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Reading tea leaves in the Middle East

As the siege of Yasser Arafat generates sympathy for the Palestinian leader, is Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon showing military brilliance or blunder? NBC’s Jim Maceda reports
/ Source: NBC News

It has all the ingredients to make guerrilla leaders giddy: Here’s Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, holed up with his lieutenants inside a rubble-strewn, Palestinian-flagged compound that has already been likened to the Alamo, surrounded by Israeli tanks and the international press corps.

INSIDE HIS RUINED headquarters, Arafat phones world leaders, claiming he would rather fight and die than surrender or turn over his band of men to the occupying forces. The international community, meanwhile, is watching every move, and Washington is fearful that whatever plays out in Ramallah will influence its buildup against Iraq.

President Bush has already warned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to back off in Ramallah — this from the same American president who called Arafat “irrelevant” only months ago. Arafat irrelevant? Someone, it seems, forgot to tell Sharon.

The contradiction — pounced upon by the Western press — goes something like this: If Sharon intends to make Arafat irrelevant in order to make way for a new generation of Palestinian leadership that he can do business with, his siege in Ramallah is having just the opposite effect.

First, it’s made Arafat stronger in the eyes of his people. Just witness the tens of thousands of Palestinians, from Gaza to Lebanon, who have marched — and died — in the streets, in his name, since the assault began seven days ago.

Next, Sharon has managed, in one fell swoop, to put on hold any talk or move toward reforms within the Palestinian Authority, which many Palestinians agree is corrupt and undemocratic.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the so-called “new” Palestinian leadership is hunkering down, unwilling to emerge while Arafat is humiliated in Ramallah, for fear of being perceived as “collaborators” by the Palestinian Street.

“Does Sharon really think that anyone is going to move against Arafat?” asks his national security adviser, Mohammed Dahlan — seen by many in the Bush administration as one of Arafat’s heirs-apparent. “There’s no way anything will change with the chairman under so much pressure. Sharon has set reforms back by months.”


So why is Sharon, known as a brilliant military tactician, making such an obvious blunder? Some suggest that it’s all part of a plot to keep the status quo: Sharon cracks down on Arafat rather than the terrorists in Hamas or Islamic Jihad, and in that way kills all chances to jump-start the peace process, which would make the right-wing Sharon very happy.

But there are not a few respected voices in Israel — across the political spectrum — who say Sharon, finally, is getting it right.

Joyce Starr, a senior research fellow at Israel’s top counterterrorism think tank, says, “Sharon’s biggest mistake over the past few years is to move, then hesitate. To move back and forth, trying to respond to international pressure, to Bush, the Europeans. And whenever he does that, he sets himself back.”

But why move now on Arafat if, as the Palestinian leader insists, he has no control over the radical Islamic groups?

Analysts like Boaz Ganor, also a counterterrorism expert, beg to differ. “The question is, of course, is Arafat able to stop all terrorist attacks — not only his own Tanzim militia, but also Hamas and Islamic Jihad? Personally, I believe that the answer is yes.”

Arafat, Ganor says, still commands complete loyalty from his security chiefs, like Dahlan, who have the guns and infrastructure — especially in Gaza where Hamas and Islamic Jihad maintain their logistical headquarters — to move on the militants. But Arafat doesn’t give the order to his security people to confiscate weapons and make arrests because that would trigger an internecine conflict the chairman fears he could lose.

Ganor’s conclusion is that Arafat is able, but not willing, to strike at the terrorists. “He does not have control only because he chooses not to have control. This is very different from losing control. Sharon is trying to force Arafat to take control again, which he probably can do.” Ganor believes that, when the situation at the Ramallah compound reaches a “critical mass,” Arafat will give the orders to his operatives in Gaza and the West Bank to crack down on the terrorists.


But that’s when things get really murky, says Yoram Binur, an Arab affairs specialist. “One reason why Sharon hasn’t gone into Gaza to take out Hamas and Islamic Jihad himself, besides wanting to avoid a bloodbath, is that both Islamic militant groups serve a purpose. The presence of strong Islamic groups helps to weaken the Palestinian national movement — heavily armed and well-trained groups like Fatah and other Arafat-linked forces, that Sharon fears just as much.”

From this perspective, it makes sense for Sharon to attack both Arafat and the terrorist groups — to keep either from dominating inside the territories. And, according to Binur, that is exactly Sharon’s game plan.

“It’s a double-sword” approach,” says Binur. “On the one hand you see more of a political assault on Arafat, in Ramallah. On the other end you see an Israeli military offensive against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank, where the Israelis are making big strides against terror.”

In recent days, Sharon has hinted publicly that he is close to making a military move on Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, despite the human cost of invading the densely populated and highly militarized Strip.

So, in the final analysis, observers say there may well be method in the Israeli leader’s madness: Sharon’s is a difficult path: he wants to make Yasser Arafat irrelevant on Earth, fully knowing that is impossible short of sending him in a space ship to the moon. Why does Sharon persist?

Analyst Starr has one theory, which has nothing to do with ideology or tactics and everything to do with a decades-old rivalry between two warriors-cum-survivors.

“I think Sharon has one desire right now: To put an exclamation point next to the word ‘evil.’ To make it clear that finally the state of Israel and the Jewish people and Ariel Sharon have said, ‘Enough. Enough of Arafat!’”

These are the emotions that will play out in the days ahead, for all the world to see. Yasser Arafat, some would say, couldn’t be happier.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in the Middle East.