Terror Study Leaves Arafat Unscathed, Irking Israel

Forward Magazine

Terror Study Leaves Arafat Unscathed, Irking Israel

Forward Magazine

May 24, 2002

The State Department declared this week that it could not determine whether senior officials in Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority were involved in terrorism. It also blamed Israeli military actions for damaging the authority’s ability to combat terror and effectively strengthening extremist groups such as Hamas.

The findings, included in the department’s annual report on terrorism, “Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001,” seemed certain to heighten tensions between Washington and Jerusalem over how to proceed with Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. Prime Minister Sharon has stated repeatedly that he sees Arafat as a barrier to progress in peace negotiations, while the Bush administration continues to view the Palestinian leader as an essential if troublesome negotiating partner.

The Israeli-American debate over Arafat is complicated by internal divisions within both governments. In Washington, Defense Department officials are sympathetic to Sharon’s view, while in Jerusalem, the Foreign Ministry leans toward the State Department assessment.

Moreover, Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment is divided internally over the issue.

“Israel’s destruction of the P.A.’s security infrastructure contributed to the ineffectiveness of the P.A.,” the State Department report said. “Significantly reduced Israeli-P.A. security cooperation and a lax security environment allowed Hamas and other groups to rebuild terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian territories.”

The report acknowledged that members of Arafat’s Fatah movement had taken part in attacks on Israel through two offshoots, the Tanzim and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. “That’s not a secret, but we have not been able to determine or to make final judgment on how far up and who in the P.A. may be or could be and had been directing this activity,” said State Department counterterrorism expert Frank Taylor, briefing reporters on the report. “That is why we have been very straightforward with Chairman Arafat that within the Palestinian areas that he has control over and over the Palestinians that he has control over that we believe that he can do much more to control the activities of those groups.”

Israel’s allies in Washington were quick to condemn the report’s treatment of the Palestinian leadership as inadequate. “There are few left in this administration and Congress that doubt that Arafat’s actions, or inaction, have led to an escalation and perpetration of violence against Israel,” said Rebecca Needler, spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Sharon and President Bush have taken pains to keep their debate on a low flame, but junior officials have occasionally forced it onto the front pages. Last week Israel’s incoming military chief of staff caused what some called a diplomatic flap when he openly criticized the State Department’s policies during a get-acquainted visit to Washington. The chief-of-staff designate, Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, was quoted as saying while in Washington that Secretary of State Colin Powell had made a “mistake” in calling Arafat an “indispensable” negotiating partner. Ya’alon, a onetime dove who has become one of Arafat’s most scathing Israeli critics, made his comments in an interview with The New York Times, which identified him as a “senior Israeli military official.” Several Israeli news organizations identified the official as Ya’alon.

Ya’alon’s comments touched off a flurry of criticism from Israeli government leaders who accused him of overstepping his bounds as a soldier, violating democratic norms and abusing diplomatic protocol. It was the second time in two weeks that he had stirred up a storm after speaking out on foreign policy. In early May he publicly accused Israel’s Foreign Ministry of undermining government policy by pursuing diplomatic contacts with the Palestinian leadership, prompting a weeklong war of words.

Ya’alon and his predecessor, outgoing chief of staff Gen. Shaul Mofaz, have repeatedly clashed with civilian politicians as a result of their outspoken opposition to dialogue with Arafat. In April Mofaz caused a flap by publicly urging Sharon to expel Arafat from the territories, after Sharon had promised Bush he would not do that.

The generals’ views have also brought them into conflict with Israel’s intelligence services, which unanimously oppose direct measures against Arafat such as expulsion.

Last weekend Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Farkash-Ze’evi, took the unusual step of laying out the arguments against expelling Arafat in an interview with Israel’s largest circulation daily, Yediot Achronot.

“The implications of expelling Arafat would transcend the narrow arena of the conflict between us and the Palestinians,” Ze’evi told Yediot. “In the internal Palestinian circle it could reunite the divided forces and strengthen Arafat at home. The Arab street would rise up in our estimation, and pressure [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak and [Jordanian King] Abdullah. We would, for example, reach a break in relations with Egypt and Jordan. On the external plane, I estimate that there would be severe antisemitic outbursts, and other steps would be taken against Israel. Beyond that, terrorism would not decline after the expulsion of Arafat. On the contrary, it would generate a powerful motivation to create a severe wave of terrorism, which would bring Arafat back home. Thus when I look at the overall picture, expelling Arafat would only give him new legitimacy.”

Ya’alon was also critical during his Washington visit of a Bush administration plan to send CIA Director George Tenet to the Middle East to press for reform of the Palestinian security apparatus. “I cannot see any utility for it,” Ya’alon reportedly said of the proposed Tenet mission. “The situation is not mature for such a mission.”

The Tenet mission was put on indefinite hold this week, reportedly as a result of the deepening public row over American intelligence lapses before and after the September 11 attacks. On Tuesday, however, Powell announced that he was sending another top official, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, on a shuttle mission to Jerusalem and Ramallah to map out terms for a regional peace conference. Burns’s mission was reportedly opposed by Pentagon officials, who favor putting Israeli Palestinian issues on the back-burner until the fall. The Pentagon is known to be pressing the White House for early action against Iraq, arguing that efforts to line up advance Arab support for a military strike are both futile and unnecessary.

The State Department’s terrorism report singles out Iraq as the only one of the seven named “state sponsors of terrorism” that refused to condemn the September 11 attacks on the United States. The other six terrorism sponsors, Cuba, Libya, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria, all issued condemnations of varying strength.

The report claimed that of the seven, Libya and Sudan “seem closest to understanding what they must do to get out of the terrorism business and each has taken measures pointing it in the right direction.” It said Libya appeared to have cut back support for international terrorism, although it may be maintaining contact with a few groups. It said Sudan had begun cooperating with American efforts and had arrested some suspected terrorists.

Iran and Syria were accused of trying “to have it both ways” by offering sporadic help to the American war against terrorism while continuing to support Palestinian violence. Iran was named “the most active state sponsor of terrorism.”

The Forward is a Jewish weekly, published in New York

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