Sharon and Arafat: Can’t Make War, Can’t Make Peace

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When Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak left Camp David in July 2000, the political clock stopped ticking. The summit’s failure opened the road to the second Intifada. This culminated in the suicide attack at the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv on June 1. Staring into the abyss of twenty-one young deaths, the Israelis threatened to eliminate the PA (Palestinian Authority), and the Europeans pressured Arafat. In response, he committed himself to a cease-fire. The political clock started ticking again.

The most significant turnabout occurred at the White House. Until then the new Bush administration had refrained from sticking its hands in the Israeli-Palestinian mess, but now it saw it had no choice. The American stake in the Middle East is far too high. William Safire of the New York Times described what happened: “The pressure on Bush to go down the Clinton road of all-out arbitration led to his dispatch of George Tenet, the part time CIA director, to mediate a cease-fire.” (June 28) George W. Bush tends to side with Israel. Arafat revolts him. As soon as the political clock begins to tick, though, US prestige goes on the line. The single remaining superpower cannot afford to hear “No” when “the whole world is watching.” Thus, as Bush got into a public skirmish with Israeli PM Sharon on June 27, the event foreshadowed a switch that Sharon will be called on to make in the coming weeks.

Israel and the PA accepted the Mitchell Report and later, as its precondition, the Tenet proposal. The latter provides that both sides shall agree to a cease-fire, followed by a six-week cooling-off period. Tenet left many things vague é intentionally. (Otherwise, we shall see, Arafat could hardly have agreed.) Only after the Tenet plan is fulfilled will the sides move on to Mitchell. This provides for confidence-building measures, including a freeze on settlements, and, at last, a return to negotiations.

The conflict is stuck, for now, at the Tenet stage, with Sharon demanding 100% quiet before beginning to count the six week cooling-off period. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, on the other hand, sees the present, partial cease-fire as basis enough for progress toward the Mitchell phase. The question may be put as follows: Ought one to demand from Arafat 100% results, as Sharon does, or should one be satisfied with 100% effort, as Peres would be.

The dispatch to the region of American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in the absence of perfect quiet, shows that Washington sides with Peres. Powell’s task is to carry the ball from the Tenet stage to the Mitchell. His Arafat file may even contain é who knows? é the coveted invitation to the White House.

The Dilemma of Sharon

On being elected PM, Sharon resolved to steer his course on two parallel tracks: 1) to form a unity government with the Labor Party and 2) to outmaneuver Arafat in winning the favors of Bush. As long as the Intifada precluded a political process, he managed to keep good relations with both.

Many in the Arab world, and on Israel’s Left as well, see Sharon’s commitment to the cease-fire as a ploy. He calculates, they think, that Arafat will fail to implement it; then his partners will understand that you can’t reach agreement with that “leader of a terrorist gang.” One of the Sharon-doubting pundits is Sima Kadmon. In an article on June 22 (Yediot Aharonot), she holds that the PM has no political program. His alliance with Peres and Bush will collapse, she writes, if Arafat does implement the cease-fire. As soon as political talks begin, we shall see Sharon on one side of a tremendous gap, but Peres and the rest of the world on the other.

Kadmon is wrong. Sharon understands that war with the Arab world is not a feasible option at present, and he understands, too, that a war of attrition with the Palestinians is not in Israel’s interest. Speaking to the Jewish settlers in front of the media, he has said: “I cannot take the people to war at this time.” He repeated this message in a Washington Post interview: “If you want you can make it your headline: There is not going to be a war. I will avoid escalation.” (June 24) Sharon loathes Arafat, but he understands there is no one else. He sticks with the national-unity government, not as a temporary measure, but because he needs the Labor Party for future negotiations. True, his old right-wing supporters are pressuring him. When he pays condolence calls on settler families, his tone is gentle and understanding. Nevertheless, he does not leave them in doubt: if the choice is between them and Peres, he’ll go with Peres.

Sharon is aware that no Israeli PM has managed to get through a term since Oslo. He learned a lesson from the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, and from the fall of Binyamin Netanyahu, whom the extreme Right toppled, and from the fall of Ehud Barak, whom Arafat toppled. He understands that the alliance with Peres is a precious asset, affording him a chance to stay in power. Nor should we forget that Netanyahu, revived by the polls é and much more extreme outside than he was in office é is breathing down the PM’s neck.

Sharon didn’t go to Bush with empty hands. He brought a program and a set of maps. His message was: I’m not dragging my feet. Despite the unplanned public debate with the President on this last visit, he will take great care not to turn the differences into a rift. Their agreement is greater than their disagreement é and more to the point, he has no choice.

The indefatigable Peres

Unlike Sharon, Peres does not view the national-unity government as a strategic boon. While a Minister in the Barak regime, he sharply opposed bringing Sharon in é for fear of his own seat. Yet Peres is not one to sit in the opposition. Nor is he willing to see Oslo, the crown of his life’s work, collapse. He has decided, therefore, to stake all his prestige on the unity government é and help Sharon bring Israel back into the warm embrace of the world’s respectable nations.

People from Labor and Meretz attack him daily. Sharon’s lackey, they call him. They err. It was Peres who persuaded Sharon to absorb the attack at the Dolphinarium without reprisal, a self-restraint that got the political process moving again. On June 24 he announced, for the first time on public television, that there was no alternative: the government would have to dismantle certain settlements and gather their inhabitants into blocs, by agreement. Peres has always had a keen sense for the breezes blowing out of Washington. His statement amounted to a hint for Powell, that when he visits, there’ll be something to talk about.

As far as Peres is concerned, the Clinton plan by any other name would smell as sweet. He mediates between Sharon and Arafat, explaining to each the constraints of the other. Will he succeed? Maybe not, but the man has always had a penchant for cracking nuts.

The Dilemma of Arafat

Arafat steers his course on the same tracks as Sharon, but in the opposite direction: he wants to bring down Israel’s national-unity government, and he wants to return to the club of leaders who are welcome at the White House. He is presently in serious trouble. The Intifada has yielded no political gain beyond what he could have had at Camp David. This is one reason why he isn’t able to stop the shooting completely.

Arafat did not start the Intifada. Rather, it pulled him in. The Arab regimes, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, had not given him the backing he’d needed to sign at Camp David. He could not afford to appear all alone in selling out on Jerusalem and the refugees. After nine months of fighting, the only gain is this: those very Arab regimes have had a taste of the hell they could find themselves in, and they may be willing to back him more next time.

Next time, however, is far away. Arafat is not in the same condition today as before September 28, 2000. There are 500 more Palestinian dead and thousands wounded. He cannot afford to appear, therefore, as giving in without getting more than Barak had offered. Peres and the Americans understand this, yet the most they are willing to offer is paltry by comparison. The Mitchell Report demands from Israel only that it freeze the settlements and renew the talks. In short, Arafat will have to pry the boulder of negotiations from the bottom of the valley in order to reach, once more if he can, the place on the slope at which they stopped.

In the present circumstances, then, the chances for peace are slight. Bush and Sharon now understand, to be sure, what Peres long has known: 1) There is no alternative to Arafat and the PA; 2) A new war won’t solve anything. After the collapse of Oslo, however, it isn’t enough to have assimilated these two points. In the reality of the new Middle East, not a soul in Israel or America can envision an agreement that would be both possible and conducive to regional stability. Arafat’s prestige has risen because of the Intifada. Yet if he returns to his Oslo tricks, no one will be able to protect him from an enraged Palestinian people.

Roni Ben Efrat is the editor of Challenge magazine.

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