WASHINGTON, March 4 (UPI) -- The deaths of 22 Israelis in a 12-hour period over the weekend were a tactical disaster, a humiliation for the Israeli armed forces. But far more seriously in the long term, the deaths threaten a strategic defeat for prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Now in its third month, the siege of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah compound was intended to ram home, as bluntly as politically possible, Sharon's belief that Arafat had become "irrelevant" to the future of the Middle East.
But Sharon has failed. Arafat is now more relevant than ever -- courtesy of the Israeli armed forces.
For the Arab world, Arafat is not just relevant but crucial. The new Saudi peace plan will not even be formally presented at the Arab summit in Beirut later this month unless Arafat is released from his siege and allowed to travel to Lebanon to hear it, the Saudis told the Palestinian Authority Monday.
He is relevant for Palestinians. Arafat's opinion poll ratings among Palestinians have soared from below 30 percent then to almost 70 percent now. Sharon's own poll ratings among Israelis have plunged over the same period. The latest Globe-Smith poll showed two-thirds of respondents, 67 percent, giving the Sharon government a negative grade for its handling of the security-diplomatic situation, and 75% giving it a negative grade for its overall performance.
Arafat's targeting by Sharon has given him something close to martyr status; under siege but defiant as a symbol of Palestinian nationhood, Arafat has -- as so often in his past -- turned weakness into strength and used his tactical defeat to achieve a strategic victory.
Arafat is even stronger because Sharon has destroyed the military leadership of Hamas, the militant fundamentalist group whose suicide bombers had made the organization into Arafat's rivals for influence among the Palestinian people. By its targeted assassinations of Hamas chieftains, Israel has allowed Arafat's own loyalists in the Fatah organization and the Al-Aqsa brigades to become once again the spearhead of the Palestinian resistance.
Palestinians are heartened, believing that the initiative is now theirs, that the latest wave of Intifada is inflicting such draining casualties on the Israelis that Israel cannot sustain the struggle. Each new statement by Israeli reservists that they will not serve on the West Bank or Gaza is hailed by Palestinians as proof that Israel's morale is cracking.
The Israelis are becoming demoralized, divided again between hawks and doves, uncertain whether security lies in crushing the Palestinians or negotiating with them. The Council for Peace and Security, a group of 1,000 reserve generals, colonels, and intelligence officials, calls for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza and most of the West Bank and immediate peace talks with the Palestinians.
By contrast, hawkish civilians like Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit demand "an iron first -- no games. And if that doesn't help we have to use even harsher steps and declare a full-scale war against them."
The Israeli Defense Force, reeling from its casualties and frustrated at its own ineffectiveness, is being publicly condemned by its own cabinet ministers.
"Is this the best you can propose, after 22 deaths in 12 hours?" Shlomo Benizri, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, demanded of army chief of staff General Shaul Mofaz during the latest emergency meeting of Israel's security cabinet. "What's happening to us militarily, what's happening to our security is simply unbelievable."
The war is everywhere, on the streets of Jerusalem, in the nightclubs of Tel Aviv, at the checkpoints and in the West Bank towns, in the tunnels the Palestinians have dug beneath Gaza and now in the Palestinian refugee camps of Balata and Nur e-Shams. And meanwhile the sniping and killings continue all around the settlements Israeli have built and occupied in the last two decades.
"Israel is like a car in an intersection getting hit from all sides," says retired Major General Oren Shachor, who now advocates a full-scale Israeli military re-occupation of all Palestinian territories and the destruction of the Palestinian Authority.
This idea of annulling what few gains remain from the Oslo peace process may seem tempting. But it would divide Israeli opinion even more deeply, outrage much of world opinion and infuriate the vital American ally by hugely complicating Washington's relations with the Arab world.
The Palestinians have seen this moment coming for months. Last October Marwan Barhouthi, the Fatah leader on the West Bank, in an interview with Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea, noted that Sharon has ridden to power "on a security horse, and I said, we will break this horse of his."
The Palestinians are convinced the horse is breaking. By refusing to be defeated, Arafat is starting to win again.