Tank-shell message re: Arafat

Mubarak's talk with Bush will be tempered by an Israeli attack in West Bank.

The Merkava tank shell landed five feet from Yasser Arafat's bed early Thursday morning.

It was sent as a message. And not just to the Palestinian leader, who was unharmed by the assault in retaliation for a suicide bombing in Israel on Wednesday.

Analysts here say that the shelling was a message to President Bush, who is meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Friday: Do not make serious peace moves with Arafat still in office.

Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is scheduled to be in Washington on Monday, is concerned. "Sharon feels that things are moving too quickly towards an international conference and the establishment of a Palestinian state, and that this should not be done while Arafat is still around," says Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Report magazine. "He is saying to Bush, you are putting the cart before the horse and if you give the Palestinians these concessions, there will be no incentive for them to carry out reforms and to get rid of Arafat."

In Thursday's predawn strike on Arafat's headquarters, a column of about 50 tanks and armored vehicles opened fire on the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah. And they came nearer to hitting Arafat than ever before.

He was not in the bedroom at the time, but charged Israel with trying to kill him, something the Israeli army denied. When it was all over, with one Palestinian security guard dead, Arafat again flashed the victory sign, though no triumph was anywhere in sight.

Mr. Sharon promised President Bush shortly after his election last year that Israel would not physically harm the Palestinian leader. He later indicated regret over this by musing publicly that he should have "rubbed out" Arafat in 1982 during the Israeli siege of Beirut.

Sharon has made clear over and over again his view that there can be no acceptable Palestinian reforms or peace diplomacy as long as Arafat remains leader of the Palestinians.

"The shooting [at Arafat's room] could be a way of gauging how Bush will react, and at the same time, saying to Arafat, this may be the last chance, next time we will come closer," Mr. Susser says.

Sharon's stance is at loggerheads with the approach President Mubarak will be advocating in talks with Bush today and Saturday. Egypt wants the US to declare a timetable for peace moves and say that there should be a declaration of Palestinian statehood soon.

At stake is not only Arafat's role but whether an international conference – which could convene as early as July – will be in line with Sharon's view of a general exchange of ideas on promoting regional stability. It's not clear either that the conference will be in line with the Saudi, Egyptian, and Jordanian aim for progress on the Palestinian track.

Sharon asked for the talks with Bush as a way of offsetting Arab input into the administration's decisionmaking on peace moves, analysts say.

Wednesday's suicide attack on an Israeli bus at Megiddo, which killed 17 Israelis, and what Israeli officials say was the failure of talks between CIA director George Tenet and Arafat on restructuring Palestinian security services, may have strengthened Sharon's hand, say analysts here. The Palestinian Authority says that it is unable to stop such attacks because of Israeli military actions that have decimated its security forces. The bus bombing was claimed by Islamic Jihad.

But even if Bush is persuaded to dilute the conference and support Arafat's expulsion, the US and Sharon will still face a major problem: Arafat's continued strong position at home.

"All of the time that Arafat is around, I doubt there will be any Palestinian who will say, 'I am an alternative,'" says Wadi Abu Nasser, a Haifa-based political analyst. "When Arafat is challenged, as he was today, people forget about corruption in the Palestinian Authority and remember their national hero," he added.

"America has been talking for 10 years about the need to replace Saddam, but there is no Iraqi to do that mission," says Abu Nasser. "Bush's problem is that he cannot rule Ramallah. He would have to find a Palestinian to do that."

Still, Abu Nasser predicts that Sharon will succeed in "minimizing the impact" of Mubarak's visit and averting American support for significant peace moves. "I call the American administration 'Likud [Sharon's political party] B.' Sharon doesn't really have to convince anyone except for [US Secretary of State] Powell. The others [in the administration] are even more radical about Arafat than the Israelis."

"This means that it will be more difficult for Arafat to function in the international arena," he said. "But it does not mean he will not survive."

Palestinian pollster Nabil Kukali says that his latest surveys indicate 46 percent of the public support Arafat, compared with 55 percent before Israel's West Bank offensive in April, and 81 percent during the siege in Ramallah.

While support for Arafat has slipped, it hasn't reached reached the ebb of 33 percent a year ago, he says. "He is the strongest man in this area," says Dr. Kukali. "The Palestinians may disagree with him, but they respect him. For the time being, people see no other leader."

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