JERUSALEM — In the wake of this week’s deadly terrorist attacks, pressure is mounting within Israel’s political and defense establishment for an all-out onslaught against both Hamas and Yasser Arafat, possibly ending the road map process and toppling the Palestinian Authority altogether.
The United States and the European Union were working at midweek to restrain the Israeli response, urging the government instead to give “one last chance” to the P.A. under its newly-designated prime minister, Ahmed Qurei. Official Jerusalem is responding with outright skepticism, viewing Qurei as little more than a tool of the discredited Arafat. In private, however, some officials suggest that Qurei’s chances of success may be significantly higher than those of his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas.
Moreover, Prime Minister Sharon is known to be extremely wary of offending the Bush administration and is considered unlikely to authorize a move against Arafat until he senses at least tacit approval from Washington. Sharon was in transit this week, forced to cut short his first-ever visit to India in order to deal with the attacks.
In the interim, plans were being formulated within the security establishment for an operation aimed at decimating Hamas while leaving Arafat’s P.A. relatively intact. The proposed campaign would combine attacks from the air with commando raids on terrorist strongholds in Gaza.
The terrorism wave, commonly described here as a war of suicide attacks and retaliatory assassinations between Israel and Hamas, escalated sharply last weekend in the wake of the failed Israeli attempt to liquidate the entire Hamas leadership. At midweek, Hamas terrorists had answered with two separate suicide bombings, at a cafe in Jerusalem and a bus stop in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion, in which at least 15 Israelis were killed.
The new explosion of terrorism cast a dark pall over the Israeli public’s mood, bringing it back to the worst days of the three-year intifada. Following Tuesday’s double suicide bombings, streets, malls and restaurants abruptly emptied. The public again began avoiding public places and gatherings and individuals were voicing extreme anxiety about their own safety.
Since the attacks, Sharon has come under intense domestic pressure to take a dramatic, strategic step that might cut the unending cycle of violence. But there was less consensus than ever as to what the step should be. While voices on the right repeated their longstanding call to expel Arafat, an increasingly restive left was calling on Sharon to embrace Qurei and renew the peace process, even to the point of renewing the dialogue with Arafat.
Sharon and most of his ministers regard Qurei as a mere Arafat yes-man who is no more likely than his predecessor to move forcefully against the terrorists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In private, however, some Sharon aides admit that the naming of Qurei, also known as Abu Ala, was a masterful political stroke by the wily Arafat. As an author of the 1993 Oslo accords and a close friend of some leading Israeli politicians, Qurei’s credentials as a peace negotiator and champion of political dialogue with Israel are well nigh impeccable. The surfacing of his name forced both Jerusalem and Washington to discard their original intention of vetoing any new Arafat appointee, and instead to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.
Some Israeli officials and analysts maintain that Qurei’s prospective regime has several factors working in its favor, in comparison to the brief and failed tenure of Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. First and foremost is the very fact that Qurei, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, was the handpicked favorite of Arafat. In contrast, Abbas’s appointment was forced on Arafat by Israel and the international community. Qurei was also the unanimous candidate of Arafat’s Fatah movement, while Abbas was opposed by many senior Fatah figures. Once in office Qurei can expect far greater backing from both Arafat and the mainstream Palestinian political leadership.
It is possible, too, that because of Qurei’s alliance with Arafat, the full range of Palestinian security forces could now be subordinated to a single line of command. That would contrast sharply with the confusing, paralyzing structure that emerged under Abbas, whose security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, commanded less than half of the Palestinian security agencies. Dahlan’s touted successor, General Nasser Yusuf, is a confidante of Arafat and is expected to demand overall responsibility for the entire Palestinian security apparatus.
From the Israeli point of view, Yusuf can also claim to his credit that he is the only Palestinian officer who has ever confronted Hamas head-on. He led Palestinian security forces in their March 1996 clampdown on the Islamic group, leaving 14 Hamas activists killed.
Qurei also has forged extensive political contacts within the Israeli political community, dating from his pivotal role in the secret negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo accords and during the ensuing negotiations that continued throughout the 1990s. Former prime minister Shimon Peres is thought to be a close friend. The designated Palestinian prime minister has also met several times with Sharon himself, including a secret rendezvous earlier this year at Sharon’s Sycamore Ranch in the Negev. The two hit it off well and established a close rapport, informed sources said.
While Abbas was in office, Israel argued that Arafat’s deportation would remove the main obstacle to Abbas’s success. With Qurei in charge, it is clear that expelling Arafat would topple the P.A. and create a dangerous power vacuum. The Bush administration, already reluctant to give Israel a green light to expel Arafat because of its potential destabilizing effect throughout the Middle East — including Iraq — is likely to be even more cautious with Qurei in charge.
Informed Palestinian sources warn that Qurei’s main strategic goal as prime minister will not be to advance the peace process with Israel. He and his fellow Palestinian leaders do not believe Sharon and his government can be induced to make the concessions necessary to move the peace process forward. Rather, Qurei will try to reverse the declining diplomatic fortunes of the Palestinians, and of Arafat in particular. In the short term he will seek to widen divisions between Israel and Europe, aiming in the longer run to drive a wedge between Jerusalem and Washington.
But to achieve this objective, Qurei, like his predecessor, will have to rein in Hamas. Pressure to do that will be particularly strong now that even the European Union has designated Hamas as a terrorist group. The Palestinian sources believe one of Qurei’s first moves once in office will be to seek a revival of the internal Palestinian cease-fire, or hudna. Begun in June, the cease-fire collapsed in August in the wake of Israel’s continued policy of “targeted killings” and the ensuing Hamas terrorist attacks, culminating in the August 19 bus bombing in Jerusalem that left 20 people dead. Israeli officials counter that the time for a hudna is over, and that Qurei must fight terrorism immediately — or see the end of Arafat and the P.A.
Prior to Qurei’s appointment and even before the renewed violence, there was growing support inside the Israeli Cabinet for an all-out military offensive against the Palestinians, including an armed land incursion into Gaza with extensive search-and-destroy missions, as well as a unilateral move to expel Arafat. Sharon himself is hesitant to expel Arafat without American approval, and a sizable minority of his security chiefs remain convinced that Israel would be better served by keeping Arafat penned up in Ramallah, rather than setting him free to roam world capitals and drum up support. Nonetheless, advisers say that Sharon has “lost his patience” with the Palestinians and Arafat, and that the question of Arafat’s expulsion is “now a matter of when, not if.”
Such a move, highly popular among Israelis, might bolster Sharon’s sagging popularity, at least in the short run. In addition to his failure to stem terrorism, the Sharon government’s economic policies have come under increasing criticism, and Sharon’s image is suffering from ongoing police investigations into the alleged misdeeds of him and his sons.
Columnist Yoel Marcus of Ha’aretz, one of Israel’s senior political commentators, went so far as to write this week that Sharon is approaching the “twilight of his reign” and that many Israeli politicians now believe Sharon is “nearing the end of his way as leader.”
Even if this prognosis is true, the question is whether Sharon will opt to leave with a whimper or a bang. There are two main ways for him to achieve the latter — either by acting on what many describe as his deepest-held wish, by getting rid of Arafat and the P.A. once and for all, or, to the contrary, by embracing the new opportunity created by the appointment of Qurei, and by launching a new move to push the peace process forward — against all expectations and against all odds.