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Arafat’s Allies

26 July 2003

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat is said to be in a bind, but he is not cornered half as much as his prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.  Joining Abbas in the tight squeeze are his colleagues in peace making, Israeli PM Ariel Sharon and US President Bush.  All this runs against popular media wisdom only because many are choosing to ignore the true strength of anti-west activism in the Arab world.

Despite the fact life is beginning to return to normal (pre-Sept. 2000) for the average Palestinian since Abbas took power, Arafat is still the popular hero in the popular mind set.  To take the challenge in the popularity contest Abbas must make impossible demands on Sharon and the Americans such as the release of all Palestinians held in Israeli jails, including those convicted of outright murder in terror activities.  The ‘Road Map’ contains no such clause but rather Arafat through his moderate PM has inserted such an emotionally charged and populist condition to guarantee the failure of the Bush initiative.  Even a partial release of those without “blood on their hands” is considered unacceptable to the Palestinians.

The hudna, or Islamic cease-fire will be over before the end of the summer and by then the terror factions of Fatah’s Al-Aksa Brigades, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad will be reorganized, rearmed and enjoy a renewed stockpile of suicide bombers and explosive belts.  Sharon and Bush will surely discuss these dangers in their upcoming meeting with all the implied and overt threats clearly laid out.

Sharon has already acquiesced to American demands where security is not an issue, such as the dismantling of illegal (by Israeli law) settlement outposts while certain non-murderous prisoners (even from the Hamas and Jihad) will be released.  The last Palestinian demand for a halt in building the security fence will be turned down.  Here there will be disagreement over its actual demarcation since Abbas is pressuring the US to stop all Israeli construction in the West Bank east of the 1967 line.

As he did after Camp David 2000 Arafat will accept no compromise and can be expected to force a renewed explosion of violence especially over the prisoner issue in the hope of undercutting any possibility for progress.  Should the process continue Arafat will be outflanked, especially on the economic front as many will not want to endanger a “return to normalcy” (Thank you Warren G. Harding) when they believe a solution may be at hand.  Stability will breed that feared middle class so often attributed with being the pillar of democracy.  In the first round of violence the Chairman destroyed their economic standing, thereby crushing any influence they might have.  He will not hesitate to take the same steps again.

Arafat has more allies than the west would like to admit.  Besides the Palestinian terror organizations the Syrian backed Lebanese Hizbollah continues firing over Israel’s northern border.  Just this week several people were injured and a shell nearly landed in the middle of a day camp.  Syria’s President Assad only makes noises about peace to stifle American criticism.  For him to conclude an agreement with Israel would leave his administration open to western influences and lead to the collapse of his Ba’ath regime.  The radical Islamic regime in Iran continues to be a full ally of both Syria and the Hizbollah and now has operatives among the Palestinians, supporting an activist terror campaign against Israel in tandem with Arafat’s policies.

Lastly though, the American grip on Iraq is a key to how the Islamic world will view US resolve in the Middle East.  Every day the Americans are suffering casualties.  The Shi’ite clerics are calling for an American withdrawal and making threats.  So far they are supposedly not even involved in the active resistance led by Saddam loyalists among the Sunnis to the US-British occupation.  They consider the new US-British installed regime illegitimate and will surely not cooperate.  With Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay out of the way the Shi’ites can be expected to become a militarily active opposition.

The traditional Moslem world perspective is one of Dar el-Islam (the domain of Islam) vs. Dar el-Harb (the domain of war).  One is either for or against Islam, the middle ground being only a temporary cease-fire or hudna.  Radical Islam sees no compromise and any thought of moderating or buying off Iraq’s Shi’ites is unrealistic.

Arafat is betting on a Shi’ite revolt in Iraq just as the hudna runs out.  With the Americans distracted and a presidential election year approaching he will then make his move to undercut Abbas and the other moderates, hoping to return the cycle of violence to its spring 2002 levels (remember the Passover Massacre in Netanya?) relegating the ‘Road Map’ to the trash heap of history.