The terrorist rampage this week that killed 12 Israelis in five suicide bombings within 48 hours is being seen by Israeli leaders as orchestrated by Palestinian President Yasir Arafat to undermine the leadership of his new prime minister. Israeli leaders were said to have few military options left to stop the terror attacks, which also scuttled nascent peace efforts.
The mood in the Bush administration was described by The New York Times as one of "anxiety and depression," and the president was said to be considering meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas later this month in Kuwait or Qatar in an effort to salvage the peace process.
But, noting internal disagreement in the administration, Gerald Steinberg, a Bar-Ilan political science professor, questioned whether Bush might actually make such a trip.
"He saw what Arafat did to [former President Bill] Clinton, and there is no reason to expect that such a trip might turn out differently," he said, referring to the failed Camp David talks in the summer of 2000.
The first meeting between Sharon and Abbas, last Saturday night, was preceded by a suicide bomber in Hebron blowing himself up near an Israeli couple, killing them both. Within the next 48 hours, a suicide bomber killed seven Israelis when he detonated his explosives aboard an early morning bus in Jerusalem, and later a 19-year-old Palestinian girl blew herself up at a new shopping mall in the northern Israeli town of Afula, killing three Israelis, including a security guard.
The terror attacks this week caused Sharon to cancel his White House meeting with President George W. Bush, and reinforced his demand that Palestinian terror attacks be halted before the three-phase international road map to peace could be implemented.
Nevertheless, several analysts (and reportedly the Bush administration as well) insisted that it is up to Sharon to take concrete steps on the ground to shore up support for Abbas in the minds of the Palestinian public.
"The bombers are not going away," said Richard Murphy of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Sharon can slow them down and statistically there will be fewer dead, but he can’t stop them. There is a need for a political deal and for incentives to cause the Palestinians to increase controls on themselves. But right now there are no incentives out there and the onus is on Israel."
"Everything is pretty desperate these days," added Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria. "I would think the Israeli government had a package in mind of small things it could do without the usual charge of endangering its security. There are so many Palestinians living in desperate conditions now and to say that they should be disciplining their own, it isn’t working. So the burden should be on the stronger one, Israel. They should ease the pressure in the hope that it will create an atmosphere that will revive the spirits of the Palestinians to control their own."
Israeli observers say that Sharon is committed to helping Abbas stem the terrorism, but believes that Arafat is orchestrating the latest round of attacks. The latest Israeli strategy is to use Gaza as a testing ground for Abbas’ willingness to stop the violence.
Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said Israel was prepared to withdraw some Israeli troops from Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip, where Hamas has its stronghold. Before pulling back, the troops destroyed orchard groves and homes Israel said had been used as cover by Palestinian terrorists to launch Qassam rockets and mortar shells at Israeli such border towns as Sderot.
"Israel is looking to have the Palestinians begin this new approach by starting with the Gaza Strip," he said. "It could be tested here because the Palestinian forces have not been degraded in any way. There is no reason why in the northern Gaza Strip Palestinian security forces can’t prevent the firing of mortars and rockets."
Ephraim Sneh, who commanded Israeli forces in the southern zone of Lebanon before becoming prominent in the Labor Party, suggested the Gaza-first proposal earlier this month in an op-ed column in the New York Times.
"If the Palestinian government could show, within one year, that it had dismantled terrorist organizations in Gaza, stopped incitement and imposed law and order there, then Israel would evacuate its settlements and withdraw its troops," Sneh wrote.
But Rashid Khalidi, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago, questioned how Palestinian security forces could accomplish something the "Israeli army has utterly failed to do after two and a half years of trying to put an end to violence."
"I don’t see them as having a snowball’s chance in hell," he said. "Where did this touching faith in the Palestinian Authority’s ability come from?"
One hopeful sign to Israelis was that hundreds of residents of Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza, demonstrated on Tuesday: not against Israel but against Palestinian militants, whose rocket attacks against a nearby Israeli town prompted an Israeli invasion.
Israeli officials point out that while there had been relative quiet in recent weeks, there are continuous attempts by would-be suicide bombers. The army, aided by intelligence forces, thwarts more than 90 percent of the planned attacks, authorities say.
In response to the renewed violence, there were increasing calls within Israel for Arafat’s forced exile and for Israel to crack down on the leaders of Hamas and other terror groups. Sharon is said to be against exiling Arafat, a view reportedly shared by Israel’s intelligence establishment. Among the concerns is that Arafat would be seen as a martyr; that Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, would be seen as a traitor if he continued to work with Israel; and that it would unite moderate and radical Palestinian factions and possibly lead to increased terror attacks.
But Eran Lerman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East Office in Jerusalem, said he believes Israel is "on the brink of driving him out."
"It’s just an intuition, but for the first time in this conflict I believe it is getting close to that point," he said by phone during a visit to Holland. "If we continue to have terrorism, if Arafat continues to undercut Abu Mazen at every corner, and Europeans continue to swirl around Arafat, [forced exile] will re-emerge as an issue of discussion."
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz reportedly said this week that he remains convinced Arafat should be expelled "if he continues to be an obstacle and encourage terrorism. But for the moment, the timing is not suitable."
On Tuesday, the Israeli newspaper Maariv quoted Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as advising Sharon to "consider placing Arafat under absolute house arrest so that he cannot speak with anyone. … As long as Arafat is alive, Jews will die."
Steinberg of Bar-Ilan said that by continuing to visit Arafat "the Europeans look like fools." He noted that Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier this month met Abbas in Jericho "to make clear the difference" between him and Arafat.
Abbas pledged in a 15-minute phone conversation with Bush this week that he’s committed to reform, peace and ending all acts of terror. In an interview on Arab satellite television al-Arabiya, however, Abbas refuted Israel’s assertion that Arafat is behind the terror campaign.
"Arafat is the legitimate leader elected to lead the struggle," he said. "And we are in complete harmony."