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U.S. wonders if Arafat losing his grip

Posted: Tuesday, December 04, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Yasser Arafat has come back from exile and from U.S. rebuke as a terrorist to gain American recognition and a Nobel Peace Prize.

His failure to stop suicide bombers from killing Israelis, however, is causing the Bush administration to question his credentials as ultimate leader of the Palestinians.

He could be losing his grip, in the view of top American officials, as he approaches a last chance to crush Hamas and other Palestinian-based terror groups.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's declaration of war against terrorism Monday, and missile attacks on the West Bank and Gaza, are seen within the U.S. administration as a warning, not the start of all-out war with Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Arafat still has a chance to rein in the terror groups, but it could be his last chance, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Engaged in its own struggle against international terror, the Bush administration decided after at least 26 Israelis were slain and hundreds injured by suicide bombers over the weekend that Palestinian terrorism will not get a free ride.

''Terrorism has got to stop,'' Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman, said. ''You can't pick and choose. And that's the message we are giving the Palestinians.''

Similarly, Bush and his aides are endorsing Israel's right to defend itself, with limited qualification. Targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists, the latest of which occurred last Friday, still is considered beyond the pale.

Once the bombers struck in Jerusalem and Haifa, the United States abandoned its traditional evenhanded call for restraint and stopped imploring Israel not to provoke the Palestinians.

What has changed, the senior U.S. official said, was the depth of the violence committed against Israel and the U.S. commitment to punish terrorists and their supporters grounded in the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

The big unanswered question as U.S. policy shifts is what the United States would do if Arafat fails to shut down Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, the two main terror groups in territory controlled by Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said, ''What is lacking from U.S. policy right now is consequences for Arafat's refusal to fight terror.''

In an interview Monday, Satloff said, ''Time and again, administration officials have referred to Arafat's 'moment of truth,' without there being any repercussions for failing to meet the test.''

Satloff said Bush should consider what his father did as president 11 years ago: suspend U.S. relations until Arafat acted against terrorism.

Richard Murphy, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, said Arafat can do more to curb terrorist groups, although there are significant independent ''wildcatters'' within Islamic Jihad.

Israel has penetrated the groups so well it will know if determination stands behind Arafat's statements demanding a halt to terrorist attacks, Murphy, now with the private Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview.

At the same time, Murphy said, a large number of Israelis and other people have concluded Arafat is irrelevant because he cannot or will not act against terrorists.

Judith Kipper, Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she thinks Arafat could stop the terrorism. ''But he cannot do it without constant American help and as part of a peace process,'' she said.

That is, Kipper said in an interview, Israel must do such things as ease tensions on the West Bank and end the economic siege of the Palestinians there.

Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, and Phil Baum, executive director of the group, said the Bush administration was sending ''the only message that makes sense at this time.''

That is, they said in a statement, ''If you don't eliminate the terrorists, then you must be removed.''

''Chairman Arafat has an obligation to make a 100 percent effort,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said as Israeli missiles slammed into the West Bank and Gaza.

''The president's point of view is Israel is a sovereign power,'' Fleischer said. ''Israel has a right to defend itself.''

The administration's support is not open-ended.

While the war in Afghanistan is going the U.S. way, Arab members of the U.S.-led coalition are not being taken for granted.

Also, the administration wants to keep alive its hopes for renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, however dim they might be.

As a result, State Department spokesman Reeker said Monday that ''there was no green light asked for and no green light given'' for Israel's retaliatory attacks. ''This is not a game of green light, red light.''

Also, speaking for Secretary of State Colin Powell, the spokesman said ''it's important all parties consider the repercussions'' of their actions and their impact on prospects for peace in the region.

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On the Net: State Department's Near East desk: http://www.state.gov/p/nea



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