Israel's government seems more intent than ever on sidelining Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, placing its hopes in the unlikely emergence of a leadership more amenable to Israeli interests.
Early yesterday, the Israeli government said Mr. Arafat had "made himself irrelevant" and that it would cut off contacts with him. It also authorized its security forces to expand operations inside Palestinian areas to counter the threat from militants.
The Israelis appear to be acting out of step with the United States and the European Union - both entities said yesterday they would continue dealing with Arafat. Israel's go-it-alone tack comes at an odd moment, since is enjoying remarkably unambiguous backing from the US and the EU. Both are insisting that Arafat unconditionally stop Palestinians from engaging in violence against Israel, which is precisely Israel's demand.
One thing that does seem very close to irrelevance is the two-week-old US attempt at mediation, led by
Anthony Zinni, a former Marine Corps general. Both the Israeli government and Palestinian militants disregarded his demand this week for 48 hours of quiet.
Israeli politicians who have staked their careers on negotiating peace with Arafat decried the government's decision. "It is stupidity," says Yossi Beilin, a former Cabinet minister who was instrumental in creating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process of the 1990s. "There is no moderate group which is waiting to replace Arafat."
As far-fetched as the government's ambitions may be, the past 24 hours have had the feel of a historic moment. Israel's attempt to contain Palestinian militancy may lead to a large-scale reoccupation of Palestinian lands and result in an enduring military presence that would turn back the clock by almost a decade.
Israel has ceded many parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the control of the Palestinian Authority since the early 1990s, but it is into these areas that Israeli forces must take their search for Palestinian militants.
The Israeli action may also bring about a turning point among Palestinians. Arafat aide Saeb Erekat says the Palestinians "need to continue exerting every possible effort in order to restore the [peace] process," but it remains unclear whether Arafat can continue arresting the militants. Although Arafat has ordered the closure of the offices of two militant groups, the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, a Hamas spokesman said yesterday that none of the organization's facilities had been touched.
If Arafat does proceed with arrests, he risks civil war. If he does not, he risks further Israeli attempts to marginalize him. Although Israeli tanks have moved to within 200 yards of Arafat's compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the government says it has no designs on Arafat's person.
"I get the impression [the Israelis] are not trying to remove Arafat," says a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity, "but they are doing everything to ignore him and to undermine his position."
This tactic is the product of a harsh debate within the government. Israeli conservatives are increasingly demanding Arafat's ouster, exile, and even assassination, while liberals are trying to hang on to their vision of a negotiated peace with the Palestinians.
Moshe Arens, a leading member of Sharon's Likud bloc and a former Cabinet minister, says that declaring Arafat irrelevant may not make him so: "My guess is he continues to be relevant; he's still there, and people do what he says or at least some of them do"
Mr. Arens says that the existing policy is an accommodation to the liberals in Sharon's coalition government and that stronger action is required. "There's no choice to defeat the violence and the terror except by force. Since the PA is instigating the violence, defeating the violence means defeating the PA."
Mr. Beilin asserts that "the mistake of the government is not to use this opportunity, when there is an international coalition putting pressure on Arafat. It's the worst mistake possible." He notes that the Israelis have not formally declared the peace process dead and argues that the two sides remain on their trajectory toward a negotiated settlement, however violent and circuitous.
The Palestinians seem to be in a "state of shock," in the words of the Western diplomat, and their statements yesterday seemed to reflect confusion. Mr. Erekat insisted the Palestinians will work to save the peace process, but another key Arafat aide warned the Israelis that they were "playing with fire," and another called the Israeli position a "declaration of war."
The Israeli government decision came at the end of a very bad day in a long line of bad days. Israeli strikes killed five Palestinians in Gaza Wednesday morning, and in the evening two Palestinian suicide bombers took their own lives and injured a handful of Israeli settlers, also in Gaza. The worst was yet to come.
In the West Bank, Palestinian fighters ambushed a bus ferrying Israelis to a settlement. The gunmen killed 10 people and injured more than 20 - and galvanized the Israeli government.
The Sharon administration has, of course, not made its intentions clear, but yesterday's decision strengthened the view that the government wants to do away with Arafat without leaving its fingerprints.
The Israelis "want to engineer a sort of coup d'état underneath" Arafat, adds Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. Although Professor Jarbawi has not been shy in his criticisms of Arafat and the PA, he says the Palestinians will never accept political change on these terms. "Not in this way," he says. "We are being put into a nutcracker."