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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Arafat, Time Is Running Out

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has set out to delegitimize Yasser Arafat as a partner for peace but is not seeking to topple the Palestinian leader just yet, intelligence experts and analysts said Tuesday.

Sharon's intention was embodied in an Israeli Cabinet decision Tuesday to declare Arafat's Palestinian Authority a supporter of terrorism after a wave of suicide bombings in Israel at the weekend that killed 25 people.

Palestinian officials said Sharon had in effect declared war on the Palestinian Authority. But, bound by international demands for restraint and pressure from coalition partners, Sharon stopped short of naming Arafat an enemy.

"It is neither our intention nor in our interest to take [Arafat] out or to assassinate him," said Eran Lerman, formerly of Israeli military intelligence and now director of the Israeli office of the American-Jewish Committee.

"Why turn him again into a shaheed [martyr] or symbol?" he said. "The current decision brings home to him a choice that is inevitable -- is he a statesman or a jihad leader?"

Lerman said Israel had still left an opening for Arafat to crack down on Palestinian militants behind attacks "before all is lost, namely [the Palestinians'] position in the West."

Arafat, who shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in interim peace accords, has often been portrayed by Israeli and foreign leaders as their only genuine partner for a final treaty to end 53 years of conflict.

A senior Israeli military source said that definition had long been the basis of Arafat's legitimacy worldwide but had worn thin since the start of the U.S. anti-terror campaign.

"The worst thing we can do is to say that we are not going to accept [Arafat] anymore as a partner," he said. "I don't think he is going to be impressed by anything else."

Israel is likely to tighten an already crippling military grip on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and keep targeting militants as it awaits Arafat's response to the calls for a crackdown, analysts said.

The Palestinians say international intervention is crucial at this stage to moderate Israel's military action.

"Arafat is in a very difficult situation," said Palestinian political analyst Ali Jirbawi. "It is important for Arafat to carry out arrests now in order to absorb the crisis and to help the Americans control Sharon."

Palestinian security forces have arrested over 100 militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad since Saturday. But Israeli officials say almost all of the detained are not the main players behind attacks on Israel.

Some analysts say Sharon's message, hammered home by two days of air strikes against Palestinian Authority installations across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, goes further than a bid to delegitimize him.

"This is a war against Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority and not against terror. We have the right to defend ourselves as we are under occupation," said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.

Sharon has said he would not make a direct move on Arafat. But analysts say the prime minister might not be disappointed if some other straw broke the camel's back -- perhaps in the form of internal Palestinian unrest.

"Arafat is not the only game in town. Will we always depend on Arafat? I never saw it that way, not even now," a senior official in Sharon's entourage said after the he met President George W. Bush in Washington on Sunday.

An increasing number of Israelis now seem to be questioning the long-held view that whoever replaced Arafat would be worse for Israel.

Israel has also fought hard to make the case to the world that combating militant attacks in a 14-month-old Palestinian uprising is no different from the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.

Arab states and some Western countries have drawn a clear distinction between the suicide attacks in the United States and Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, which flared shortly after peace talks stalled last year.

But at the start of Israel's reprisals on Monday, the United States backed what it called Israel's right to defend itself.

Israeli political commentator Hemi Shalev said the Israeli government's decision to label the Palestinian Authority a "terror-supporting entity" draws a "direct line between the authority and the Taliban," which the United States is helping to overthrow for harboring Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden.

But Sharon will not have license for a severe retaliation.

"Arafat was in serious trouble in the international arena in recent weeks and that reached a climax after the suicide bombings. It could be that Sharon may ultimately restore his legitimacy with the retaliatory strikes," he said.