Thu, 18 Sep 2003

Is Sharon really going to have Arafat killed?

Gwynne Dyer, Columnist, London

"Killing (Yasser Arafat) is definitely one of the options," said Israel's deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert last Sunday. "We are trying to eliminate all the heads of terror, and Arafat is one of the heads of terror." It is the first time in 15 years that a senior Israeli leader has openly called for Arafat's death, and it is not immediately obvious why he should do so now.

The recent round of violence that destroyed the June ceasefire, with Israeli targeted assassinations of Palestinian militia leaders alternating with Palestinian suicide bombings, had no direct connection to Arafat.

As part of the concerted Israeli-American effort to sideline Arafat and create a more malleable Palestinian leadership over the past two years, there have been endless assertions by both Jerusalem and Washington of Arafat's continuing involvement in terrorism, and no doubt his intelligence services are aware of some of the militias' plans.

But there is no evidence that Arafat has collaborated with the extremists in their plans, nor that he could stop them even if he wanted to.

Olmert's argument skipped past all that and took Arafat's leading role in sponsoring terrorist attacks against Israel as a given. "From a moral point of view, (the assassination of Arafat) is no different from others who were involved in acts of terror.

It is only a practical question. What is the benefit? What will be the reaction?" Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet security service, even contended that killing Arafat would actually be safer than sending him into exile, because the furor would die down more quickly if the Palestinian leader were dead.

There is certainly a case for saying that Arafat should have died 15 years ago. His career as a terrorist was remarkably successful, bringing global recognition to the Palestinians as a distinct people with rights to at least some of the land of former Palestine.

But as a diplomat, and later as the elected president of the Palestinian Authority, he combined corrupt and nepotistic rule at home with hopelessly naive negotiating tactics with Israel. As Gen. Yusuf Nasser, newly nominated as interior minister in the PA government, allegedly told Arafat last week, he was "the most incompetent revolutionary leader in history."

Wishing Arafat dead is not the same as killing him, however, nor does any sane observer believe that murdering him would lead to a decline in terrorist attacks on Israel. On the contrary, as senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat warned last Sunday, "Militias (like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Brigades) would take over with machine-guns. The first thing they would kill me, like the rest of the moderates." The people around Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are intelligent enough to understand that, so why are they toying with the idea of killing Arafat?

There is an interpretation of events, quite widespread among both Israelis and Palestinians, which argues that the extremists on the two sides act in tacit collaboration to prevent more moderate groups from successfully negotiating a compromise peace. The hard right in Israel makes the necessary noises about peace to placate Washington, but it does not really want to trade the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories for a peace it does not trust in any case.

Palestinian extremists, both Islamist and secular, are equally determined to thwart a two-state solution that leaves a demilitarized Palestinian state in a permanently inferior relationship with an Israel that still controls almost 80 percent of former Palestine.

Killing Arafat would destroy the civilian government of the Palestinian Authority and bring the militias to power, ending all pressure on the Israeli government for concessions leading to a peace agreement. There would be a storm of condemnation of Sharon's government at first, but the current U.S. administration would not abandon him under any circumstances.

And provided his coalition holds together, Sharon would then have almost four more years to thicken up Jewish settlements in the West Bank and wall them off from the remaining Palestinian parts of the territory behind his "security fence".

Nobody knows if this is now Sharon's intention, maybe not even Sharon himself. It would probably put paid to the hope of an Israeli-Palestinian negotiated peace for a generation, but that was never Sharon's dream anyway. As Hemi Shalev wrote in Ma'ariv on Sunday: "The government has placed a loaded gun on the table, and with the next terror attack, if and when it occurs, it is plausible that its only choice will be to shoot -- even if the main victim is Israel itself."