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Arafat Dilemma: Crack Down on Militants or Risk Ouster?

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is facing perhaps the biggest crisis of his long career. He has received an ultimatum from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to either crack down on Islamic militant groups responsible for a wave of suicide bombings or, analysts say, risk being driven out of office.

Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib is worried about the future. More than a decade ago, he was a member of the first Palestinian delegation to negotiate with Israel at the Madrid Conference on the Middle East, a conference that raised hopes for an end to the bitter conflict between the two peoples.

Such hopes are virtually non-existent now. Today Mr. Khatib runs an independent media center in Jerusalem, where he observes the day-to-day events that are driving Israelis further and further from the dream of peace. He believes the Israeli Government's decision to launch a military offensive against the Palestinian Authority will only escalate the violence that began 14 months ago.

"I think it will be intensified and it will be more specific, it will target certain cadres and leaders in this faction or that and it will be consequently it will bring about further Palestinian reactions and further Palestinian anger and I believe that this is another episode or another round of the ongoing vicious circle of violence," he said. Mr. Khatib believes the policy of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, while it will hurt the Palestinian people as a whole, is really directed at one man: their leader, Yasser Arafat.

"It seems that [Sharon] is trying to weaken Yasser Arafat and he has been trying to undermine the credibility of Mr. Arafat internally by pushing him to do things that are unpopular and also to undermine the credibility of Arafat internationally by associating Arafat with terrorism," said Mr. Khatib.

Israeli political analyst Leslie Susser, a senior writer for the highly respected Jerusalem Report magazine, agrees with this assessment. He believes that the Israeli strategy is to throw Mr. Arafat off-balance and force him to make difficult compromises, including taking on Palestinian militants dedicated to Israel's destruction. "What Mr. Sharon is trying to do, at this point, is put as much pressure as he can on the Palestinian Authority and specifically Yasser Arafat to clamp down on terror - and, failing that, perhaps even bringing down the Palestinian Authority and [removing] Arafat from power so that Israel can deal with perhaps a more amenable negotiating partner," he said.

But Mr. Khatib says the Israeli strategy will ultimately backfire because it is full of contradictions. "There is an irony here because Sharon is putting pressure verbally on Arafat to crack down on militants but practically speaking his actions are of the kind that are preventing Arafat from being able to do the things that he is required to do," he said.

Mr. Susser says the claim that Mr. Arafat is unable to control the militants is often made by Palestinian officials. But he says the claim is simply designed to conceal the truth namely, that Mr. Arafat has the power to crack down on militant groups but is unwilling to do so. "The Palestinian security authorities could clamp down on the Hamas and Islamic Jihad people, even while Israel was mounting this kind of operation. This is just a Palestinian excuse not to clamp down and it is an excuse they have been using for the past year," he said.

Mr. Susser says the Israeli campaign against the Palestinian leader is reversible if Mr. Arafat acts quickly.

He has said that Mr. Arafat has a final opportunity to save himself and prevent the Israeli Government from bringing about his downfall. "Arafat has this last chance," said Mr. Susser. He has this international backing, he even has American backing, for strong action against terror; and if he were to do that, then the Israelis would be forced by the international community to stop their attack on Arafat and to enter into some form of dialogue with him."

Mr. Susser and other Israeli analysts believe that if Mr. Arafat is not prepared to cooperate with Israel, then it will look to a new generation of more moderate Palestinian leaders.

But Mr. Khatib says that assessment is dangerously wrong. He says Mr. Arafat is the most moderate of all the Palestinian politicians and his loss will deal a devastating blow to the prospects for peace.

Mr. Khatib says that the Israelis may also be underestimating an ability Mr. Arafat has shown in the past: to survive against the most incredible odds.