They’re both under stress

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In recent weeks both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat have made rare use of the media to deliver key messages to totally different audiences. These gestures reflect the considerable stress that both leaders are under.

But different kinds of stress.

One year after his dramatic election by a sweeping majority, Ariel Sharon can no longer avoid addressing the failure of all his policies and the resulting, inevitable, popularity decline. For a growing number of Israelis, he cannot provide security, peace or bread on the table. For an entire year he successfully compensated with adroit politics for his inability to deliver on policy, and kept 70 percent of the people behind him. He was assisted not a little by events beyond his control: Yasir Arafat’s mismanagement of the conflict and the events of September 11.

Now Sharon’s image of cautious elder statesman is beginning to slip. Fewer than 50 percent of Israelis are satisfied with his performance. One recent poll revealed that less than a third of Israelis still believe he has a plan to extricate the country from the current impasse. Sharon’s private polls almost certainly support this alarming finding. So do the growing number of conscientious objectors among Israel Defense Forces reserve officers, the long-striking disabled Israelis demonstrating day and night outside his office, and the gradually revitalized Israeli peace movement, which has now adopted unilateral withdrawal as part of its program.

One of Sharon’s smartest moves throughout the past year was to give few interviews and to keep them short. The less loose talk the better. In this way he created a positive contrast between his disciplined style of governance and that of his two less experienced predecessors, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, whose lack of confidence led them to talk to the public incessantly and compulsively, frequently contradicting themselves (Netanyahu actually used to phone in to radio talk shows to make sure he got his daily message across).

Thus it was surprising to see Sharon giving repeated, lengthy interviews to Israel’s TV stations and major newspapers on the occasion of the first anniversary of his election. He had virtually nothing new to say (except to acknowledge that he regretted not having assassinated Arafat back in Beirut in 1982!). His calls for unity fell flat.

In the midst of this media flurry Sharon’s office also leaked news of his meeting with senior Palestinian officials Abu Maazen, Abu Alaa and Muhammad Rashid. This presumably also reflected polling results, which show that nearly three quarters of Israelis wish to see him negotiating with the Palestinians. In anticipation of his visit to the United States in early February and in view of Washington’s anticipated need for Israeli-Palestinian “quiet” if and when it attacks Iraq, Sharon apparently also sought to reassure the US that he was diligently searching for peace partners. Even assassinations of Palestinian terrorists appear to have stopped; the polls tell us that Israelis believe they encourage terrorism rather than reducing it.

I doubt these media-based tactics will work. On the contrary, if I were an opposition politician, I would smell blood. The Israeli public is losing faith in Sharon. Fortunately for the latter, the alternatives appear to be equally unattractive.

This is not the situation of Yasir Arafat in Ramallah. Siege and danger have, if anything, increased his popularity with Palestinians. But his credibility as a statesman, in Washington and Arab capitals, has hit rock bottom. His media advisers have grasped that his television interviews are disastrous. Hence the idea for someone–former US Consul General in Jerusalem Ed Abington is the prime suspect–to ghostwrite an op-ed by Arafat for The New York Times: a polished, articulate exposition of a seemingly moderate Palestinian position, published on February 3, a few days before Sharon met President Bush in Washington.

Too little, too late. Arafat’s pledge to stop “the attacks carried out by terrorist groups against Israeli civilians” rings hollow, especially when, a few days later, Palestinian suicide bombers and rocket production workshops were back in business as usual, and TV clips showed Arafat haranguing his followers to produce another “one million martyrs.” Nor did Arafat’s interviews with the Israeli weekend newspapers alter his image: he seems as out of touch as ever with Israeli realities.

Of course, Arafat’s New York Times op-ed may also have reflected an additional motive. By painting Arafat as a moderate, responsible statesman and addressing “the personal attacks on me currently in vogue,” his advisers may be hoping to delegitimize alleged Israeli efforts to depose him. A similarly polished op-ed by West Bank Fath leader Marwan Barghouti published several weeks ago in The Washington Post was quite blatant in accusing Israel of placing the writer on its “hit list,” and dared it publicly to attack him.

The op-ed as insurance policy.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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