by N. Janardhan
(IPS) DUBAI --
partial pullback by Israeli forces from West Bank towns today is likely to do little or nothing to ease Arab fury at the Israeli offensive of recent weeks.
Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently traveling in the Middle East, has been pushed on the defensive after a firsthand taste of Arab anger over the plight of the Palestinians and faced with blunt questions on U.S. policy in the region.
Powell has said that the promised Israeli withdrawal, so far from the two West Bank cities of Qalqilya and Tulkarem, was "encouraging" but not enough. News reports also said Israeli forces are moving into other areas as part of the operation to isolate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
One certainty is that the Israeli leadership and the U.S. intentions are likely to be seen with more suspicion henceforth.
Already, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "is a man of war, of expansion, of occupation" for Palestinians, 200 of whom have been killed in less than two weeks of Israel's "Operation Defensive Wall."
"The political objective behind this military escalation is to kill an ever larger number of Palestinians until they submit," says political analyst Avi Shlaim.
Shlaim adds: "Sharon's broader political program is to sweep away the Oslo accords, complete the reconquest of the territories, topple the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), undermine and humiliate the Palestinian leadership, and replace President Yasser Arafat with a collaborationist leader."
This, he continues, would arrest the march toward Palestinian self-government, independence and statehood. Likewise, critics here say, Sharon's real agenda is the old design of his Likud party: A greater Israel from the Jordan River to the sea.
Effectively, they say, Sharon wants complete domination of the West Bank, a return to the situation before parts of the land were handed over to the interim Palestinian administration represented by the (PNA) under the 1993 Oslo agreements.
"In the present scheme of things, Sharon is not interested in retaking Gaza because he would need the bulk of his military to control the strip, which would prove to be too costly," explains Marwan Bishara of the American University in Paris.
"But the way to achieve his goal is by his efforts to expel Arafat, by which he seeks to serve two objectives," he says.
"First, it would be a severe blow to the Palestinian morale and would free Israel to scout for an alternative representative with whom he could negotiate an agreement on his terms," Bishara adds.
"Second, with Arafat out of the way, another reality created by the Oslo agreements -- the PNA -- would cease to exist and this would ease Sharon's effort to find Palestinians who could be pressured into accepting Israeli terms for a peace agreement," he says.
To that end, Sharon has already floated the idea of a "one-way ticket" for Arafat through the European Union -- allow him to fly to any destination of choice for refuge, without return.
After achieving complete control of the West Bank, Sharon would then be able to exercise his options to make peace -- a combination of the various proposals that rules out the Palestinian demand for an independent state with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital.
Explaining the Israeli prime minister's psyche, Amin Saikal of the Australian National University says: "Sharon comes from a school of thought which believes that Israel is nothing but the promised land and the Palestinians have no room there."
"They have to leave the land sooner or later and they should be grateful to Israel for being allowed to live in the West Bank in the interim," he adds.
As army general in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sharon had advocated the expulsion of all Palestinians from the West Bank, and if possible all Arab Israelis, across the river to Jordan, which he used to describe as their "alternative" homeland.
His plans met with problems when an investigation found him indirectly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre of about 2,000 Palestinian refugees in 1982, which pushed him into the sidelines of Israeli politics until the mid-1990s when the right-wing Likud party rose to power.
Critics say the objectives of "the bulldozer," as the barrel-framed general is nicknamed, include, first, having the Israeli military take full control of the entire West Bank before even considering negotiations with the Palestinians.
Second is a desire to eliminate Palestinian resistance to the point that Sharon could dictate terms of peace to a people deprived of strong political leadership.
Third, Sharon could push his solution of autonomy for the Palestinians, under which Israel would not give up its domination of the land or its people but would allow them local administrative powers.
But Sharon has also come to understand that he would have to broaden the scope of autonomy somewhat -- and that is what he is referring to when he speaks of "peace" with the Palestinians.
According to Israeli political analyst Shmuel Sandler, Sharon is taking a calculated risk by disregarding the U.S. call for withdrawal. "The Americans have given him a little bit of rope but every one knows Sharon can't pull it too far," says Sandler.
He was alluding to the fact that the United States gives Israel $3 billion in aid every year -- three percent of Israel's gross domestic product -- and often blocks draft UN Security Council resolutions criticizing Israel.
"This makes no sense. It suggests there is no seriousness or urgency on the Americans' part. Sharon is not going to stop," says Palestinian Medical Relief Committee chief Mustafa Barghouthi says.
In his speech to the Knesset yesterday, Sharon said peace with the Palestinians depends on the emergence of a "responsible Palestinian leadership" after Israel's withdrawal from the seized Palestinian towns.
He also said this depends on the creation of buffer zones, which Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat calls the most "dangerous speech ever heard" because it heralds "the end of the peace process, the end of the Oslo accords and the end of the PNA."
Notes Asher Arian of the University of Haifa: "This is all foreplay. Sharon is holding some strong political cards going into talks with Powell. His offensive has bottled up Palestinian fighters and kept Israel free of suicide bombings for a week; his popularity ratings are soaring."
But the danger ahead is that "there is no vision here, there is no long-term vision. There is no peace plan, there is no formula for getting out of this mess," says Joseph Alpher, adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.
Political analyst Ziad Abu Amr reckons that if Powell's visit to the region fails to stop the Israeli offensive, "Sharon will continue and open a new front. He will come to Gaza in addition to his operation in the West Bank."
April 8 2002 (http://albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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