The sight of Yasser Arafat flashing a "V for victory" sign as he emerged from the ruins of his Ramallah headquarters when the Israeli military ended its 10-day siege Sunday sent the Israeli press into fits. Ha'aretz thundered, "Operation 'A Matter of Time' was an unmitigated failure. The cabinet … did not succeed in weakening Arafat's status. Indeed, the outcome of the siege, and of the destruction of those Palestinian government buildings that were still standing, was the opposite of what those who dreamed up the operation had intended: Arafat's position was strengthened, at least temporarily. "
The Israeli Defense Force had surrounded and severely damaged several buildings in Arafat's compound, known as the Muqata, after a Sept. 19 bus bombing in downtown Tel Aviv killed at least six. Officials claimed that several Palestinians with alleged terrorist connections were holed up in the compound. Last week, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that Israel withdraw from Palestinian cities and towns, and over the weekend the Bush administration complained to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the situation in Ramallah was hampering U.S. efforts to win international support for action against Saddam Hussein. Sharon immediately ordered a withdrawal. Ha'aretz expressed a widely held view of the operation: "Instead of screwing Arafat, who was already flat on his fanny, the siege put a halo on his head and granted him immunity against deportation. Instead of enhancing its power of deterrence, Israel got mixed up in an operation it didn't know how to get out of."
The Jerusalem Post salvaged three lessons from the "ignominious" pull-out: "First, that if we decide to generate a lot of smoke, we might as well light a fire. Second, that signals are no substitute for real action. Third, we cannot assume that the US will always act consistently or even in its own interest in the war on terrorism." The editorial chastised Sharon for initiating the siege precipitously and without a clear objective: "[It] was the equivalent of the pre-September 11 responses of the United States to terrorism: lob a few cruise missiles somewhere and call it a day. … It was action as symbolism, and therefore a substitute for, rather than an example of, action itself."
An op-ed in Yediot Ahronot blamed the prime minister for misjudging the mood in Washington: "Sharon failed to take into account the pressure weighing on the Bush administration in its single-minded preoccupation with the Iraqi campaign. Bush could not accept any action by Israel … that would disrupt that campaign. … Relations with Bush are Sharon's exclusive responsibility and his greatest achievement as prime minister. The blame for misjudging the degree of anger in the White House is his alone." Another columnist in the same paper agreed, claiming Sharon was "intoxicated by his success in the last year and a half in creating a commonality of interests between America and Israel. He failed to grasp that his partner in the love affair was cold and calculating, motivated by global interests, and that the romance would end the moment Israel did anything against those interests."
Ha'aretz worried that Sharon had exposed weaknesses in Israel's relationship with the Bush administration: "In the Muqata affair, it turned out that American support for the prime minister is on condition he does not disturb Washington's interests. That's a hint of things to come, which should worry Sharon. The day Bush decides to deal seriously with the Palestinian issue, he won't hesitate to clash with the prime minister." Hatzofeh also fretted that with the United States distracted, Israel is vulnerable: "[I]t is not clear at this stage when the US attack on Iraq will take place, and the question is whether or not the Palestinian terrorist organizations will take advantage of American sensitivities and perpetrate attacks against Israel on the assumption that its hands are tied vis-a-vis an appropriate response."
Sharon earned a few plaudits for his turnaround. An editorial in Yediot Ahronot claimed that ending the siege "will only strengthen Israel's position in the United States, [and] undercut the claim that 'there is no difference between Sharon and Saddam Hussein, that they both refuse to carry out Security Council resolutions.' … Sometimes it is advisable to say 'yes' to a great friend, even when he is wrong. How much the more so when he is right." Similarly, Arafat's celebrations were denounced as hubris: Ha'aretz said the Palestinian leader "is basking in an empty achievement. … Instead of leading his people to an agreement that would result in an independent state and a proper national existence, he is now intoxicated by the lifting of a siege on a few shady characters who had found refuge in his destroyed compound."