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Decision To ‘Get Rid’ of Arafat Instead Isolates Israeli Leader

JERUSALEM — In addition to strengthening Yasser Arafat and isolating Israel diplomatically, last week’s in-principle decision by the Israeli security cabinet to “get rid” of the Palestinian leader appears to have damaged Prime Minister Sharon’s already shaky domestic political standing.

The decision, announced last week after a pair of suicide bombings that left 15 people dead, has embroiled Israel in a fierce confrontation with virtually the entire international community. Despite the American veto of a one-sided Syrian-sponsored Security Council resolution, Washington has also warned Israel harshly against expelling Arafat.

The government’s decision to “get rid” of Arafat in principle, but not yet in practice, has also galvanized the Israeli left out of its three-year-old lethargy, with leaders of the Labor Party and others on the left openly criticizing Sharon in harsh terms unheard since the start of the intifada.

The ongoing and deepening investigations of alleged wrongdoing by Sharon and his family are also exacting an increasing political toll. According to a recent poll published in the daily Ma’ariv, an overwhelming majority of the public, 57% to 17%, believes that Sharon and his sons, notwithstanding their vehement denials, are guilty of the misdeeds alleged by the police and the Justice Ministry.

But most injurious of all, perhaps, is the ongoing economic recession and the perceived failure of the government to find a remedy. After the Cabinet this week approved proposed budget for 2004, with yet more drastic cuts in welfare payments and social services, Sharon and his government were roundly lambasted for appeasing the rich at the expense of the increasingly desperate poor. Anger over the budget ran across the political spectrum, with parts of his own coalition close to open revolt.

In one of the clearest signs of new movement on the left, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres called a press conference this week for a merger of Labor with the economically populist One Nation party, led by social firebrand Amir Peretz, the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation. The proposed merger may be insignificant in parliamentary terms, merely increasing Labor’s Knesset faction from 19 to 22, but it would give the hitherto languishing party a potentially powerful social-economic voice, at a time when the government is most vulnerable on these issues. It would also put the popular Peretz in the running for leadership of Labor.

The move coincides with Peres’s decision to end his previous stance of supporting Sharon and his diplomatic policies “from the outside” and to roundly criticize the prime minister for the first time, in the wake of the Cabinet decision on Arafat. Peres, who will be celebrating his 80th birthday with much public fanfare this week, said that the Arafat decision was a “momentous mistake” that could destroy hope for peace and unite the Arab and Muslim world against Israel. The Labor Party leadership, hitherto pining to join Sharon’s coalition, has now decided instead to launch a public campaign calling for Sharon’s deposal, a move that would have been considered tantamount to political suicide only a few short months ago, when Sharon’s popularity was at its peak.

The decision to expel Arafat — or even to “liquidate him,” as both Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Trade and Industry Minister Ehud Olmert have suggested — also garnered fierce condemnation in the media, with editorials and commentaries attacking Sharon and his government in the harshest terms used since his election two and a half years ago. An editorial in the daily Ha’aretz described the government as “entrenched in stupidity” while its leading columnist, Yoel Marcus, scathingly painted Sharon as a “withering prime minister, with question marks about his judgment and growing doubts about his integrity and about his ability to provide any political or security solutions.”

The Ma’ariv poll also showed Sharon’s approval ratings dipping deeper into the negative, with a plurality of 46% to 43% saying for the first time since his election as prime minister that it would prefer to see someone else running the country.

Although the general public has traditionally expressed support for Arafat’s expulsion, especially after last week’s twin suicide bombings, the Cabinet decision last week was nonetheless widely seen as a grave mistake, which may have granted the despised Palestinian leader an “insurance policy” against future moves by Israel. Arafat’s surging popularity in the West Bank and Gaza in the wake of the Israeli declaration effectively wiped out Israeli hopes of finding an alternative leadership in the foreseeable future. Indeed, Arafat was visibly taking back the reins of Palestinian policy, directly proposing to Sharon a new cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The Arafat decision also appears to have dealt Israel a diplomatic setback with immediate consequences. According to informed diplomatic sources here, the decision came just as the Madrid Quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — was on the verge of declaring Arafat an “obstacle to peace.” The sources said Arafat’s continuing efforts last week to block the attempt by his own prime minister-designate, Ahmed Qurei, to set up a functional and cohesive “emergency cabinet” had enraged Western diplomats, including U.N. special representative Terje Larsen. Representatives of the quartet had already agreed to issue a public statement condemning Arafat but scuttled the plan after learning of the Israeli Cabinet decision. Qurei retreated to the background, saying that under these circumstances he would not set up a new government, while Arafat assumed center stage.

The developing situation has now placed Sharon and his government squarely between a rock and a hard place. If and when another major terrorist attack takes place — and few doubt that it will — the government will come under intense domestic pressure to move against Arafat. Having aroused international opposition with this week’s announcement, however, the actual move could risk unprecedented diplomatic isolation.

Compounding Sharon’s problems was his decision once again to delay final Cabinet action on the completion of the so-called security fence between Israel and the West Bank. Sharon’s postponement reminded the public that the construction of the fence has been delayed for months by the government’s inability to decide where to build it. Government planners are torn between including the West Bank town of Ariel inside the fence — thus incurring the wrath of the Bush administration — or excluding Ariel — and thus angering the far right and the powerful political lobby of West Bank Jewish settlers. Sources inside the Defense Ministry have told the Forward that the temporary solution found would have the fence completed in all other areas but Ariel, leaving a gap to be guarded by an expanded contingent of army and border patrol units.

One element of irony in the government’s current predicament is that it comes at a time when its tough policies toward Hamas appear to be paying off. According to well-placed security sources, the Hamas leadership is “running scared” because of the government’s decision to liquidate the top echelons of the organization. Hamas leaders have issued appeals both to Arafat and to Arab governments for emergency assistance. According to these sources, if Sharon and his ministers had allowed Qurei to set up his new government, it might now have been in a unique position to clamp down on Hamas as never before.

It should be remembered, however, that any new outbreak of violence, as predicted by most of the Israeli defense analysts, is likely to renew the public’s clamor for tough measures against the Palestinians, and this could revive public support for Sharon, at least in the short run. Political analysts maintain, nonetheless, that with the apparent collapse of President Bush’s road map to Middle East peace, Sharon may have run out of diplomatic options, a development that will ultimately erode public support for his government.

But despite the spreading public and political criticism, it is probably only Sharon’s legal entanglements that could ultimately bring him down. Sharon’s parliamentary majority is solid, at least for the time being, but a Justice Ministry decision to indict him, or even one of his sons, would probably topple his government. Until then, the Israeli public appears to be headed, once again, for a winter of extreme discontent.

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