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Conflict Is Personal for Two Old Mideast Enemies

Politics: As Arafat struggles for political survival, Sharon seems to be trying to eliminate him--even if he's not the problem.

September 22, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, two of the Middle East's most steadfast enemies, are locked in what may be their final showdown, the denouement of a decades-old struggle whose outcome could reshape the region.

Coiled by barbed wire and trapped nose-to-turret with Israeli tanks, Arafat on Saturday was fighting for his life--political, at the very least, if not physical.

His archnemesis, Sharon, appeared more determined than ever to put an end to Arafat's regime. For Sharon, the destruction this weekend at Arafat's headquarters is part of a career-long mission to eliminate the Palestinian leader and cripple Palestinian nationalism.

Reviled by many Israelis as an unreconstructed terrorist mastermind, lionized by many Palestinians as the ultimate symbol of their independence and aspirations to nationhood, Arafat is undoubtedly nearing the end of a long line of conflicts and political upheavals. Ever the survivor, he cannot be counted out completely; he's been here before. Each time tanks surrounded him in recent months, he cited 1982 Beirut, where then-Defense Minister Sharon lay siege to Arafat's headquarters for 88 days, until the Palestinian was allowed to escape to Tunisia.

But unlike during previous attempts by Israel (and specifically by Sharon) to be rid of him, Arafat, 73, is in poor health, bereft of most international support, at the helm of a fatigued public and wobbling on an increasingly shaky political base whose members rose up just this month to challenge him as never before.

Sharon's goal now is to take advantage of that weakness--weakness that he would no doubt take credit for causing--and push Arafat as far to the edge as possible so that he falls, or jumps.

Sharon for now has decided not to expel Arafat from the Palestinian territories, his aides said, in a concession to warnings from his top intelligence advisors that to do so would restore legitimacy to the aging guerrilla ("pump air into a flat tire," as one Israeli commentator put it) while unleashing further chaos on the ground.

The Israeli prime minister also has promised President Bush not to kill or physically harm Arafat, a promise he later said he regretted making. The army insisted again Saturday that Arafat is not the target of the dynamite-and-bulldozer assault on his offices.

However, Sharon apparently wants to make life so untenable for Arafat, who is confined to one trembling floor of a British mandate-era building amid the dusty, smoking ruins of his once elaborate headquarters, that the Palestinian leader will turn himself in or seek exile of his own accord.

"We are attempting to encourage an alternative leadership," said Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin.

Saeb Erekat, a senior member of Arafat's government, dismissed as bogus Israel's claims that the raid on Arafat's headquarters was aimed at flushing out about 20 Palestinians holed up there who allegedly are implicated in attacks on Israel.

"This is not about [retaliation]. This is not about wanted men," he said. "This is about destroying the Palestinian Authority."

Even Sharon's aides acknowledged that the bus bombing in Tel Aviv on Thursday that ostensibly triggered the assault on Arafat's compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah was but a pretext. As tragic as the deaths of five Israelis and a Scot were, the toll was by no means unusually large. And the attack, along with one the previous day, came after a remarkable six-week period without suicide bombings inside Israel and at a time when Palestinians were engaged in a significant process of reform demanded by both Israel and Washington.

"The [army] would have carried out the operation in Ramallah even if Thursday's bombing didn't take place," Sharon's Cabinet secretary, Gideon Saar, was quoted as saying Saturday. "The weakening of Arafat is a clear Israeli interest, but also a Palestinian one."

The Tel Aviv bombing was the work of the radical Islamic organization Hamas, which Arafat does not control. In fact, Palestinians have long contended--and some Israelis concur--that Arafat has lost control of most of the militias attacking Israelis. His ability to operate in a West Bank that has been taken over almost completely by the Israeli military is questionable at best, Palestinians say.

How, then, would eliminating him resolve the problem? It wouldn't, according to Israeli and Palestinian analysts. The idea, they say, is for Israel to flex its considerable muscle to destroy Arafat regardless of whether he had anything to do with a specific terrorist attack.

Going after Arafat reflects the personal, visceral nature of the fight between Sharon and the Palestinian Authority president, two war horses for whom conflict is normal and peace problematic.

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