Guilty of what?

It sounds that there is going to be a Karine A” affair besides the Israeli-Palestinian affair proper! We can already see the signs of such an obnoxious outgrowth: either in the Middle East region or outside it, everybody is now arguing about the origin, the destination and the object of the arms shipment. It seems that the Bush administration is prone to believe the Israeli version accusing Yasir Arafat of masterminding the whole operation. No wonder. Arafat is really capable of doing it. If he did, he likely thought that if the ship is seized before reaching its destination, he could still pretend that he knew nothing about it and order an investigation! Otherwise, what he just did!

Both Americans and Israelis should take it easy, though. The testimony of the ship’s captain, Omar Akawi, is not weighing enough as evidence against the P.A. Chairman. And if this is all what the Israelis hold as data, it proves only that they are blind as regards the results of their own acts. Many people want Arafat discredited. A new tone has recently surfaced in the American Press. In some commentaries, ” Arafat’s coalition of terror” is tightly tied to “Iran’s undeclared war on Israel”! Yet, at the eve of Mr. Zinni’s last visit to the region, Newsweek headlined one of its stories “Arafat is a traitor”, which was actually the slogan people in some Palestinian cities were shouting out. That happened just after Arafat, yielding to the American-Israeli pressure ordered some Jihad and Hamas militants to be arrested. Rarely the Palestinian Chairman has been so at odds with the street; but he accepted to run some risks. And we can say that he did so because he was still hoping in a pacific solution.

Then, nobody found it abnormal that Arafat who, really got nothing so far neither from the Americans nor from the Israelis, went to the extent of clashing with his own people. Of course not! Anyway, this is the Israeli-condition for resuming negotiations. For many Palestinian factions, both Americans and Israelis were keen on getting Arafat in that trap, at his own risks and perils. And apparently he headed into it, for it was part of the play. Thus, he appeared much more an American dummy to some of his compatriots é the Islamists to be sure- than the great national unionist leader he pretends to be. That is to explain the riots in the streets, the slogans against him and his police, and all the anger.

But obviously, Arafat is not “born from the last rain”, as goes the French dictum. As he took risks with his own people, he might as well have taken other risks to protect himself, in case the situation becomes unbearable for him. Since he was blocked inside his headquarters, and forbidden to move freely, while the Israeli pressure was growing more intense day in, day out é And since an Israeli missile missed his office of some yards, while Sharon never softened the tone of his speeches and never tried to mask how much he hated himé And since nothing showed that the Israeli violence was about to decrease despite the conjugated efforts of the U.S. and European envoyséAnd since neither the Vatican nor the peace-process sponsors appeared to have any weight in Sharon’s political balanceé Well, after all, why not getting armed and preparing for the worse?

Whether Arafat was the man who ordered the weapons’ shipment or not, is not easy to know. But if he really did, so many of his compatriots will not find him guilty of anything. Better: they may even think that despite its failure the attempt was worth trying and deserves praise much more than the vain efforts spent for the satisfaction of Israel.

The situation has reached today such a level of tension, that even if Israel could really prove by a+b that Arafat ordered the shipment, it will only succeed in making him more popular inside Palestine and the Arab world. So, either way Sharon is the loser in this game, for if he attacks Arafat without enough evidence he will be condemned again for his excesses, and if he can prove really his involvement with the Karine A affair, he will only increase Arafat’s popularity and strengthen him.

Such a configuration could never have happened, to be sure, if there was a real will to reach an appeasement accord on the Israeli side, many Arabs think. But it is an established fact that the Israeli Prime Minister does not inspire trust and confidence to his assumed interlocutors. His excesses of language as well as his past and present acts make of him maybe the first Israeli Prime Minister off-the game for all what concerns the negotiations with the Arabs. If neither the Americans nor the Israelis perceived this truth yet, it is a pity!

Now, the whole question is about to know whether the USA is going to allow Sharon to intoxicate everybody with that affair of shipment, and thus not only to choke the peace efforts, but also to lead what is expected to be his ultimate operation long announced against the P.A. or to take more an “offensive” attitude privileging the pursuance of the purpose announced by President Bush: i.e. the creation of a Palestinian State. If Washington believes that the highest priority consists in finding out who is behind the “Karine A”, rather than to lay the basement of the future negotiations, in implementing a credible and durable cease-fire, and in pressuring Sharon to withdraw his troops from the P.A. areas, and most of all in agreeing on the demand of international monitors to survey this process, then the promise of Mr. Bush may be nothing more than a circumstantial talk. And if the next days reveal that this is actually the case, then how many people honestly could blame Arafat for not doing the necessary to uproot terrorism without feeling somewhat ridiculous?

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.