Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s essential strategy in dealing with the Palestinian issue is one of coercion. He seeks to compel the Palestinian leadership to accept Israel’s security demands without political conditions. Once the Palestinians do so, he seeks to compel them to accept his political demands–essentially, a freezing of the current status quo on the ground under the guise of a Palestinian “state” in about half the territory. Since he believes that Rais Yasir Arafat will not willingly comply with either aspect of this strategy, and that Arafat is in any case a thoroughly non-credible leader, he seeks, step-by-step, to ease him out of power.
It is of crucial importance to Sharon to accomplish these objectives while maintaining a broad consensus of Israeli, American and possibly even European support. This is the principal lesson he has learned from the Lebanon fiasco of 1982. This explains why, in dealing aggressively with Arafat, he appears frequently to be moving two steps forward, then one step backward: today a preventive assassination or retaliatory bombing, tomorrow a request that United States envoy Anthony Zinni continue his efforts to reach a ceasefire. This also explains why one day, in response to American cautionary remarks, he claims he is not seeking Arafat’s downfall, and the next day he states that “the story’s over” for the Palestinian leader. He is constantly maneuvering to make sure a consensus is behind him. So far he is succeeding.
Behind this current operational strategy lie fundamental beliefs. Sharon believes that a physical Israeli presence in the territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is essential for Israel’s security. To this end he has, over the past 24 years, deployed scores of settlements at key locations. He can recite a security “justification” for each and every settlement, from Yitzhar in central Samaria to Netzarim in the heart of the Gaza Strip. He believes the Oslo accords, which presage the removal of these settlements, were a mistake. But they cannot be totally reversed, nor should they, since reoccupying Area A would present Israel with political and security challenges it cannot handle. Instead, Sharon appears to believe that more cooperative and credible Palestinian leaders than Arafat are potentially available to replace him and work with Israel.
Sharon’s military strategy is made possible by Arafat, who is single- handedly destroying the last vestiges of his own credibility in the West and the Arab world. Sharon has succeeded in persuading world leaders, with the help of hard intelligence evidence, that Arafat is behind the murderous Palestinian terrorist attacks. Now he wishes to convince them that we would all be better off without Arafat. This may not be hard to do. They have all met with the Rais in recent years and heard his astonishing fantasies about the Mossad being behind the worst Palestinian terrorist atrocities. They have heard Arafat compare himself in his megalomania to de Gaulle and Mandela. Well-intentioned American and Israeli negotiators who tried to work with him at Camp David emerged with the impression that Arafat was nothing but a “con man.” Senior Palestinian leaders are complaining bitterly to their Israeli and American counterparts that Arafat is “leading them toward disaster.”
His current effort to arrest terrorist leaders is not taken seriously anywhere. Even Egypt and Jordan are hard put to defend the Palestinian leader.
Arafat, then, appears to have no real strategy for winning the war or for making peace–only fantasies. After years of successful efforts his grand strategy–a Palestinian state more or less within the 1967 borders–is now clearly attainable. But he seems incapable of abandoning violence and knuckling down to the final, hard political decisions. Yet Sharon’s strategy is also not likely to win either the war or the peace. Nine months after he took office, the violence has not been reduced, nor is there any indication that the fall of Arafat will end the bloodletting. On the contrary, Arafat is more likely to be succeeded by Hamas, or by chaos, or both, than by Sharon’s wish-list coalition of cooperative warlords.
Sharon’s record of installing willing Arab leaders–the Jumayils in Lebanon in 1982 and 1983, and the Village Leagues in the West Bank in 1981–was disastrous for all concerned. Now once again, as in Lebanon nearly 20 years ago, we are witnessing the intriguing but extremely dangerous combination of Sharon’s battalion-level calculations regarding the value of territory, with his strategic grand design predicated on a series of dominoes falling precisely as he wills them to–something that never happens in the Middle East.
Thus, things could get worse if Sharon has his way.
The best alternative is for Palestinians themselves to “persuade” Arafat to step aside, rest on his historical laurels, and be replaced in an orderly fashion by a tough, patriotic but more pragmatic leader or leaders. Given the Palestinian reality, that is probably impossible. In which case Israel is better off withdrawing unilaterally, dismantling problematic settlements and building high fences pending negotiations with a willing Palestinian leader. But under no circumstances should it meddle with the power structure in a neighboring Arab entity.
Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”