Arafat and Sharon under siege

Predictably, few if anyone, either in Israel or among the Palestinians, were satisfied with the slight easing of restrictions on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security cabinet decreed on Feb. 24.

Mr. Arafat can now leave the Ramallah, West Bank, compound where besieging Israeli tanks and gunners have kept him cooped up since early December. What he cannot do is leave the city of Ramallah. This only makes the task of pacifying violent Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation as much a mission impossible as it was before.

In many ways, Mr. Sharon is as much under siege as is Arafat. Superhawks in Sharon's Likud party on his right chide him for not pursuing an even more violent military offensive. They would oust (or kill) Arafat and probably reoccupy most or all of the West Bank and Gaza territories where Israel yielded autonomy to Palestinians under the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

On his left, Mr. Sharon faces "reborn" peaceniks. They advocate total or partial Israeli military withdrawal from the occupied territories. Their numbers, although growing, still are far from a majority of Israelis. But more serious for Sharon is the refusal from more than 200 Israeli military personnel to serve in the occupied territories. They cite "daily abuse" and "repression" of powerless Palestinian civilians - destruction of their houses, prohibition of movement, inability to work in Israel, to properly educate their children, or to receive proper healthcare.

By slightly relaxing Arafat's confinement - a confinement which was increasing his popularity among Palestinians - Sharon's government, which seems to lack any clear long-term objectives or plans for peace, apparently made a gesture to recognize Arafat's effort to comply with the conditions for his release. These were arresting three militants suspected in the assassination of Israeli superhawk and cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi on Oct. 17, and detaining at least one suspect in the huge shipload of arms, evidently intended for the PA or for guerrilla forces, which the Israeli Navy intercepted in the Red Sea in January.

The present contest of wills, as well as the unequal struggle between poorly armed Palestinians and overarmed Israelis, remind me of my experiences in the three-month Israeli siege of Arafat and his forces in West Beirut in 1982. Sharon, then defense minister, directed the military campaign against Arafat's PLO in Lebanon. He was eventually forced to resign when an Israeli judicial inquiry confirmed his "indirect" responsibility for massacre by Israel's temporary Lebanese Christian allies of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps outside Beirut. Before that, Sharon insisted that the siege of Beirut was meant to oust Arafat, destroy the PLO, and find an "alternative" Palestinian leadership that would acquiesce in Israeli control of all of pre-1948 Palestine and bow to Israel's wishes that neighboring Lebanon should become a passive ally.

Sharon's siege of the Palestinians in Beirut ultimately turned against him. On one day, Aug. 9, 1982, it took outraged phone calls, first from Saudi Arabian King Fahd to President Ronald Reagan and then a tough call by Mr. Reagan to Israel, to halt a merciless, 10-hour bombardment of West Beirut, Arafat's refuge at the time, by tanks, gunboats, and jet fighter-bombers. Just as this action by Israel, on a greater scale than now, killed scores of Palestinians and Lebanese then, so are the Israeli actions that Sharon says are designed to halt anti-Israel terrorism daily raising casualties in Gaza, Ramallah, and the rest of the West Bank, and provoking more anti-Israel terrorism.

In 1982, after a US-brokered cease-fire - American diplomacy was far more proactive than it is now - Arafat and his forces retreated. This left the Palestinians in Sabra and Chatila at the mercy of their enemies. But it turned out not to be a famous victory for Sharon, either. He slipped into political eclipse for years afterward. Only the failure of the summer 2000 peace talks - brokered by President Clinton at Camp David between Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak - brought him back to power. His first year as prime minister, begun with his extravagant promises of security and peace for Israelis, has brought them the opposite: The Palestinian uprising, which began in September 2000, when Sharon began his political comeback with his provocative visit to Arab East Jerusalem, has become open guerrilla warfare.

Hesitant compromises, like those now offered by a besieged Arafat in trying to arrest terrorists wanted by Israel, and by a politically beleaguered Sharon under contradictory pressures from his rightist and leftist Israeli critics, will not bring peace, nor coexistence between Israel and a sovereign Palestinian state, as promised by the Oslo accords.

However, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who tries to keep one foot in the camp of the doves while the other stays anchored in the government with the hawks, has discussed with Arafat's aides a cease-fire and a phased resumption of peace talks. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah has lately advanced the simple proposition that all Arab governments should recognize Israel and make formal peace, in return for Israel's withdrawal from its territorial conquests and its recognition of the long-promised Palestinian state.

Both the Europeans and the US should not only encourage peace plans (discarding Sharon's patently unachievable demand for seven days of a total end to all violence before any return to the peace table), they should actively, aggressively, follow through on them. And, most important, contrive ways to bring both sides - even kicking and screaming if necessary - back to the formal peace table.

• John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, has covered the Mideast and North Africa and most of their wars and peace accords since the late 1950s.

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