While personal disputes play a role in the current military and diplomatic confrontations being waged between Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat and Israelis led by Ariel Sharon, the weight of that element has been vastly exaggerated. It is true that the fiercest confrontations between the two peoples took place in Lebanon under these same leaders. It is also true that Sharon claimed an incomplete victory when he forced Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to flee Lebanon to the farthest reaches of the Arab world. It is also true that Sharon’s “victory” pushed him out of politics for the next 20 years.
But despite all of these truths, the factor remaining most vital to continuing hostilities is the contradiction between the spirit of this peace process and Sharon’s political ideology. The peace process is based on the notion of dividing historic Palestine into two full independent states in accordance with Security Council Resolution 242, which called for ending the Israeli occupation along the 1967 borders in exchange for peace.
Sharon’s ideology cannot adapt to that notion of peace because his ideology is based on the rights of Israel or the Jewish people to all of historic Palestine. He believes that this can be achieved by taking advantage of the current vast material and military imbalance of power between Israel and Palestinians.
Sharon has never made this ideology a secret; he has expressed often in public his belief that historic Palestine is Israel. Too, Sharon has always been considered the foremost advocate of expanding illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories (a plan of action that completely contradicts a solution to the problem in which historic Palestine is mutually divided into Israel and Palestine, i.e., the peace process).
This is exactly why Palestinians and others have no hope that the current bloody confrontations between the two sides will soon come to a close. Israel under Sharon cannot afford quiet, because this will then bring it face to face with its obligations towards the peace process. The creation of calm would require Israel to adhere to all the other components of the United States- backed Mitchell report–steps which Sharon and his coalition would not be able to survive. These steps include ending settlement expansion, resuming implementation of the articles of the Palestinian-Israeli agreements that have not yet been implemented (such as the further redeployment of Israeli troops from Palestinian territories), and resuming negotiations at the point at which they stopped and in accordance with the previously-agreed-upon terms of reference.
Arafat, on the other hand, comes from an entirely different political and ideological background. His image among his people (who are, after all, the source of his power) is based on the promise to deliver them an end to the Israeli occupation and a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital by peaceful means. Time and time again, Arafat has shown this commitment through his statements to his people and the press, by putting his signature to multiple agreements towards peace and by cracking down, even ruthlessly, against his opponents when they have tried to disrupt this course of action.
In fact, Arafat was so committed to this option that he led a long-term internal struggle to transform Palestinian public thinking from a commitment to absolute Palestinian rights to historic Palestine, into a commitment to rights sanctioned by international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions. This transformation was so dramatic that it not only took 20 years of internal debate, but caused a lot of infighting with Palestinian groups who resisted that change. Now, at a time when Israel is accusing Palestinians and Arafat of not being flexible enough, it is important to remember the numerous compromises made to get this far.
As such, this is not a personal vendetta between two leaders; it is a vigorous clash between what Sharon stands for in Israeli politics and what Arafat stands for in Palestinian and Arab politics. The matter of who will win is ideological and not a personal duel.
Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.