Did Arafat bow to fear of Israels military retaliation

JERUSALEM — After last Friday's suicide bombing, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat finally realized that a grieving and infuriated Israel was about to deliver a military blow of such proportions that the Palestinian Authority might never recover.

As a result, in the strange logic of Mideast violence, the attack on a Tel Aviv disco created a train of events that finally prompted the Palestinian Authority to call for a cease-fire.

The vicious minds that planned last Friday's suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv disco may have been too primitive — or too filled with hate — to understand the concept of counterproductivity.

The bombing that ripped through the crowd of mainly Russian immigrant teenagers gathered outside the Dolphin Club, killing 20 Israelis, was part of an 8-month-old Palestinian onslaught against the Jewish state.

But as it turned out, a combination of several factors — including fear of retaliation and increasing world pressure — prompted the Palestinian Authority to call for a cease-fire.

Every hour that passed this week without another bomb or another fatal shooting added hope that this time, perhaps because of the enormous Tel Aviv outrage, the cease-fire would hold.

The international community, led by the United States, watched closely for the right moment to throw its full weight behind the cease-fire. World leaders were reluctant to move too soon for fear of being tarnished by the unfavorable fallout of a failed diplomatic initiative and a return to further bloodletting.

On Tuesday, the Bush administration announced it was sending CIA Director George Tenet to facilitate security talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials. During a strategy session the previous day, U.S. officials had decided it was not yet the right time for Secretary of State Colin Powell to visit the region.

If the calm holds, there is talk in world capitals of creating a vehicle, perhaps in the form of unarmed observers, to help implement the cease-fire.

If this cease-fire does prove to be a turning point, coming just as the two sides were poised at the edge of an abyss, it will have been thanks to a combination of factors:

First, Arafat feared not just a major Israeli assault but the crippling of his government and the possibility of banishment. There was serious talk in some Israeli government circles — though this was not government policy at any stage — of deposing Arafat and his coterie and forcibly transporting them back to Tunisia, from where they came at the beginning of the Oslo process.

In fact, Israel's inner Cabinet had approved air and land bombardment of a long list of Palestinian Authority targets. Had it been carried out, much of the Palestinian government infrastructure would have been left a smoldering ruin.

It is not known whether Israel's retribution would have included army incursion into areas under Palestinian control.

Arafat may have been indifferent to the suffering endured by his people during the past eight months of violence. But there is no reason to suppose that he is equally fatalistic regarding the prospect of a military assault directed at his government.

Second, the international community, especially the United States, used the imminent threat of massive Israeli retaliation to persuade Arafat that this was really his last chance to order a cessation of hostilities.

Pressure from the international community was driven home in a particularly effective manner, thanks to the chance presence of Germany's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, who was staying in a Tel Aviv seafront hotel when the bomb went off.

"I thought of my own two children, aged 17 and 20," Fischer later told reporters as he shuttled between Jerusalem and Ramallah to tell the two sides about the need to stop the slide to all-out war.

Informed diplomatic sources said the German minister spoke to Arafat in a more forceful way than any European statesman had ever addressed him before. And, for now at least, it seemed to work.

Arafat issued instructions on Saturday to halt the shooting; the instructions were carried, though not as headlines, on the official Palestinian radio; and, most importantly, Palestinian forces fanned out at key pressure points to prevent firefights with Israel.

There was sporadic fighting early in the week, but Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer announced a marked drop in shooting incidents throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel was still demanding that the Palestinian Authority arrest or, in most cases, re-arrest known Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists in order to prevent more suicide bombings.

The last factor that makes this cease-fire potentially different is Israel's national unity government, which was able to show restraint and thereby preserve the tentative cease-fire in the wake of the disco bombing.

A weaker government either of the left or right would almost certainly not have had the political confidence to withstand the huge wave of anger that swept the country over the weekend and the demands for military retribution.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended his decision not to respond to the Tel Aviv attack.

"Restraint is strength," he said after visiting a Tel Aviv hospital where young people were recovering from their injuries.

Shimon Peres, the senior Labor Party member in the unity government, told his party that the broad base of the government made restraint possible.

Ultimately, though, both veteran leaders acknowledged that their policy of restraint is predicated on the Palestinians' commitment to uphold the cease- fire.

As Israeli officials know only too well, any shooting incident has the potential to upset the delicate balance of deterrence and diplomacy that has so far kept the region from falling into the abyss.

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