Arafat's freedom: a win-win

Israel releases PA leader, but gains US involvement and blocks UN inquiry.

Yasser Arafat is expected to emerge from the rubble of his Ramallah headquarters this week victorious, at least, for having survived a month-long Israeli siege. But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is also a victor.

In exchange for agreeing to set free the Palestinian Authority president, Mr. Sharon is gaining leverage in his relations with the Bush administration, blocking a UN inquiry into possible Israeli war crimes in Jenin, and extricating himself from an impasse over Arafat's fate.

On its face, Israel's decision to allow US and British wardens to oversee the jailing of Palestinian militants wanted by Israel – an arrangement suggested by President Bush this weekend – is a success for the Palestinians.

Mr. Arafat has long demanded that international observers be sent here, as he puts it, to protect Palestinians from the Israeli military. Israel had rejected the idea, arguing in part that observers would have a much easier time monitoring its above-ground military than trying to discern the activities of underground Palestinian militants.

One Western diplomat here detects among Israelis "a growing consensus that there are some areas where things do need to be done by third parties," especially in light of the burgeoning mistrust on both sides. But even this official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says there is no reason at this stage to see the prison wardens as the thin edge of the wedge of foreign peacekeepers.

One month after Israel launched a multi-pronged invasion of nearly all the Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, two stand-offs remain. Israeli troops encircle Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where dozens of Palestinian gunmen and civilians have taken refuge.

The other impasse has been at Arafat's West Bank headquarters, where the Palestinian leader and his aides have been confined to a few rooms while Israeli forces occupy the rest of the city-block-sized compound.

The siege has continued because Arafat is sheltering six men Israel wants. Four are militants that a Palestinian court convicted last week of responsibility for the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister last October. That killing followed Israel's own assassination of the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small political party whose member have carried out attacks against Israelis.

Because Israel says it no longer trusts the Palestinians to incarcerate those responsible for attacks on Israel, it has insisted that the men be handed over. Arafat refuses, citing agreements that allow the Palestinians to police themselves. US and British wardens will provide a third alternative – overseeing the detention of the men in a Palestinian facility – that satisfies both sides. And Arafat will be free to travel.

For Israeli hawks, who view Arafat as a master terrorist, Sharon's compromise is a big mistake. Sharon's decision, endorsed by a 19 to 7 cabinet vote on Sunday, may dampen his right-wing support, which had surged as a result of the West Bank invasion. His main opponent, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, may gain ground in persuading fellow members of their party, the Likud bloc, to change leaders.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry official concurs that Arafat's freedom is a setback for Sharon. "One of his main aims – to isolate Arafat and make him irrelevant – has failed."

But the cabinet, perhaps taking advantage of the cover afforded by its decision to free Arafat, also decided to block a UN inquiry into the actions of the Israeli military in the Jenin refugee camp, where Israeli soldiers appear to have killed numerous civilians.

Amid Palestinian claims of massacre, the UN Security Council voted 10 days ago to approve an inquiry. Israel's early endorsement has been followed by stalling, with Israeli officials objecting to the inquiry's mandate, the makeup of its members, and its rights to question Israelis.

The release of Arafat – following intense pressure by Mr. Bush and other US officials – seems certain to shore up Israeli-US relations, which became strained after Sharon failed to act on repeated US calls for an immediate withdrawal from the West Bank.

The political damage Sharon sustains for freeing Arafat will hinge on whether "we get American cooperation in terms of reducing the UN mandate," says Israeli political scientist Gerald Steinberg.

There is no doubt, however, that letting Arafat go answers the question of what to do with him. Although Sharon originally may have intended to exile the Palestinian leader – or had some other end in mind – immediate international objections seem to have ruled out those possibilities. But the lasting siege effectively halted all diplomatic efforts to ease the conflict, frustrating Americans and Europeans, among others.

The release "will free up – from the US point of view – the ability of [Secretary of State Colin] Powell to return to the region and start re-engaging on questions such as re-establishing the Palestinian Authority and what type of security measures might be put in place," says the Western diplomat.

But the situation on the ground may undercut any diplomatic effort. After a Palestinian attack Saturday on an Israeli settlement, in which gunmen killed four people including a 5-year-old girl, Israeli forces rolled into the southern West Bank city of Hebron yesterday, imposing a curfew and killing at least 9 Palestinians.

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