The Bad Old Days Are Back: How Israeli-Arab Relations Are Complicating Bush's War

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Ephron

It isn't an official house arrest, but in practice Yasir Arafat is stuck. For two weeks now the Palestinian leader hasn't left his Ramallah headquarters, a sprawling compound that until a few years ago served as an Israeli military base. He works there by day, holds his meetings in a refurbished office, issues orders to his field commanders, then sleeps in an adjacent room. Arafat has little choice. Israel has smashed his helicopters and now rings the compound with tanks. Though Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insists the measures are meant to sideline the Palestinian leader, not to punish him, Israel's decision last week to break ties with Arafat and pummel his administration after yet another grisly Palestinian attack has raised the region's stress meter to new heights. "It's a dangerous game for Israel, and I'm not sure he [Sharon] understands that," says one government official who sits in on Sharon's cabinet meetings but doesn't share his hawkish views.

It's also dangerous for the United States. Sharon had good reason to lash out at the Palestinian leader after a group identified with Arafat's Fatah faction claimed responsibility for a bus attack that killed 10 Israelis last week. Even the Europeans, usually Arafat devotees, were urging him to "crush the terrorists." Israel responded with airstrikes and ground operations in the widest offensive yet against the West Bank and Gaza. But by eschewing Arafat, Sharon is effectively turning back the clock on relations between Israelis and Palestinians--really between Israel and the Arab world--to a bygone era of political boycotts and chronic antagonism. The slide backward is frustrating in itself, considering how close the two sides were to a final peace accord just 17 months ago. …