Israeli intelligence sources say they believe Yasser Arafat has decided to scuttle the ceasefire mission of American envoy Anthony Zinni after receiving pledges of full support from Iran, Iraq and Syria.

They say evidence is strong that the three Mideast countries have been putting pressure on Arafat to rebuff all U.S. attempts to curb his violent war of attrition, pledging they will back him militarily if Israel responds with further major army operations against his Palestinian Authority. They add that the flap over Arafat’s scheduled speech to the Arab League summit in Beirut yesterday is part of a struggle between pro and anti-American Arab countries over the pending larger conflict in the explosive Middle East.

Israeli sources say they suspect that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah cancelled their scheduled appearances at the Arab summit at the last minute after learning of the war plot. They say both U.S.-linked leaders were told by moderate elements inside the Lebanese government that their lives could be in danger if they showed up at the summit. Alarm bells were already sounded when the Syrian regime, which controls Lebanon, staged a huge anti-Israel rally in Damascus last weekend which denounced Arab states that maintain relations with the Jewish state.

Hard-line speeches delivered yesterday by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud at the summit reflect the intense struggle between pro- and anti-American forces in the Arab world, say intelligence sources. Lahoud hardly disguised his contempt for American envoy Anthony Zinni’s ongoing ceasefire efforts, they noted, warning that the greatest problem facing the region is not the threat of a wider conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, but of “foreign pressure” being applied to halt the violent uprising before it achieves its goals of forcing Israel out of territories captured in 1967.

Assad gave tepid backing to a U.S.-backed Saudi peace plan being discussed at the summit, but then strongly contradicted that by calling for the immediate severing of all Arab ties with Israel – a slap at Jordan and Egypt, and a warning to Arafat not to rejoin the peace train.

The powerful suicide blast at the Park Hotel on Wednesday night in Netanya – the worst terrorist atrocity in nearly one year – was carried out with Arafat’s full approval, say intelligence sources. They note that despite Zinni’s ongoing mission, the Palestinian leader has done nothing to close down his own Fatah-backed Al Aksa Brigades and Tanzim terror networks. This is made clear by the fact that Al Aksa terrorists carried out the last major suicide attack in Jerusalem one week ago, and attempted another assault on Tuesday that was only scuttled when two terrorists prematurely blew themselves up at an Israeli roadblock – apparently while on their way to attack Jerusalem’s main shopping mall.

Intelligence sources say continuing Fatah terrorist action has sent a strong signal to Muslim radical groups like Hamas – which claimed responsibility for the Netanya blast – to carry on with their suicide assaults.

Intelligence sources say the Sharon government fully realizes the implications of Arafat’s continuing terror campaign. Israeli leaders understand that Arafat has secured significant military support from several regional powers, and believe he and his allies have a good chance of causing major damage to Israel should a new Mideast war erupt. Nevertheless, they cannot hold their return fire in the face of continuing terrorist atrocities simply to placate the Zinni mission or to forestall a wider conflict. They add that the outrageous attack on a crowded family Passover celebration was definitely designed to provoke a fierce Israeli military response, and indeed it will probably do just that.

Even if a new Mideast war does not turn out as Arafat and his comrades expect, the Palestinian leader can at least claim that he valiantly resisted foreign pressure to give in to Israeli negotiation demands, say intelligence sources. If he survives such a conflict, he can then go back to the negotiating table with his honor intact, and accept whatever state he can secure from Israel. But the sources warn that Arafat is playing with a greater fire than he might realize, with the very real potential that any new Mideast conflict could escalate to the point that Israel is forced to use some weapons in its undeclared nuclear arsenal.

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David Dolan is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived in Israel since 1980. He reported for CBS Radio for over 12 years.

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