Should the Palestinian leadership be judged by its words or its actions? That long-standing dilemma, and source of frustration for Israel, was underscored this week when Yasir Arafat, appearing before the Palestinian Legislative Council for the first time in 18 months, decried terror attacks against Israeli civilians even as Israel reported Palestinian plots to blow up a Tel Aviv skyscraper, bomb a hospital and poison food at a Jerusalem eatery.
"They repeat the same things," Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said of the Palestinian promises. "How many times are we going to hear those things?"
There was much confusion about whether the council meeting will lead to significant change within the Palestinian leadership. Arafat made only a joking reference to the possibility of his stepping down, saying he was tired of the pressures of his job, but some legislators expressed frustration with Arafat’s speech, which did not call for any specific, meaningful changes.
Arafat’s rambling address on Monday pointedly did not criticize attacks against Israeli soldiers and Jews who live or work in the territories. It blamed Israel for Mideast violence and declared the Palestinians’ commitment to peace.
The Israeli government refused all comment about Arafat’s speech and his promises. Just a day before the speech, Sharon told the Israeli newspaper Maariv that the diplomatic process that began with the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993 no longer exists and that it was foolish to ever believe Arafat would keep the commitments he made in that agreement.
"Some of us were naive, some of us perhaps didnít think things through well enough," Sharon said. "In any event, it no longer exists. Oslo no longer exists, Camp David no longer exists, also Taba. We’re not going back to those places."
Camp David and Taba were sites of negotiations under the government of Ehud Barak to achieve a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
The Palestinian Authority general-secretary, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, said in response that the PA might now have to reconsider its decision to recognize Israel.
A day after Arafat’s speech, a draft document leaked to the press by members of Arafat’s Fatah organization called for an end to attacks against Israeli civilians. But other Fatah members quickly denounced the document and threatened to join hard-line terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These groups have vowed not to cease such operations. But Time magazine reported this week that Israeli intelligence believes Hamas is now considering a temporary halt to attacks because 98 percent of its known military members have been arrested or killed and the group is on the verge of being "wiped out."
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he took such reports with a "grain of salt" because these terror groups are continually recruiting new members. And he noted that Israel Radio reported Wednesday that 25 Palestinians on Israel’s most wanted terrorist list have found refuge in Arafat’s compound in Ramallah.
"We’re now in a period of relative quiet, but one bomb going off like the one discovered last week could change the whole situation," he said.
He was referring to a car in the West Bank intercepted by police last week that was loaded with more than 1,300 tons of explosives, fuel and metal objects designed to maximize casualties. That is roughly the amount of dynamite used in the explosion at the World Trade Center in 1993.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported this week that indictments recently handed up in an Israeli military court claim a Hamas cell in Jenin was planning a double suicide bombing at Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer and a truck bomb explosion at a Tel Aviv skyscraper that would have been powerful enough to bring it down.
And three Arabs from East Jerusalem were arrested this week for allegedly planning to lace pitchers of a drink with poison at Jerusalem’s popular Cafe Rimon, in the heart of town. One of the men has worked at the restaurant for three years, causing the restaurant owner to say he was rethinking hiring non-Jews. About 10 percent of his 80 employees are not Jewish.
Israeli media said the split in Fatah, as evidenced from the Ramallah meeting, was apparently between West Bank and Gaza Fatah activists who have close ties to the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, Fatahís military arm, and those who live abroad.
"There are indications that elements of the Palestinian leadership have reached the conclusion that the policy of violence adopted in the intifada is a total failure and, as a result, some are seeking a way out," said Gold.
Fatah was reportedly working on a similar statement calling for an end to terrorist attacks against civilians two months ago. But it said efforts to get Hamas and other terrorist groups to sign on were thwarted by the Israeli bombing of the home of a key Hamas leader in Gaza that killed him and 14 civilians, including nine children.
Asked about Sharonís statement that he plans to meet shortly with a senior Palestinian official in a move that could lead to a breakthrough in starting peace talks, Gold replied: "If Israeli contacts lead to a total cessation of violence (as we have demanded) we will have a breakthrough. We have to give it time."
But he pointed out that Palestinian mortar attacks against Israeli settlements have continued in the Gaza Strip and two Israeli soldiers were killed in attacks there late last week, despite the fact that this is the one area in the territories in which the Palestinian police powers have not been decimated by Israeli military actions.
"Clearly they have made a choice not to confront terrorism and as a result it continues," Gold said.
He stressed that the planned meeting, reportedly with Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, would not be for the purpose of negotiations. Rather, he said, it would be to "probe positions."
Arafat has reportedly been under pressure from Arab states (particularly Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) to appoint the 68-year-old Abbas prime minister so that he could oversee far-reaching reforms the international community has called for. Abbas, considered a moderate by Israel and the United States who has called for an end to all terrorist attacks, is due to visit Washington soon to discuss the future of the Palestinian Authority with top U.S. officials.
But Arafat told reporters this week that he has no intention of appointing a prime minister until a Palestinian state is declared. He also announced Wednesday that presidential and parliamentary elections would be held Jan. 20 (the first Palestinian elections since 1996) and accepted the resignations of the Palestinian cabinet, apparently to avoid their ouster by the Palestinian parliament in a vote of no-confidence. Palestinian legislators were said to be upset with Arafat’s refusal to fire cabinet ministers they viewed as corrupt or incompetent.
On another front, there was much discussion this week about Israel’s response to a possible attack from Iraq. President Moshe Katsav noted that, unlike the Gulf War when Israel was persuaded by the U.S. not to respond to Scud missile attacks, "this time [Israel] does not intend to sit idly by with folded arms."
The Israeli media speculated that Iraq might fire unmanned aircraft carrying deadly smallpox microbes or Sarin nerve gas. Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on Iraq, said he believes Iraq would launch a chemical attack because it is more effective than a biological one.
"It need not be from a plane or a missile," he cautioned. "They could just put it in a car or in a suitcase or in someone’s pocket. And no metal detector can find it because it could be placed in a plastic bag."
Kedar said that if it is transported in the form of a powder, "it has a longer life and it stays in the air until it is washed away. … Look what happened with anthrax."