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Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, is a time of deep reflection and symbolism about the challenges that life presents. In the midst of another cycle of violence in Israel, that symbolism rarely felt heavier. A suicide bomb in the northern port city of Haifa left at least 19 dead on the Sabbath before Yom Kippur, and pushed the Israeli government another step closer to removing Palestinian Chairman Yasir Arafat.
In public, the Bush administration recited the usual condemnations and offered the familiar condolences. But in private conversations with the region’s leaders, there is a sense that the United States has reached the end of the line. The White House is stuck with an Israeli leader it will not oppose and a Palestinian leader it cannot abide. The White House used to talk about peace in the Mideast. Now the talk focuses on how to stop the region from falling into the abyss.
In a written statement, President Bush never mentioned Arafat by name, focusing instead on “the responsibility of Palestinian authorities to fight terror.” But in private, it was all Arafat, all the time. White House officials called Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s aides, urging them to hold off their official government policy of expelling, or even killing, Arafat. They also called Arab leaders, pressing them once again to persuade Arafat to crack down on terrorism.
It’s a refrain that has grown stale to many in the region. Arab leaders insist they can lean on Arafat only as much as the Bush administration leans on Sharon. The United States pleads with Sharon to think of “the consequences” of his actions. (Translation: Arafat’s removal will set the region on fire.) But the White House believes it has little leverage. “Not only is Israel a sovereign state, but it’s a democratic state,” said one senior administration official. “The Israeli people elected Sharon to bring security.”
In spite of their bluster, the Israelis admit they look to the Bush White House before they strike. And what they are seeing is a green light, as long as Arafat remains untouched. “If Israel will step up its actions and perhaps occupy certain areas, I don’t think this will be objected to by the U.S. and even Europe,” says a senior Israeli official, “whereas deporting Arafat is still something that would create a major, major problem.” In a land of twisted symbols, the Israeli delay in expelling Arafat looks like self-restraint. But it remains a long, long way from peace.
—Richard Wolffe and Dan Ephron