Strategy and local politics

Internal politics in any country tend to be unpleasant if not downright disgusting, based as they usually are on manipulation, raw interests and naked power. The test of their efficacy is not whether they present an aesthetic picture, but whether the sum total of their interactions works to promote the country’s strategic interests.

Both Israel and Palestine fail this test miserably.

In Ramallah, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is again fully in control, having beat back the reformers. He and his Fatah Central Committee cronies retain a strategic approach that ultimately relies on violence, and that does not seem to allow for genuine coexistence with a sovereign Jewish state neighbor.

In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains committed to a strategy of military compellance, coupled with carving out a "state" of non-viable Palestinian enclaves through settlement construction and now fences.

Arafat’s most recent success at domestic political manipulation is to oblige Abu Alaa (Ahmed Qurei) to form a government that does not even aspire to control the Palestinian Authority’s security establishment. By retaining overall control, Arafat can ensure that violence continues and that the means for committing it continue to exist. Abu Alaa may or may not succeed in negotiating a new ceasefire, which could give us all a few weeks of relief. But he will not be a peacemaker as long as Arafat is his master.

Sharon is about to crown Hasan Nasrallah of Hizballah–no friend of Israel or even of a united and sovereign Lebanon–the new savior of the Arab cause, by handing him hundreds of Palestinian, Jordanian and other Arab prisoners. Sharon could not bring himself to repatriate these people to Abu Mazen, King Abdullah and other Arab leaders who are genuine partners for peace, apparently because he is afraid to nourish a peace process that would demand of him genuine territorial concessions. Instead he did a deal with Nasrallah, who is backed by Iran and Syria, thereby further encouraging Islamic extremism. Humanitarian consideration for the fate of a single Israeli hostage who ended up in the hands of Hizballah due to his own avarice and stupidity, and for the families of three dead Israel Defense Forces soldiers whose bodies will be returned, is not a sufficient explanation for an act of folly that contradicts Israel’s strategic interests. Rather, we are looking at Sharon’s real ! politics.

One would think that these two not-so-young leaders, Sharon and Arafat, would want to be remembered for something more than bloodshed and stalemate. In their own way, of course, they do: Arafat apparently believes that 50 years from now he’ll be deified as the man who manipulated Israel into a South Africa-type situation, until the Jewish state disappeared. Sharon evidently thinks he can manipulate the Palestinians into a South Africa-type situation that enables Israel to survive as a Jewish state while no viable Palestinian state ever emerges. Together, these mirror images constitute yet one more act of collective folly.

Beyond the Middle East, there is one additional case of internal politics that merits our attention. US President George W. Bush believes that in order to be reelected a year from now, he must essentially stay out of the Israeli-Palestinian mess, thereby not antagonizing key Jewish and right wing Christian constituencies. Of course his reelection will depend on other factors as well: Iraq, and the American economy. But he is wrong in his decision to lower his profile of involvement here. Stronger American pressures on both sides might make the difference in keeping the roadmap going. Despite the unpleasantness with some constituencies at home, Bush could endear himself to the large majority of American voters both by generating a peace dynamic in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by improving America’s overall image in the Middle East.

"All politics are local politics," said American politician Tip O’Neill. In our case, strategy is also local politics.