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Jewish World Review Jan. 17, 2002/ 4 Shevat, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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When a Palestinian house is not a home -- IF Yasser Arafat is struck down with the Pinocchio disease, the cartoonists won't be able to fit his nose into their caricatures.

The chairman's "shock'' at the discovery of that enormous arms shipment from Iran, destined for Palestinian terrorists, recalls the shock of Claude Raines "discovering'' gambling in the back room at Rick's Cafe in "Casablanca.'' Or, as columnist William Safire put it, the chairman's pretense of ignorance recalls the Chico Marx retort to the husband discovering Chico in bed with the man's wife: "Who you gonna believe -- me or your eyes?''

Perhaps, as the Wall Street Journal remarked, Arafat could explain that the arms caper was "research for a film part.'' Or maybe the chairman was merely testing the Israeli commandos, to see whether they were really as good as they were reputed to be. Or perhaps Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, plotted the whole thing to make the Palestinian Authority look bad, in the way Mossad organized the attack on the World Trade Center, as "the Arab Street'' insisted it had in the wake of Sept. 11 (''Arabs wouldn't have been smart enough to do it.'')

This time our State Department -- or those who speak for it -- seemed willing to believe their eyes, at least for a little while. Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser and the administration's resident tough guy, "seriously suspects'' Arafat knew. Those who doubt it are stuck with the explanation in the observation of the Israeli citizen who complains: "At first we were supposed to deal with Arafat because he could control the terrorists; now we're asked to deal with him because he can't.''

The Palestinian terrorists who kill innocent men, women and children at pizza parlors, shopping malls and bus stations had finally forced the terminally credulous American officials to drop their rhetoric about moral equivalence.

Ariel Sharon, hardly the easiest Israeli prime minister for Americans to like, had even begun to earn public sympathy. The sympathy deepened with the discovery of the Iranian shipment of explosives, and alarmed Palestinian sympathizers in other parts of the world.

Naturally it wouldn't last. The sympathy has begun to dissolve with the news that the Israeli army demolished dozens of houses in the Gaza strip, which the Israelis say were nests of terrorists. The destroyed houses covered the tunnels that allowed smugglers to deliver arms. But never mind: The world media could return to the story line it likes best, Israel heartlessly brutalizing the homeless.

But even Simon Peres, the dovish Israeli foreign minister who often seems most comfortable criticizing his own government, said the "media damage'' was worth it because the destruction was warranted: "We didn't touch -- according to the information in my hands -- any innocent houses, only houses that harbored an entrance to the tunnels or served as positions for terrorists or firing squads.''

Like Yasser Arafat's lies, the contretemps keeps the focus away from another real terror in the Middle East, that Iran, with links to Hezbollah well established, seeks a secure base with the Palestinian Authority from which to threaten Israel. Even the chairman's friends are unhappy with the new Iranian connection. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is said to be so enraged he won't talk to Arafat.

Certain American foreign policy mavens, ever eager to be fooled, have entertained the notion that Iran has a growing moderate movement in rebellion against the mullahs, especially evident among the young who want a more secular life and who want to sample the popular culture of the West. That may be, but the mullahs are still very much in power, sheltering terrorists, and Arafat looks to be dealing with them. The president of Iran suggests that Israel could be eradicated with nuclear weapons and the Islamic world would live to tell the tale.

If the cargo sent by Iran to Gaza had reached its destination, the explosions could have killed far more people than the suicide bombers. Every corner of Israel would be within range.

Destroying houses is grim business, but Sharon's defense rings true: "We act according to security needs, and that's the only thing that influences our considerations.'' To do otherwise is suicidal. A house that shelters gunmen and covers tunnels of arms smugglers is not a home.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS