- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

While Israel continues its siege against fugitive Palestinian terrorists who have barricaded themselves at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the two sides have reached agreement on ending the standoff at Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound. Israel, acting under intense pressure from the United States, has agreed to a compromise plan hammered out by President Bush and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah last week in which British and American jailers would take custody of six terrorist suspects who have been holed up with Mr. Arafat in Ramallah since Israel launched its anti-terror offensive March 29. To say that this is a flawed compromise is a massive understatement.

Under the agreement, Mr. Arafat would be free to travel throughout the West Bank and Gaza as early as today. He would turn the six Palestinians over to U.S. and British authorities. They would serve their sentences at an undetermined "remote" location in the West Bank, possibly Jericho, until their legal status is finally determined. Arafat spokesman Yasser Abed Rabbo declared that the jail would be "under the full Palestinian sovereignty," an assertion which could foreshadow problems down the road if the PA decides its political interest would be served by pandering to the Arab "street" and springing a few terrorists from jail.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is frequently caricatured as an incorrigible hardliner and "enemy of peace," the truth is that Israel would never have approved this arrangement had it not been for his willingness to expend considerable political capital in winning his cabinet's support for the deal. Many members of Mr. Sharon's government were understandably unhappy over the fact that the Abdullah-Bush proposal did not force Mr. Arafat, the man primarily responsible for the past 19 months of slaughter in the region, into exile. On Sunday, they initially split 13-13 on approving the arrangement. President Bush subsequently called Mr. Sharon to argue his case and invite the Israeli leader to Washington, probably early next week. Mr. Sharon then went back to lobby his cabinet in favor of the proposal; the Israeli leader made what Israel Radio called an "impassioned plea" for accepting it, arguing that Israel could not afford to antagonize the United States. The Cabinet then voted 17-9 in favor of the deal.

Now, attention turns to the siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where roughly 150 Palestinians remain barricaded. The Israeli government announced earlier this month that terrorists who took control of the church include two members of Mr. Arafat's Fatah group who are wanted in connection with the Jan. 15 murder of an American citizen, Avi Boaz, who was kidnapped at a Palestinian police checkpoint and subsequently murdered. Palestinians who have escaped from the church have told Israeli officials that sanitary conditions inside are worsening, that food and water are in short supply, and that the Palestinian gunmen in charge there have threatened to kill anyone who wants to leave. Maybe Mr. Arafat, who just recently ordered the thugs barricaded inside the church not to surrender, could use his good offices to persuade them to give themselves up.

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