Sharon's path to peace skirts Arafat

February 07, 2002|By William Safire

IN THE wake of President Bush's stern warning to state sponsors of terror, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel felt the time was ripe to open direct truce talks with a troika of Palestinian leaders other than Yasser Arafat.

After Palestinian sources leaked word of their first meeting in Jerusalem on Jan. 30, Mr. Sharon felt free to give me his telephonic account of what could be the start of a true truce process with the veteran Palestinian negotiators known as Abu Ala, Abu Mazen and Muhammad Rashid.

"I wanted to hear from them directly what they wanted," he recounted, "and I wanted to be sure they know our message. Our demands are: One, arrest all the terrorists and their commanders and conduct real interrogations. We all know who ordered the murder of one of our ministers, and how much was paid the two murderers - 200 shekels. And we know who approved the purchase of the 50 tons of munitions from Iran.

"Two, dismantle Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front, Tanzin and Arafat's Force 17 - half of our casualties were caused by Arafat's presidential guard and Tanzin. Three, confiscate all weapons and hand them over to U.S. representatives to be destroyed, as signed at Wye long ago."

But why?

"I have two left. Four, take strong preventive steps to stop terror before it strikes, and five, stop incitement of their people."

But since these Palestinians report to Mr. Arafat, why not deal directly with the top man?

"When Arafat got the names and addresses of the worst terrorists from us two months ago and did nothing, he made himself irrelevant. That day I decided that with him, we cannot talk anymore."

And what did the Palestinians want? "One, they wanted us to stop the targeted killings of the terrorist leaders. We call them `interceptions.' We used to call them `removal from our society.' They are killings, of course, and that is hardest for them to accept."

Two? (The former general's orderly mind imposes a certain structure on an interview.)

"Make it easier for the population. Three, enable Arafat to leave Ramallah. Four, stop acting in Zone A, and open the roads. I told them we had no intention of staying in areas already given to them, but if they would not make arrests, we would take from their beds their terrorists and put them in our prisons. If that's inconvenient, you arrest them."

Sounded to me like little progress, but he disagreed. "For the first time, we each understood what we really want most. I told them I want to meet again when I get back from the United States this week. This first meeting was important. I really want to move this forward."

Not with Mr. Arafat?

"He must be put under heavier pressure than ever, from America, from Europeans, from us. I know these men report to him, but that makes no difference. At the current time, he's too influential for somebody else to get up and take over - therefore, everything depends on pressure on Arafat."

Mr. Sharon paused, and spoke with deliberation about his longtime enemy: "Everybody knows there is criticism among top Palestinians of Arafat. If we want steps taken, the pressure must grow - no visits from him, no missions to him. Only then will there be a chance to have different, more pragmatic leadership."

In his opening conversation with the three Palestinian leaders, was the outline of a general agreement discussed?

"I told them how I saw it possible to move forward. It's not possible now to reach an overall agreement with decisions on borders. These are talks about reaching a cease-fire, and I'll conduct these myself now. Once it's quiet, we can reach a state of non-belligerency. Later we can reach the permanent agreement phase."

Turning to Mr. Bush's threat to terrorist-sponsoring states of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, I recalled how Mr. Sharon a decade ago criticized Israel's restraint under Iraqi missile attack in the Persian Gulf war. If Saddam Hussein, attacked by the United States, lashed out again, would Israel hold back?

"We won't be able to sit by. One dangerous development is the increased activity between Iran and Iraq. They are discussing the possibility of Iranian planes flying over Iraq to Damascus, part of the airlift of weapons, especially rockets, and then by truck through Syria to the Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. If there is a reaction from Iraq from any direction, we will be ready for that."

Can Mr. Sharon, in stepping in to personally conduct cease-fire talks, steer between a band of Israeli army reservist refuseniks on the left and Bibi Netanyahu's call for toppling the Palestinian Authority on the right?

"Too busy to worry about that," says the prime minister, eager to compare notes with Mr. Bush this week. "We have to solve our economic problems, save Argentina's Jews, combat anti-Semitism in France, achieve a cease-fire. But I'll be able to manage it."

William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times.

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