Zinni Mission No Bar to Continuing Israel

Ever since the capture of the Karine-A Palestinian arms smuggling boat on the Red Sea two months ago exposed Yasser Arafat’s working relations with Iran, the Hizballah and Iraq, both America and Israel had an interest in keeping Arafat cornered in Ramallah for three main reasons:
1. To punish him.
2. To cut him off from elements of President Bush’s “axis of evil”.
3. To mute the influence of Iran, the Hizballah and Iraq on the Palestinian Authority and correlatively the Arab world.
The Arafat isolation plan was intended as a makeshift stratagem. Military planners in Washington and Tel Aviv did not doubt that more solid and extreme measures would be required to solve the problems he posed.
The step following his confinement in Ramallah was to have been a comprehensive Israeli operation against terrorist centers in the West Bank. It was scheduled for late January. However, it was delayed because of the Israel prime minister’s foot-dragging.
For one thing, Ariel Sharon did not want his national unity government to be broken up by a walkout of the dovish Labor party.
Secondly, he was afraid that Washington would pull the rug from under his feet in the middle of a large-scale military offensive. He has not forgotten that the Reagan administration cut short the 1982 Lebanon war he led, just short of victory over Arafat’s army and he was cast in disgrace over the Sabra and Chatilla massacre by Christian Phalangists into the political wilderness for many years.
While Sharon dithered, Arafat made hay. Pinned down in Ramallah, he gathered Palestinian and Middle East terror forces around him in Ramallah and together they plotted their next terror offensive against Israel.
That offensive erupted on February 19. A unit of his Fatah militant al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade carried out a commando operation against an Israeli roadblock at Ein Arik, west of Ramallah, killing six soldiers. Those Palestinian commandos were trained for the operation by Hizballah experts. This was the first Palestinian strike against an Israeli target under a Hizballah commander.
When Sharon still held back on a wholesale response, the terrorists were unleashed. In the last week alone, 34 Israelis died and more than 100 were injured. The Israeli prime minister waited no longer. By then, however, the Bush administration, up to its ears in preparations for the US campaign against Iraq, had come under pressures of its own: Saudi crown prince Abdullah had floated a comment that were fast snowballing in Arab and European hands into a “peace initiative”; the Arab League summit was approaching its scheduled date of March 28 and vice president Richard Cheney was preparing to embark on a 12-nation tour taking in the Middle East.
Although Washington stood foursquare behind a major Israel counter-terror operation in principle, the timing as a result of Sharon’s shilly-shallying was now unfortunate. The Americans were facing increasing Arab and European pressure to get directly involved and hold back Israeli retaliation for Palestinian violence.
On the other hand, Washington saw Sharon’s “Operation Root Treatment”, finally underway, was going from strength to strength and was anxious to keep up the momentum.
That was how the plan to send ceasefire broker Anthony Zinni back to the region was born. US officials, general Zinni and Ariel Sharon are under no illusions about the chances of Arafat reining in his terrorists and accepting a ceasefire. From his point of view, the heavy Israeli casualties have made his operation a huge success. Sharon’s consent to drop his demand for seven days’ calm before agreeing to negotiate was meant to smooth Zinni’s path, but faces no danger of being reciprocated from the Palestinian side. On the other hand, the Palestinian leader who badly wants to escape his confinement in Ramallah, may play ball for a while with the American initiative. He was even prepared to detain Majdi al Rimawi, the fifth suspect in the assassination of Israel’s tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi last October.
He might yet be surprised to find the door open for his escape at last.
Both the Americans and Israeli would prefer to see the Palestinian leader far away from Ramallah – even allowing him to attend the Arab League summit in Beirut – before launching the Ramallah segment of Operation Root Treatment with greater freedom. There is no intention of letting him turn himself into a holy martyr.

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