Sharon — ‘shift to a war footing’?

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The sight of Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon and US President George Bush II sitting convivially in high-backed yellow and orange striped chairs before a fireplace in the Oval Office in the White House demonstrates, once again, that Washington is Israel’s loyal friend and ally, no-matter-what-Israel-does

For a second time since Sharon took office in February, Bush summoned the “Butcher of Beirut” – also known as the “Bulldozer” – for a meeting. By so doing, Bush attempted to cleanse the bloodstained Sharon to make him an acceptable visitor in homes of other world leaders.

Take, for instance, Tony Blair. It was reported from London that he was not prepared to meet Sharon when passing through the British capital en route to the US, allegedly, because of widespread public opposition caused by the showing of the Panorama programme suggesting the indictment of Sharon for war crimes over the massacre of 2,800 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla camps. But Bush could not countenance a Blair rebuff of Sharon, which made the White House look bad. Pressure was clearly brought to bear on Blair who received Sharon at Number 10 Downing Street and even praised his “restraint”.

But neither cozy fireside chats (even without fires roaring in the background) nor chummy photo-and-sound-bite-opportunities can cleanse the blood and gore clinging to Sharon. His past continues to dominate his present and future. During his military days he was known for “exaggeration” and “excess”, to quote the opinions of senior officers. Israel’s First Premier David Ben Gurion said of Sharon, then a junior officer, that he was a man who had a “tendency not to tell the truth”. Perhaps Bush and Blair should have considered these aspects of his character before issuing invitations.

Sharon’s natural propensity for “exaggeration” and “excess” and tendency towards mendaciousness inspired the propaganda campaign his spin doctors launched before he boarded his aircraft for the US, where he met not only Bush but also influential Jewish leaders and congressmen.

In an interview with the low-brow, widely-read Newsweek magazine, Sharon said “it would be easier” if Palestinian President Yasser Arafat were no longer around. “Arafat is playing with terror. It won’t take too long before Israel will have to take steps.” Sharon reiterated his charge that Arafat has done nothing to end “terror” and claimed that since the ceasefire, mediated by US Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet, came into force on June 13, there had been 230 “terrorist” attacks against Israelis. Sharon accused Arafat of heading “a coalition of terror”. On the eve of his meeting with Bush, Sharon repeated his claim that Arafat should not be treated as a “head of state but as a head of a gang of terrorists”. In a recent meeting with US envoy William Burns, Sharon even called Arafat “Israel’s Osama Ben Laden”, the Saudi militant the US considers the world’s “arch terrorist”.

Sharon’s characterisation of President Arafat is straightforward “incitement” and amounts to a flagrant breach of the terms of the Tenet ceasefire and the Mitchell Commission recommendations which are supposed to calm the situation.

Sharon chose to “exaggerate” and tell flagrant lies with the all-too-obvious object of trying to convince Bush to adopt his point of view. Sharon’s aim was, through constant repetition of a single phrase, to demonise Arafat and convince Bush, who has still not met with the Palestinian leader, to dismiss him as a valid interlocutor. Nothing sticks like mud. Sharon should know: he mired the Israeli army in a massacre it could not deny as well as 18 years of a deadly and demeaning struggle to hold onto a south Lebanon occupation zone.

If Powell, now in the region, accommodates the Israeli line on 10 days of zero-violence, followed by a six-week cooling off period, Sharon will be in a position to: 1) stretch to infinity the cooling-off period, or 2) say Israel’s exercise of “restraint” has been a failure and shift to a war footing. Gideon Samet, writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz yesterday, called Sharon’s unfolding scenario the “foreplay before war”.

Sharon gave away his real intention when he referred, in the Newsweek interview, to the Oslo accords – which might have brought peace to the Palestinians and Israel if Israel had honoured its commitments – as a “terrible mistake”. Clearly, Sharon wants to shed Oslo as much as he would like to get rid of Arafat. Perhaps even more.

According to Akiva Eldar, Haaretz diplomatic columnist, Sharon wants to prove that Israel has no alternative but to declare war on Arafat. Sharon seeks a US “green light”, like the “green light” he received from the then Secretary of State Alexander Haig (a military man like Powell) in May 1982, ahead of the so-called “Peace for Galilee” campaign. Sharon might call his new military campaign “Peace for Israel” or “Peace for the Middle East”, inverting the Orwellian refrain, “War is peace” into “Peace is war”. After subduing the Palestinians, once again, Sharon could hope for a decade of quiet during which Israel could complete its colonisation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan, put an end to all talk of “land-for-peace” and secure “Greater Israel”.

Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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