In his epic “War and Peace”, Tolstoy describes the battle of Borodino, one of the cruelest in history, in which Napoleon opened the way to Moscow. In the middle of the terrible battle, the hero of the book looks for the Russian commander, Kutusov. He finds him sitting on a chair on the top of a hill, looking calmly at the battle and doing nothing.
The hero is, of course, amazed by this inactivity, until the Russian general explains that at this stage he has nothing more to do. The battle is a clash between two great human masses, and the stronger and more determined mass will win.
I was reminded of the scene from the book this week when I visited Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. His office was quiet, activity low-key. The Palestinian leader was calm, more so than I have seen him for a long time. The trembling of his limbs has disappeared, and so had the tired look. He reminded me of our first meeting in besieged Beirut, July 1982, in the middle of the battle. He was in a jovial mood when he led us to the window and showed us the Israeli tanks which are stationed a hundred meters away, their cannons targeted on him.
Some of the dozen senior journalists who accompanied our Gush Shalom delegation got the impression that he has given up, that he “has resigned himself to his fate”. If they had met Kutusov in that battle, they would probably also have said that the he was finished, a beaten general resigned to defeat.
The Israeli-Palestinian war, now 120 years old, is reaching one of its decisive stages. Two great masses are confronting each other: an irresistible force and an immovable object.
The Israeli commander, Ariel Sharon, knows exactly what he wants. All the columnists who tell the public that he is temporizing, that he doesn’t know what he wants, that he has no plan etc. just do not know the man. A normal person like Yossi Beilin is quite unable to grasp his way of thinking.
Sharon is acting in a consistent, determined and logical way to execute his master-plan. For decades now he has thought that he is ordained by history to implement real Zionism – one that aims to conquer all of Eretz-Israel, to cleanse it of the local population and to cover it with settlements.
In pursuing this historic mission Sharon is ruthless and merciless. Rivers of blood do not deter him, the number of casualties (theirs and ours) is just one item in his calculations. He acts cautiously, uses ruses and does not shrink from committing war crimes.
He knows that he does not have much time left, and that he must use the remaining time in order to destroy the Palestinian people as a political factor. To achieve this, he has to break thir leadership, defeat their armed forces, smash their will and ability to resist.
What is the final aim?
The minimum: To imprison the Palestinians in several enclaves, each one cut off from the others and from the world at large, each one surrounded by settlements, by-pass roads and the army. In these big prison camps, the Palestinians will be allowed to “manage their own affaires,” supplying cheap labor and a captive market. He does not care if they are called “a Palestinian state”.
The maximum: To exploit a war situation or a world crisis to expel all Palestinians (including those who are Israeli citizens) from the country. Sharon is quite capable of instigating a war to create such an opportunity. He has only contempt for the people around him, who are unable to think in such historic terms.
Under the leadership of Sharon this great mass is confronting the opposing mass é the Palestinians. They cannot compete with the attacking force in any field but one: the capability to absorb punches. The Palestinian national strategy is summarized by one word: Summud, steadfastness. After the terrible lesson of 1948, the Palestinians know that this is a fight for their life é the life of the Palestinian people and the life of every single Palestinian man and woman. This generates a force of resistance that amazes Sharon’s generals, as the Russian resistance amazed Napoleon’s marshals.
Yasser Arafat symbolizes this ability more than anyone else. Even those Palestinians (mainly Western educated members of the intelligentsia) who used to criticize his style of management know that there is nobody like him in an existential crisis. The man sitting in Ramallah facing the tanks is the personification of the Palestinian determination to defend their national existence in their homeland, whatever the price.
The Israeli Napoleon does not understand the Palestinians, as the original Napoleon did not understand the Russians. He and his followers believe that Arafat is an isolated, crippled, “irrelevant” figure. They cannot understand that precisely in such a situation, Arafat is stronger and more influential than ever.
A propos the original Napoleon: he won the battle of Borodino and entered Moscow as a glorious victor. But a few weeks later the same Kutusov defeated him decisively. Napoleon had to flee back home, leaving behind him the remnants of a beaten army, dying of hunger and cold.
[The author has closely followed the career of Sharon for four decades. Over the years, he has written three extensive biographical essays about him, two (1973, 1981) with his cooperation.]