Sharon works to isolate Arafat

When Sharon meets Bush tomorrow, he'll present his own peace plan, and discredit the Palestinian leader.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon brings two messages to Washington this week. The first is that he is indeed a man of peace. The second is that Yasser Arafat isn't.

The Palestinian leader moved quickly this weekend to show himself indispensable by breaking a deadlock in negotiations to end the standoff at the Church of the Nativity (see page 6).

But Mr. Sharon will present President Bush and other US officials with material gleaned during Israel's recent invasion of Palestinian-ruled areas in the West Bank that purports to show Mr. Arafat's direct support for terrorism against Israel. Sharon will also unveil ideas for making peace with the Palestinians that he has not yet divulged.

Both gambits are attempts to shape American thinking about an international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the European Union, Russia, the UN, and the US have said they will convene this summer – the weightiest foray into Middle East peacemaking of the Bush presidency.

Sharon will also have to account for how he has used his military forces against the Palestinians – and for his slow-motion fulfillment of Bush's public demands, first uttered in early April, that Israel withdraw from the West Bank "without delay."

"There's a certain uneasy feeling" in Washington, says Robert Pelletreau, a former assistant secretary of State with long experience in the Middle East, "that this tremendous use of force by Sharon is not getting us closer to peace."

At least on the surface, both Sharon and Arafat emerged victorious from a month of intensive Israeli operations in the West Bank. Having endured nearly a half-year of Israeli restrictions limiting his freedom, the Palestinian leader is enjoying restored popularity domestically and abroad.

Arafat, whom the Israeli government declared "irrelevant" and sought to "isolate," is demonstrating anew that he is the Palestinians' central figure.

Sharon, for his part, managed to defy Bush's demands and still win an invitation to the White House. He succeeded in rebuffing a United Nations inquiry into the worst of the fighting. His approval rating here today is double what it was before he embarked on what Israel calls Operation Defensive Shield.

Militarily, the operations have generated a lull in the conflict, although many analysts say it is only a matter of time until Palestinian militants resume their attacks against Israel. The Israelis are also detaining more than 1,000 Palestinians arrested during the operations, including several key political and militant leaders.

In the Jenin area, a stronghold of the Islamic Jihad movement, the Israel have unquestionably damaged what it calls the "infrastructure of terror." But groups such as the Islamic Resistance Movement and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Arafat's own Fatah movement, may have been left with most of their capabilities intact.

More profoundly, Arafat's Palestinian Authority and the physical infrastructure in the West Bank's cities and towns have been seriously damaged, and Palestinians are already disagreeing over how the PA should put itself back together. Nabil Amro, a minister in the PA Cabinet who has generally been considered close to Arafat, resigned on Friday, apparently because of differences over how a rebuilt PA should be structured.

But the revival of the PA can also be seen as a defeat for Sharon. "He hasn't succeeded in destroying the PA," observes a Western diplomat here who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He hasn't destroyed or made irrelevant Arafat. And he hasn't succeeded in turning the Palestinian question into a mere subset of the US 'war on terror.'"

But it seems that Sharon may not be finished on the final point. Israeli Cabinet Minister Danny Naveh released a dossier on the Palestinian leader yesterday, saying that "Arafat and his close aides are directly responsible for the cold-blooded murder of Israeli citizens."

"To my mind," he added, "it is crystal clear that Arafat can't be a partner for peace again." It seems just as clear that Israel's publication of the material is an effort to discredit Arafat in the eyes of the US on the eve of Sharon's visit.

"I assume that [Sharon] is going to give the documents that he believes to be true. That's good enough for us," said White House National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice yesterday on Fox News Sunday, a cable-TV talk show.

Palestinian officials says Israel's allegations are founded on forged documents, mistranslations of genuine documents, or inconclusive. In any event, the heart of Israel's case – that Arafat approved funding for members of the Fatah movement who then engaged in terrorism – does not strike some observers here as a great revelation.

"So what? We all know that Fatah is involved in terrorism," says another Jerusalem-based Western diplomat, who also demanded anonymity. Equally well known is that Arafat "equivocates on terrorism," this official continues. "He does not say to his employees, 'Please do not commit acts of terrorism.'"

But Sharon's contentions may resonate differently in Washington, where Bush has sought to divide the world between those who side with the US in its campaign against terrorism and those who are with the terrorists. Sharon has been acutely mindful of positioning himself on the right side of this distinction since late last year.

Still, it remains to be seen how well he can portray himself as a leader in search of peace. In late April, Bush referred to Sharon as a "man of peace," causing US diplomats in the region to wince with embarrassment, since the Israeli leader is not described in such terms throughout much of the world.

Israeli press accounts about the ideas he has brought to Washington suggest that they revolve around a long-term interim agreement that would allow the Palestinians a state, but one with undefined borders. The reports say that Sharon rules out any dealings with Arafat.

One byproduct of Defensive Shield, at least among observers of Middle Eastern affairs, is an increasing willingness to speculate aloud about Sharon's hidden agenda. More and more, Sharon's tenure as Israel's leader is being seen as a period in which the peace process that began with the signing of Israeli-Palestinian peace accord in Oslo, Norway, has been eviscerated.

Henry Siegman, who headed the American Jewish Congress for 15 years before joining the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says Sharon's government has "sought systematically to dismantle Oslo, and largely succeeded in doing so."

"I think his objective is to stop something, which is a Palestinian state in the West Bank, and to destroy Oslo," says Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. She characterizes the current era in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, which began with the outbreak of violence in late September 2000, as one of "rapid reversal."

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