Using as an excuse Israel’s aborted 10-day siege of his Ramallah compound, Yasir Arafat this week delayed reforms of the Palestinian Authority demanded by the United States. And bolstered by a rise in his popularity during the siege, the Palestinian leader scuttled plans to appoint a prime minister until after the creation of a Palestinian state.
“Arafat is not interested in reforms,” said Eytan Gilboa, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. “He is doing all he can to avoid them because they are designed to weaken him. And this is one of the main problems of the Bush strategy — how are those who are opposed to reforms supposed to carry them out?”
A swift end of the siege Sunday came as a result of intense pressure from the Bush administration, including a phone call from the president to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Washington feared the siege would undercut its efforts to garner Arab support for an attack on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Sharon was criticized on the right in Israel for ordering the troop withdrawal and on the left for carrying out the siege in the first place. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Shirmon Peres called the whole operation “superfluous” and added: “It delayed [reform] processes, and it mobilized support for Arafat [across the Arab world] as well as the non-Arab world, all unnecessarily.”
Arafat, who was supposed to have appointed his new cabinet this week, was given a three-week delay after meeting with his Fatah Central Committee. The cabinet is to sit until new legislative and presidential elections Jan. 20. The committee also accepted Arafat’s contention that the appointment of a power-sharing prime minister is not now possible.
Although a majority of Palestinians polled in August said they favored the appointment of a prime minister – and many Palestinian reformers have also pressed for it – Gilboa said it is unrealistic to expect anyone to override Arafat’s decision.
“The appointment of a prime minster became a litmus test for Arafat’s intentions on reforms and his rejection of it until the creation of a state would delay it for at least three years, according to the American plan,” he said.
But some Palestinian voices for reform continued to be heard this week. Several legislators from Fatah pointed out that Palestinians risked their lives by violating the curfew in Ramallah to stage street demonstrations in Arafat’s support.
Now, they said, he needed to give something back to the people.
Gerald Steinberg, another political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the internal Palestinian political scene has resumed “percolating” now that the focus is no longer on the Israeli siege of Arafat’s compound. He cast doubt on the planned Jan. 20 Palestinian elections, explaining that Israeli troops would continue to occupy the major Palestinian cities “until there is a framework for security” drawn up with Palestinian secruity forces.
“If there is no withdrawal, there will be no elections,” Steinberg said. “Arafat does not want elections, so he will blame it on Israel.”
After the siege, Israeli troops took up positions in buildings surrounding Arafat’s compound and arrested about 40 terrorist suspects in the terroritories. Among those arrested was the Palestinian leader of a pro-Iraqi faction in the West Bank said to be responsible for handing out money to support the families of those wounded or killed in the violence. He is said to have given out up to $25,000 of Iraqi money to the families of suicide bombers.
Sharon’s critics this week complained that by quickly ending the siege he had allowed 19 major terrorists to flee the compound after having insisted during the stand-off that they be handed over for trial. Israeli media reported that Sharon berated his defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, for allowing the men to escape. But reports at mid-week said that 16 of the 19 were still in the compound with Arafat and that Sharon ordered their arrest should they try to flee.
A day after the end of the siege, a fierce gun battle erupted in Nablus during which one Israeli soldier, Sgt. Ari Weiss, 21, was shot and killed and another soldier, Shai Haim, seriously wounded. The Weiss family, which made aliyah a decade ago from Dallas, was the subject of a Jerusalem Post feature two weeks ago about Susie Weiss organizing an effort that sent extra food supplies to her son and his 34 fellow soldiers in Nablus.
Steinberg said there would be an inquiry to see whether the two soldiers were “exposed without following proper military procedures.” He noted that a review of Israeli operations in Jenin, in which 13 reservists were lost in one battle, was sharply critical of the army for the way it conducted the operation.
But overall, Steinberg said, the policy of the Israeli government has largely succeeded in the last two months. Aside from two suicide bombings a day apart two weeks ago that killed seven Israelis, “there is a sense that civilians are not being killed, buses are not being blown up and more and more Palestinian [terrorists] are being caught. The policy is successful, despite these aberrations.”
In an address to Jewish leaders Monday, Sharon predicted an end to Palestinian violence “within a number of months,” to be followed by diplomatic progress. But he gave no reason for his optimism as the violence began a third year this week.
Just a day later, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks by the end of the year and to obey United Nations resolutions, just as Iraq must obey them. And he said Israel’s pre-1967 borders should be used as a basis in final status talks.
“Yes, what is happening in the Middle East now is ugly and wrong — the Palestinians living in increasingly abject conditions, humiliated and hopeless, Israeli civilians brutally murdered,” he told his Labor Party’s annual conference.
Blair comments came in response to criticism from left-wingers in his party that he was pressing for a war with Iraq while making no effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Blair offered no new roadmap on how to bring the two sides together and did not suggest that Britain take the lead in this.
An adviser to Sharon, Dore Gold, said Blair’s comments, which were later endorsed by President George W. Bush, were “inconsistent” with Bush’s June 24 speech calling for an end to the current Palestinian leadership.
“How can you replace Arafat and yet have the negotiations he is proposing?” Gold asked.
Regarding United Nations Resolution 242, Gold noted that it does not call for Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 borders but rather to “secure and recognized boundaries.” He said, in fact, that the resolution was crafted by the British representative to the United Nations under another Labor Party prime minister, Harold Wilson.
“Prime Minister Blair’s reference to a withdrawal based on the 1967 lines appears to deny Israel the territorial flexibility originally granted by the British drafters of the resolution,” he said.
Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University noted that Israel is not happy with both Bush and Blair speaking of the need to comply with U.N. resolutions, which automatically generates “30 to 40 anti-Israel votes.
“They are giving the U.N. an opportunity to become legitimate again, and for Israel that is a very big problem,” he observed. “Israel has to make the case that the U.N. is not legitimate” when it comes to dealing with the Mideast conflict.
Meanwhile, on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, Hezbollah terrorists fired four anti-aircraft salvos Tuesday, causing some fires on the Israeli side of the border. While in Moscow at the beginning of the week, Sharon received assurances that Russia would not sell shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. Sharon expressed concern that the missiles could end up in the hands of Hezbollah.
Although there has been concern in Israel that Syria might give the go-ahead to Hezbollah to launch a missile attack on Israel to delay and American attack on Iraq, Gilboa of Bar-Ilan University raised what he said was a more likely scenario — a Hezbollah attack during an American assault on Iraq.
“Hezbollah has accumulated a major arsenal of medium range missiles and the fear is that it would use them against Israel to trigger a massive Israeli response that would lead to an eruption of Arab-Israeli relations that could negatively affect the war against Iraq,” he said.