "process of calculated terror and escalation." The Bush administration also named two militant Palestinian groups to the list of organizations it will target in coming months.

Daniel Kurtzer, the US ambassador to Israel, this week told reporters that the Palestinian leader "needs to make decisions with respect to where he stands on questions related to terrorism.... [W]ords are not enough to prove that one is against terrorism. It requires actions."

"We need to see a fight against terror," complains a senior Israeli intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, "and Arafat has no intention to do that."

Arafat is also facing increasing pressure from militant Palestinians. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, some Palestinian militants largely refrained from engaging in violence against Israelis that would be condemned as terrorism. In particular, the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, appears not to have targeted Israelis within Israel proper - as opposed to settlers and soldiers in the West Bank or Gaza Strip - since early September.

"I won't say there is no reduction" in such attacks, says the Israeli intelligence official, "but there has been no cessation."

Indeed, the restraint is now fading. On Oct. 28, two gunmen from the Islamic Jihad group killed four Israeli women in the coastal city of Hadera, firing their weapons until they themselves were killed.

A week later a lone gunman from the same group attacked a bus in a Jerusalem suburb, killing two teenagers before being shot dead. The bus was in an area seized by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and later annexed, but it remains occupied land in Palestinian eyes.

Arafat's dilemma is not simply a matter of whether to crack down on terrorism.

Two schools of thought have emerged over how Palestinians should deal with post-Sept. 11 realities, says Bir Zeit University political scientist Hisham Ahmed.

Proponents of the first - said to include Arafat and many of his aides - argue that Palestinians should support the US in its efforts against terrorism, in the expectation that they will be rewarded for their loyalty when it comes time to negotiate a peace deal with the Israelis.

Hasan Asfour, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, is a member of the second school. "Our struggle is not to see whether the West likes us or not," he bridles during a recent interview. "If you look toward the Palestinians and say our struggle is terrorism, believe me, you will face many difficulties with Arabs and with Muslims."

This second school, Mr. Ahmed explains, believes that "the West needs us more than we need the West" - especially in building a global coalition in which Middle Eastern countries will play an important role. Before the Palestinians offer support for US efforts against terrorism, this thinking goes, they should collect their reward in advance.

Ahmed and other analysts say that the second school is the majority view, which in part explains Arafat's reluctance to match his condemnations of terrorism with action.

Arafat has always been reluctant to alienate Palestinians - no matter how much their politics or tactics diverged with his own - but in the mid-1990s, his security forces imprisoned many members of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups, who were engaged in a series of bombings aimed at disrupting the peace process.

"Arafat was able to crack down because he had a peace process that was convincing to the vast majority of the people," says Ghassan Khatib of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center. "But now he does not have a peace process to defend."

Mr. Khatib and other analysts estimate that the militant groups command the support of at least a quarter of Palestinians, meaning that harsh action by Arafat could provoke broad internal conflict. In the words of Mouin Rabbani, director of the independent Palestinian American Research Center in Ramallah, "You're talking civil war."

Other than appeasing Western expectations, the only reason Arafat has for sustaining a crackdown is to prevent Israeli reprisals, which have been harsher and more deadly for Palestinians in the wake of Sept. 11.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres seems to recognize that Arafat needs some sort of political carrot before he can apply the stick. His boss, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is adamant that violence must stop completely before the two sides can return to negotiations, but Mr. Peres has lately been floating a plan that would offer Palestinians a mini-state in Gaza, followed by discussions over the future of the West Bank and Jerusalem and over other issues.

Israeli officials close to Mr. Sharon say the prime minister has other ideas and there is no indication that the Palestinians are taking Peres's ideas seriously.

Still, an Arabic newspaper based in London has reported that Arafat might use an upcoming appearance before the UN General Assembly to "declare" Palestinian statehood - perhaps in an attempt to claim that more than a year of violence has produced a tangible result. The Palestinian leader has repeatedly threatened to make a unilateral declaration, but has so far heeded US and Israeli demands that Palestinian statehood be the product of negotiation.

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