Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon who, as defense minister in 1982, routed Yasser Arafat in Lebanon and enabled the Syrians to send him and his 4000 fighting men packing out of Beirut, now counts on him being persuaded by moderate military pressure to remove himself into voluntary exile. That belief accounts for the air of optimism hanging over the Israel prime minister’s office. While “military sources” in Tel Aviv speak of a long drawn out conflict with the Palestinians, Sharon and his advisers reckon on no more than two or three months before they see the back of Arafat and his elite of 8-10,000 assorted military, financial and intelligence staff. After the Palestinian Authority regime in Gaza and Ramallah capsizes under the weight of internal corruption and its inability to contend with the Israeli army, they will return to their old haven in Tunis or, according to most intelligence predictions, head for Baghdad.
Accordingly, Sharon’s team led by defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, using the pretext of a Palestinian terrorist gang on the loose with five car bombs, clamped down a military siege-cum-isolation encirclement of Palestinian population concentrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on March 2.
Six tank brigades for chasing down a gang of terrorists sounds suspiciously like overkill, but the tactic was selected to avoid embroiling Israeli forces in head-on battles against the Palestinians, with high casualties on both sides and a high risk of outside intervention, while at the same time driving Arafat towards the exit.
International and military conditions for the operation were ideal; the new Bush administration has not yet settled on its Middle East policy formulae. As long as the Americans accept the proposition that Israel will not negotiate under fire, and as long as Arafat keeps up the shooting and terror, Sharon had a free hand.
Even the political factions and media who roughed him for decades as a warmongering monster are giving him credit at last as the right man for curing the five-month old Palestinian crisis.
In military terms, Sharon feels equally comfortable. He does not regard Syria as a major military threat, despite its support for the Lebanese Hizballah. Equipped with obsolete weapons, the newest of which dates back to the early eighties, the Syrian army is under-trained, its maintenance is poor and it is in no shape for a war of any length.
As for Iraq, with all Saddam Hussein’s bragging, he does not have enough missiles and bombers to make good on his threat of a six-month blitz of Israeli cities. Egypt, for its part, does possess an impressive, up-to-date army with a plenitude of state of the art weapons systems, but president Hosni Mubarak has declared frequently since the onset of the intifada late last September that Arafat would not be allowed to drag him into a fresh Middle East war with Israel.
While Sharon is correct in all of these considerations, they do not cover every possible circumstance. DEBKA-Net-Weekly quotes Israel military experts, including circles close to chief of staff Shaul Mofaz and his articulate deputy, Moshe Yaalon, who are not quite so sanguine. They postulate the following sequence of events. What if the Hizballah, they ask, sets Israel’s Lebanese frontier afire, Israel forces go in and wipe out Hizballah units and the Syrian positions providing the guerrillas with logistic and intelligence support, following which Assad opens the door to some of Saddam’s armored divisions? Israel then blasts those divisions with rockets and air-ground bombs, responding to which Iraq rains his long-range missiles down on Israeli military targets and cities. Abdullah is then scared into letting more Iraqi divisions through to his frontier with Israel, while the Palestinians and hostile elements of the Israeli Arab population join forces and terrorize Israel’s highways and towns.
Generals Mofaz and Yaalon believe that their assessment does not contradict that of Sharon’s strategists, but it does fill in some gaps. They too expect Arafat and his faction to end up departing the scene, but before they go, they will drag Israel into a full-blown Middle East war and only leave when it reaches its peak.