- The Washington Times - Monday, September 30, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat emerged triumphantly from his headquarters yesterday when Israel bowed to mounting U.S. pressure by withdrawing its army from the building complex after a 10-day siege.
Even as it pulled back, Israel vowed to keep the complex surrounded to prevent the escape of about two dozen Palestinians in the building who are accused of carrying out terrorist attacks.
The move was described as an effort to lower the profile of the standoff so that it would not hinder U.S. efforts to build a U.N. coalition against Iraq.
"It will take the story off the screens and off the headlines," said a senior Israeli political source. "That's an important thing when the U.S. is trying to secure a [U.N.] resolution to press Iraq."
Mr. Arafat, emerging from the sandbagged remains of his compound, was hoisted onto the shoulders of supporters as he flashed a victory sign to a crowd of journalists and celebrating Palestinians. The Palestinian leader dismissed the Israeli withdrawal as "cosmetic."
"They are trying to deceive the world," he told reporters. "This is not withdrawal. This is only moving a few meters away."
The decision, made by Israeli Cabinet ministers yesterday morning, came after an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon returned from meetings in Washington with U.S. administration officials who expressed growing frustration with Israel's reluctance to end the operation.
The rift became clear last week when the United States refrained from using its veto power to prevent passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Israel to leave the compound immediately.
Paul Patin, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Israel, praised the pullback, saying Israel's siege of Mr. Arafat complicated U.S. efforts to persuade the world to punish Iraq for its violation of existing U.N. resolutions.
"Clearly, this is a distraction from the administration policy," he said. "It's no secret, if there is a Security Council resolution that Israel's ignoring, then it makes it more difficult for us."
Israel isolated Mr. Arafat in his compound after an Aug. 19 bus bombing in Tel Aviv that killed six and wounded more than 60. In addition to tanks and armored troop carriers, Israel used bulldozers to wreck most of the buildings not already destroyed in previous incursions.
At times, water and electricity were cut off from the 500 people holed up with Mr. Arafat. The army prevented journalists and foreign diplomats from visiting the compound. Aides to the Palestinian leader warned a week ago that the bulldozing of adjacent buildings could cause Mr. Arafat's office to collapse.
But instead of turning up the pressure on Mr. Arafat, the siege triggered international calls for an Israeli pullback and boosted sympathy for the embattled leader among Palestinians. Earlier this month, the Palestinian legislature had forced Mr. Arafat's Cabinet to resign in an unprecedented open challenge from his most loyal supporters.
"Arafat's ability to maneuver increased after the siege, but it will be temporary depending on what the Israelis are going to do," said Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University of Ramallah. "If they keep hammering him, he'll have more ability to maneuver. If they leave, others on the Palestinian scene will be able to press for changes."
Amid the wreckage of the former government complex, local Palestinian residents gathered to chant victory slogans where Israeli tanks had patrolled just a few hours ago. Despite the celebration, Israeli forces remain in Ramallah and most Palestinian cities in the West Bank.
Israeli officials last week hinted at negotiating a face-saving deal similar to one that ended a standoff at the compound in April. The sudden capitulation to U.S. pressure exposed the government to a torrent of criticism from both right- and left-wing politicians, who said the decisions of the past two weeks were miscalculated and inconsistent.
"It's a complete disgrace," said parliament member Avigdor Lieberman, a prominent conservative politician and ally of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "We've brought Arafat back to the international stage. The government is unable to see one step ahead."
Mr. Sharon, who departed for a two-day state visit to Russia almost immediately after the Cabinet meeting, left it to government ministers to explain the decision.
"There was an assessment that we could isolate Arafat," said Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin. "When Israel fights terror, it doesn't always achieve its goals."

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