Arafat will gamble on Israel's 'war' failing again

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Ariel Sharon provided one bright moment in the darkness for Osama bin Laden when he declared his "war on terror". George Bush snr managed to keep Israel out of the 1991 Gulf War and preserve his Islamic alliance. But George Bush jnr must be cursing Israel's arrival on the American crusade against "terrorism". Angry enough when Mr Sharon first compared Israel's losses at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers with America's murdered thousands on September 11th, the US President has no reason to thank the Israeli Prime Minister for his latest rhetoric.

Yasser Arafat is not Osama bin Laden, however much the Israelis try to persuade the world otherwise; he is much less efficient, infinitely more corrupt and very definitely no threat to civilisation.

So will Mr Arafat "crack down on terror" – how easily we use Israel's words – or are the Palestinians now doomed to lose even the hope of statehood in Israel's latest retaliation? The fact that the suicide bombings were the revenge of Hamas for Israel's latest murder of a Hamas leader – in its turn revenge for other Hamas bombings which were themselves revenge for Israeli attacks – makes no difference to "Palestine's" predicaments. Israel is lining up Mr Arafat and the Palestinian Authority and its various security mafia as the centre of all evil, of "terrorism", "mindless violence", etc. Mr Arafat is now under orders to arrest his own people not only from the Sharon government but from the European Union as well as the United States.

And as usual, we are forgetting recent history. Hamas, the principal target of the Sharon "war on terror", was originally sponsored by Israel. Back in the 1980s, when Mr Arafat was the "super-terrorist" and Hamas was a pleasant little Muslim charity, albeit venomous in its opposition to Israel, the Israeli government encouraged its members to build mosques in Gaza. Some genius in the Israeli Army decided that there was no better way of undermining the PLO's nationalist ambitions in the occupied territories than by promoting Islam. Even after the Oslo agreement, during a row with Mr Arafat, senior Israeli Army Officers publicly announced that they were chatting to Hamas officials. And when Israel illegally deported hundreds of Hamas men to Lebanon in 1992, it was one of their leaders, hearing that I was travelling to Israel, who offered me Shimon Peres' home telephone number from his contact book.

The Israelis are now re-preaching the lesson that Yizhak Rabin once tried to teach Mr Arafat: that true statesmanship might entail the risk of civil war; that just as the Israeli government once had to shoot down the wild men of Irgun, so Mr Arafat may have to liquidate the men who want to destroy Israel. But this is 2001, not 1948. A Palestinian civil war may be to Israel's advantage – it could perhaps choose a new Palestinian leader – but it will be no gain to Mr Arafat and certainly not to the Palestinians. In any case, if Israel really wanted to sting Mr Arafat into vanquishing his internal opposition, it would not be bombing and destroying his police stations and security posts, the very instruments he needs to "crack down" on Israel's Palestinian enemies.

Mr Arafat knows this all too well. Even when he ran his repulsive little statelet in Lebanon he killed only those Palestinian militants who personally threatened him. He is a patient man, a guerrilla leader who knows that a little more delay will buy time in which his enemies can make mistakes. How soon before Mr Sharon's latest "war on terror" bathes Israel's hands in Palestinian blood? How soon before the Americans realise that their adventure in Afghanistan may unravel because of Israel's unrequested support for Washington's "war on terror"? Today's front-page headlines in Pakistan tell of Israeli missiles on Gaza rather than the fate of Osama bin Laden.

Besides, Mr Arafat knows, even if too many journalists buy the Israeli line, that Israel's "war on terror" always fails. Mr Sharon waged a "war on terror" in Lebanon in 1982 which ended in a war crime – the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps. Since 1970 Israel has used F16s, tanks and missiles on thousands of occasions to attack the Palestinians in Lebanon, all for its "war on terror". It's been doing the same for months in Gaza and the West Bank. It doesn't work. The Arabs have lost their fear of the Israelis and once fear is lost it can never be reinjected. Mr Sharon's "war on terror" was thus lost the moment it began. As the next suicide bombings will prove yet again.

So Mr Arafat will sit it out. He will gamble on a simple equation: that America's anger with him will eventually be outweighed by America's embarrassment with Mr Sharon, that the "war on terror" in Afghanistan will be endangered by Sharon's "war on terror" in Palestine. Mr Arafat knows that in the end, the Jewish lobby not withstanding, American lives count for more than Israeli lives; the only flaw in his argument is the assumption, even if America can ultimately control its Middle Eastern ally, that Israel can control Mr Sharon.