JERUSALEM — The Israeli government apparently has given up plans to assassinate, deport or otherwise harm Yasser Arafat and is now relying on nature to take its course and remove the Palestinian leader from power, via his allegedly deteriorating health.
Sources in Prime Minister Sharon’s office told the Forward this week that Israeli intelligence believes Arafat is “critically ill” and may soon be incapable of maintaining his leadership. The sources conceded, albeit reluctantly, that the expectation of a deterioration in Arafat’s medical condition was the main basis for Sharon’s promise, in a Knesset speech this week, that the peace process could move forward “in just a few months.”
The lingering hope that God, fate and Arafat’s advancing age will intervene on behalf of Sharon and his ministers appears to have evolved into a linchpin of Israeli policy, replacing any and all diplomatic initiatives. The government has severed all political dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, awaiting daily news on Arafat’s state of health and on the continuing power struggles among his would-be successors.
The political stalemate comes against the backdrop of an escalating air and land campaign being waged by the army inside the West Bank and Gaza, in the wake of the recent deadly terrorist attack in Haifa, in which 21 Israelis were killed. The steadily increasing numbers of “collateral” Palestinian civilian casualties have generated scattered but growing criticism inside Israel. Both in the media and among opposition politicians, the government’s policies are described as “brutal,” “futile,” “counter-productive” or all of the above.
Official government spokesmen have expressed regret for civilian deaths — President Moshe Katsav publicly extended “condolences” to families of civilian dead — but insisted Israel had no choice.
The government’s diplomatic inaction has also helped to keep a public spotlight on the so-called Geneva Understandings, the unofficial permanent-status accord recently drafted in talks between senior Israeli leftists, led by Yossi Beilin, and high-ranking Palestinian officials. Sharon and his allies have directed a steady barrage of vituperation and brimstone against the document’s Israeli sponsors, with one coalition lawmaker, Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party, actually urging this week that they be tried on charges of treason — a crime punishable by death, he helpfully noted.
But while the drawing of political battle lines around Beilin’s agreement may have driven some wavering Likudniks to rally around Sharon’s leadership, the growing disenchantment with his diplomatic and military policies in the left and center, coupled with nonstop news of Israel’s deepening economic morass, have brought Sharon’s approval ratings to their lowest point ever. In polls conducted by the daily Ma’ariv, Sharon’s ratings have dipped dramatically, from nearly 60% at the start of the year, before the last elections, to less than 40% now.
Thus, lacking any reason to believe that country’s security or economic situation is going to improve in the near future, it may not be surprising that so many top political and military leaders are pinning their hopes on Arafat’s reported health woes as a sort of deus ex machina that turn things around. Arafat’s health has become the focus of intense media scrutiny in recent weeks, after it was revealed that teams of doctors had been brought to Ramallah from Jordan and Egypt to diagnose and treat the Palestinian chairman.
Aides to Arafat tried to downplay the severity of the illnesses, maintaining this week that Arafat will have to undergo a relatively simple gall bladder operation, and that’s it. But persistent reports reaching the Israeli press have indicated that Arafat’s ailment is more serious. Rumored diagnoses range from chronic inflammation of the digestive tract to pancreatic cancer. The chief of military intelligence, Major General Aharon Ze’evi, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week that Arafat is “seriously ill,” but refused to specify the chairman’s exact malady.
Sharon’s hope that ill-health will soon overcome his arch-nemesis has apparently replaced all other plans for dealing with Arafat, in effect overriding the recent Cabinet decision in principle to “remove” the Palestinian chairman in the near future. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post last week, Sharon appeared to be backing away from the threat of expulsion, saying that such a move would not serve the interests of Israel. According to diplomatic sources, the United States recently warned Sharon explicitly against any move to expel Arafat, saying that most of the current Palestinian leadership would probably opt to leave with him. That would leave Israel with no viable negotiating partner on the Palestinian side, potentially creating chaos throughout the Palestinian territories.
Ze’evi told the Knesset committee that various Palestinian groups, including the official Palestinian security bodies, are already busy stocking up and arming themselves in anticipation of the “day after” Arafat. He said a battle was expected among those hoping to seize power in the vacuum that will most likely ensue. Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said “a bloodbath” might erupt in the territories if no clear successor to Arafat emerges. They declined to comment on whether Israel would stay out and let the Palestinians kill each other, or whether it would intervene, to the point of retaking Palestinian cities currently under Palestinian control.
Increasingly, Israeli decision-makers are concerned that even without Arafat’s collapse a state of chaos may develop if, as expected, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei makes good on his threat to resign next month. Qurei has threatened to step down November 4 because of ongoing differences with Arafat over control of the Palestinian security apparatus. Military sources believe that the widely respected Palestinian finance minister, Saleem Fayad, may quit together with Qurei, further diminishing whatever small hopes remain for a competent and reasonable Palestinian government.
The complete breakdown of political contacts with Qurei’s temporary Cabinet is also a result of what is perceived in Israel as the Bush administration’s growing reluctance to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, due both to the impending election campaign and the continuing American focus on Iraq. The terrorist attack on an American diplomatic convoy in Gaza, in which three Americans were killed, is seen in Israel as having hardened American attitudes toward the Palestinian government, and accentuated the dangers of high-level American involvement in the conflict. In this context, it was perhaps symbolic that the State Department issued a new travel advisory this week, warning American citizens to stay away not only from Gaza and the West Bank but from Israel proper as well.
The sense that the situation in the territories is deteriorating steadily, coupled with the deepening gloom in Israeli public opinion, may have been what spurred Labor Party leader Shimon Peres this week to deliver one of harshest criticisms of the prime minister in the opening session of the Knesset. Peres, who has mostly refrained from attacking Sharon and continues to maintain cordial personal relations with the prime minister, said that Sharon had “missed all the trains” and “squandered all the chances” to move the peace process forward.
Peres’s newfound militancy may also be aimed at rallying Labor troops around his leadership at a time when party leaders are split down the middle in their attitude toward Beilin’s Geneva Understandings. While the party’s dovish wing, led by Avraham Burg and Amram Mitzna, is closely identified with Beilin’s initiative, the centrist and more hawkish wing, led by former prime minister Ehud Barak, has strongly rejected the agreement. Barak has criticized Beilin in terms no less savage than those leveled at him from the right.
Peres and other Labor leaders are concerned that disagreements over the Geneva Understandings could ultimately develop into a real split in the party, with the dovish wing leaving Labor and joining Meretz to form a so-called Social Democratic Party, something long championed by Beilin. Given the growing discontent on the left toward both Sharon’s policies and Labor’s feeble opposition, Peres felt he had no choice but to escalate his own rhetoric.
Nonetheless, Labor insiders do not rule out the possibility that a national unity government might still emerge, despite Peres’s own denials and growing internal strife. Sharon’s coalition is teetering, thanks to a raging feud between the National Religious Party and the secularist Shinui over the government’s intention to place the country’s rabbinic courts under the control of the Justice Ministry, which is headed by Shinui leader Yosef Lapid. The religious party is threatening to bolt the coalition if the change takes place, while Shinui is threatening to do the same if the reform is left to linger.
Sharon thus has his hands full on all fronts, even without the annoyance of the continuing police investigations of alleged wrongdoings by the Sharon family. Under these circumstances it is, perhaps, small wonder that Sharon is so fervently praying for Arafat to bow out, if not to pass away altogether. That would make everything — for Sharon at least — worthwhile.