Sharon’s target is Arafat, not Hamas

The developments over the past two weeks have made it very clear that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not fighting a war against Hamas, but one against Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

On the face of it, Sharon and his government’s responded to Hamas’ suicide operations, which were a painful blow to Israel. But the response they chose was to strike Arafat and the Palestinian Authority in three ways. First, Israel rallied a military response fully directed at Palestinian Authority military and police targets, as well as the Palestinian presidency. These included buildings belonging to the police, preventive security, intelligence services and Arafat’s helicopters.

Second, Israel’s political, diplomatic and media attack attempted to politically weaken Arafat and the Palestinian Authority internationally by comparing them with terrorists and holding them responsible for terrorism. The third attack was to internally weaken the Authority and its president by undermining his credibility and forcing him to arrest Intifada activists that are heroes in the eyes of the majority of Palestinians.

These steps are completely in harmony with what has appeared to be Sharon’s strategy since assuming power. This strategy is to cancel everything rooted in the Oslo accords and Israeli- Palestinian agreements that he opposed and tried to prevent from happening – in particular, the existence of a Palestinian Authority and areas falling under its jurisdiction. These areas were to inevitably develop into a Palestinian entity on the land of Palestine, which would be a basic contradiction of Sharon’s ideology and plans for Eretz Israel.

Since assuming office, Sharon has taken advantage of a weakened Palestinian side to either eliminate the Authority altogether or to push it one more step towards annihilation. There is no doubt that Sharon has enjoyed huge success at achieving this goal. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have suffered great setbacks both internally and externally and their positions have become weak and nearly snuffed out altogether.

But this is the short-term view of things. In the long run or even midway, Arafat may yet come out the winner. The past few bloody days have revealed Sharon’s strategic crisis. He has convinced himself and his people that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority support terrorism – but he cannot go to battle with this “terrorist” Authority because he has yet to get the international green light to proceed (nor can he guarantee a Palestinian alternative that is better for Israel).

Finally, Sharon cannot ensure that the elimination of the Authority will stop the Palestinian resistance. Who will prevent a series of suicide operations following the elimination of the Authority? That scenario would make Sharon’s internal support very precarious indeed, thereby benefiting his political competitor Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and the opposition Hamas in Palestine.

Perhaps, too, Sharon and his advisors are remembering that Israel directly ruled the Palestinians for 33 years, at times imprisoning 15,000 Palestinians at once, while still not managing to snuff out Palestinian resistance. If Sharon eliminates Arafat’s Authority, the Israeli army will have to return to the despised task of directly running Palestinian daily affairs – a duty Israel has always wanted to be rid of.

Right now, international discussion is focusing on the Palestinian contribution to the crisis in the Middle East, likely due to Arafat’s weakening control, Hamas’ activities and the Israeli propaganda machine. The truth of the matter is, however, that the real crisis in the peace process exists on the Israel side.

Imagine that United States envoy Anthony Zinni succeeds in his ceasefire efforts to get the two sides back to the negotiating table. Could Sharon then fulfill the requirements and demands of the Mitchell commission report, including a halt to settlement activity, an end to the siege, the return of Palestinian workers to their jobs, a resumption of the articles of the Oslo accords and a return to talks where they left off? That scenario would, in fact, guarantee the collapse of Sharon’s government. That is why he is doing everything to avoid arriving at that point, maintaining the level of conflict on the one hand, while demanding that the confrontations stop, on the other.

If international or American efforts to save the peace process are to succeed, they must realize that Sharon has symbolized opposition to the peace process throughout all its years of cultivation by regional leaders. In essence, his assumption of power in Israel is the essential obstacle to peace.

Therefore, the focus must be maintained on the situation in Israel and preparing for a removal of the Israeli obstacles to calming the situation and reviving the chances for peace. First and foremost, this requires engaging the Israeli public and making it realize that its legitimate rights to security and peace do not contradict the Palestinian people’s legitimate goal of independence – in other words, that security for one side cannot come at the expense of the other.

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

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