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Demands by Hard-Liners and Outsiders Vex Sharon and Arafat

Mideast: Both leaders try to finesse political pressures. Israel kills 2 Palestinians, arrests 15.

May 15, 2002|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told lawmakers Tuesday that the nation must remain vigilant, even as the army underscored his point by raiding four West Bank villages before dawn, killing two Palestinian intelligence officers and arresting 15 suspected militants.

"There will be no sanctuary for terrorists," he told parliament, adding that peace talks would not resume until the violence stopped and the Palestinian leadership was overhauled.

In his speech--which was met by heckling that saw one legislator removed from the chamber--Sharon said his government was trying not to react to provocation, even as he accused Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat of ordering and organizing terrorist attacks.

Sharon avoided mentioning the political drubbing he received Sunday when members of the central committee of his Likud Party defied him and passed a resolution ruling out the idea of an eventual Palestinian state west of the Jordan River. Instead, the prime minister reiterated his position that any peace agreement would require a long lead time and a significant reform of the Palestinian Authority.

"There must be a different [Palestinian] Authority," he said.

A member of the Labor Party, however, questioned whether the architect of the recent intense military campaign against Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank really wants a Palestinian state.

"The prime minister can portray himself as a supporter of a Palestinian state, but we know this is not where he is headed," said Ophir Pines-Paz, a Labor lawmaker.

Arafat and his advisors reject Sharon's conditions and condemn the idea of pursuing any interim solution. Peace will come only when there is a final settlement to create an independent Palestinian nation, they counter.

Behind the rhetoric and vows on both sides never to compromise is a set of internal and external pressures that Sharon and Arafat are trying to finesse, analysts say.

In the wake of this week's Likud challenge, Sharon must decide how to position himself relative to his own party; to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his leading challenger in the party; and to the Israeli electorate.

If he decides to tilt further to the right to meet Netanyahu's challenge, he could hurt his chances in the next election, which must be held by November 2003. If he tilts closer to the center, he could lose his party's nomination.

"A lot will depend on how he plays things in the next few weeks," said Joseph Alpher, an Israeli political analyst.

Arafat also has a difficult set of problems to tackle. He's facing calls both internally and externally to reform the Palestinian Authority, streamline its decision-making structure, revamp its security apparatus and flush out corruption.

Sharon's call for reform focuses on how the Palestinian Authority deals with security and spends its money--issues that can have an immediate impact on the safety of Israeli citizens. Palestinians, on the other hand, want reform in order to placate foreign critics and to enhance their own lives through more representative government.

"These are very different agendas," said Ali Jirbawi, a political scientist with Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "About the only thing they have in common is the word 'reform.'"

Arafat faces political limits in his ability to overhaul the Palestinian Authority even if he wanted to, given the perception among his people that he would be bowing anew to U.S. and Israeli pressure.

His revolutionary credentials already were tarnished when he agreed last week to end a standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem by exiling 13 militants overseas and sending 26 more to the Gaza Strip, a concession to Israel seen by many as a sellout.

Arafat has the added problem of turf battles within his various security forces. Late Monday, Palestinian peace negotiator Hassan Asfour was beaten by five masked men, an attack that was believed to be part of this maneuvering.

Arafat is a survivor and has shown an ability to get out of tight corners. Nevertheless, what he is likely to do--perhaps as early as today, when he is scheduled to address Palestinian lawmakers--is to offer a face-saving reform plan that might include a limited election in a bid to blunt critics and buy time.

Both Arafat and Sharon face politically extreme wings of their party or movement intent on invoking past pain and violence they have suffered, said Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli author and political analyst. "There's a lot of sensitivity and some very loaded moves on the agendas of both sides," he said.

Getting these extremes to compromise is obviously very difficult, analysts said.

But viable peace talks involving a fully committed U.S. could give both leaders political cover, allowing them to shift closer to the center, analysts said.

Amid the political jostling, the Israeli army reported Tuesday that its soldiers killed Khalid abu Kheiran, a Palestinian intelligence official, and one of his deputies during a shootout in the West Bank village of Halhoul. Witnesses said a third man was arrested and another escaped. In separate actions, Israeli forces arrested 14 suspected Palestinian militants in other West Bank villages.

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