The extremists are taking the day

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For some time now, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been heading towards dramatic change. Three major players have had a hand in increasingly clear trends of behavior that lay bare their respective strategies. Hamas and other Islamic militant movements have upped their profile, in particular when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave them the deciding vote over the peace process by deciding not to resume negotiations until Islamists stopped their violent activities. Hamas, in exercising its veto over negotiations, has three major objectives: to increase its public support, to undermine the Palestinian Authority and the peace process; and finally, to transform the conflict from one over ending the Israeli occupation into a conflict over existence.

The irony is that these are the same objectives held by the current Israeli government, which–like Hamas–represents the extremists and those who oppose the peace process on the Israeli side. Dismantling the Palestinian Authority, as well as invalidating areas that the peace process put under Palestinian control, is the heart of the strategy of Sharon, who sat in opposition to the peace process while leaders in Israel and Palestine were busy creating it. Ideologically and politically, Sharon has always opposed the kind of territorial compromise that would allow the existence of two states. His politics are those of the zero sum game and the existential questions that make this conflict irresolvable.

In addition, Sharon, like Hamas, has been working to maintain his public support by pulling the rug out of his competitor Benjamin Netanyahu who is campaigning against the prime minister by testing Sharon’s resolve over destroying the Palestinian Authority.

As such, we are now in a position in which the Palestinian extremist opposition and the Israeli government headed by Sharon are both doing their best to undermine the Palestinian Authority and its leader. The activities of each are reinforcing the other.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, in turn, is very transparent to his public, while seemingly very confusing to outsiders, including American and European officials. No matter what Israelis hypothesize, it remains clear to Palestinians that Arafat’s strategy is exactly what he says it is: producing an end to the Israeli occupation, a state with the borders delineated in United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and a just solution for the refugee problem in accordance with United Nations Resolutions 194.

Over the last ten years, Arafat chose the peace process as the means of attaining those goals, so much so that Arafat abandoned all of his other options and concentrated on negotiations. But after the collapse of the Camp David talks and the subsequent peace process failure, Arafat lost that option. The Palestinian leader was not in a position to allow a political vacuum at that point, because “coexisting” in the status quo with no peace process was tantamount to the defacto acceptance of the Israeli occupation. To allow that would mean the end of Arafat’s cause–and subsequently the end of Arafat’s political career.

That is why when Israel transferred the relationship between the two sides from peace negotiations to confrontations, provocatively allowing Sharon to visit the Al Aqsa Mosque and then killing with snipers an average of ten Palestinian stone-throwing demonstrators a day with almost no casualties on the other side, at that point, the confrontations became Arafat’s only choice. He did not stop the uprising then, in particular because if he had stood against it, Hamas would have monopolized the Palestinian street, which was swept up in the rage of the Intifada.

At this moment, Arafat’s immediate concerns are straightforward. First, he wants to maintain what are considered to be the Palestinian achievements of the peace process, i.e. the Palestinian Authority and its control over certain parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In this, he seems to be facing both the Israeli government and the Palestinian opposition. Arafat’s strategy, therefore, is to emphasize the only apparent disagreement between Israel and the United States–one over the extent of the regional impact if Arafat falls from his position as a cornerstone to a peaceful Middle East.

Arafat knows that he has always represented and remains to this day the most moderate strain among Palestinians. He is not very concerned about internal challenges to his power, since he has benefited from a long- standing policy of not allowing others the influence that might threaten his own.

More and more, Arafat’s future seems to hinge on the question of whether the world–including the Arab world–is willing to accept the unintended and unholy Israeli and Palestinian extremist alliance against him.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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