by DEBKAfile 28 March 2002

"Many thousands of police and troops spent the first day of the Passover festival patrolling the streets and synagogues of Jerusalem on a high alert that never ends. After the outrage in Netanya’s Park Hotel cut short the Passover Seder Wednesday, March 27, the men in uniform can only pray for eyes in the back of their heads. In the last two days, Jerusalem has been saved a succession of major terror strikes by security vigilance, including an all-out attack on the main city mall at Malha, to which most shoppers have been driven by the massacres in downtown Jerusalem. Wednesday morning, a Red Crescent ambulance from Nablus was stopped between Ramallah and Jerusalem at one of the many Israeli roadblocks protecting the capital. The driver looked nervous. When challenged, he revealed the bomb belt hidden under a stretcher.

In Netanya, Wednesday night, 20 of the 400 or so Passover celebrants sitting round the ceremonially laid tables were murdered by a Palestinian from the West Bank town of Tulkarm. He entered the hotel’s dining hall and blew up a huge explosive charge containing the usual spikes and screws. Of the 170 injured and taken to five hospitals, not all are expected to survive. After the horrific news filtered through, few people up and down Israel went back to their Seder ceremonies. Most switched on television and radio and stayed glued to their sets.

By Thursday morning there was no official word from the Israeli government on a reaction to the Netanya slaughter. A “senior security source” was quoted as saying that the suicide terrorist had murdered the truce-seeking process. Most Israelis have long lost hope of any processes. An eve- of-festival newspapers Wednesday carried an interview with prime minister Ariel Sharon, in which he disclosed that the first time he met President George W. Bush in Washington a year ago, he gave his word that he would not harm Yasser Arafat. Today he admits he repents this promise. Yet he never went back to Bush to say that the pledge was misplaced and must be recalled.

DEBKAfile’s political sources comment that for a mistake of this magnitude, most leaders would step down – or be driven out. His pledge to the US president has had the effect of crippling in advance any counter-terror offensive launched by the army, security and intelligence forces. For this reason, they are incapable of hermetically sealing off the country’s towns and streets to suicide killers. The man who orders the killers to strike as many Israelis as they can reach on buses, in markets, at roadblocks, army positions, highways, hotels and villages on both side of the Green Line, enjoys immunity from punishment from the victims’ own prime minister.

In these circumstances, Arafat can – and does - fuel the flames of terror at will. He is assured that Sharon is constrained from taking any effective step to hold him back. This is a war that Israel’s leaders prevent its military forces from winning.

Those sources recall that when Sharon gave Bush his solemn word not to harm Arafat, it was only weeks after he won a national election by promising to keep Israelis safe. He also assured them that he knew how to fight terror, though warning it would be a lengthy war that required patience and national unity.

These were code words to conceal his other commitments. By lengthy war, Sharon was saying he was bound by his long-term pledge to the US president; for unity, read his political alliance with the dovish Labor leader, Shimon Peres, which too hinged on the promise of immunity for Yasser Arafat.

As long as that promise is kept, the Sharon government is safe from a Labor walkout.

The call for patience can scarcely be applied any longer, for it means that Israelis must put up with the slaughter of innocents indefinitely.

In Washington, the US President responded to the Netanya tragedy with a mantra that sounds increasingly Clintonesque: Arafat must work harder to rein in the terrorists.

After the Sharm el-Sheikh conference at the end of 2000, Clinton and the rest of the world waited with baited breath for Arafat to order his people in their own language to halt the terror. He had just signed a solemn promise to do so at the Egyptian resort in the presence of the US and Egyptian presidents, the king of Jordan, the UN secretary general and the European Union’s senior executive.

Exactly what happened then is happening now. Arafat, after returning to Gaza, never made good on his promise or called off his terrorists – to this day.

Yet the Israeli prime minister continues to stand by his word to a foreign ruler that places the well-being of an avowed enemy above that of his own people. No wonder US secretary of state Colin Powell can declare with such confidence that the Zinni mission will continue without fear of being gainsaid from Jerusalem.

That appears to be so, even though Zinni’s presence inhibits any Israeli military attempt to deal with Palestinian terrorism root and branch. Above all, it is a guarantee of Arafat’s continued immunity from paying the price for the Passover slaughter."