How much of this conflict is personal? None of it–and a lot of it.

None of it, because this is one more chapter in the conflict between two national liberation movements for control over Eretz Yisrael/Palestine. Because both Arafat and Sharon were elected, and continue to command the allegiance of their publics for their policies. Because if both were removed from the scene tomorrow, the conflict would almost certainly continue.

A lot of it, because both Arafat and Sharon appear to be managing this conflict on the basis of specific mindsets and strategic concepts that might change radically–for better or for worse– if either or both were to leave the scene.

Two personal reminiscences may help to illustrate the point. The first is of a meeting with Arafat in his office in Gaza; it is typical of the three or four such meetings I have participated in over the years since 1994. Arafat explains that Israel is really two-thirds an Arab country: the Israeli Arabs and the “Jewish Arabs” (i.e., Sephardic and Yemenite Jews) already make up 70 percent of the population. He goes on to blame the Mossad for Palestinian suicide bombings. When his leadership is questioned, he goes on an egomaniacal rant: “I am Mandela, I am de Gaulle.” He is asked about a CNN clip in which he is seen praising children who recite slogans of incitement; he says he will discipline their teachers! In short, he comes across as a liar who is totally out of touch with Israeli (and Jewish) reality. From this performance it is but a short distance to his insistence in 2000 on the right of return and his rejection of any Jewish link to the Temple Mount, and to his denial of the Iranian arms ship in 2002.

The second reminiscence is a one-on-one meeting with Ariel Sharon in 1994. The topic is settlements. Sharon leans over the map and points to a desolate corner of Judea in the southern West Bank. “There’s a Bedouin tribe in this wadi,” he indicates, “and a related tribe in the next wadi. I plant an Israeli settlement on the hilltop between them in order to ensure that the two tribes don’t link up. This is the essence of the settlement strategy.” It is also the essence of Sharon’s manipulative approach to dealing with Arabs in general. He believes in using settlements to fragment the Palestinian population and prevent the emergence of a politically and demographically contiguous entity. From here we can trace a direct line to current policies designed to scuttle the Oslo process, avoid being drawn into substantive negotiations over territory–or even into a settlement construction freeze–and bring about Arafat’s removal in order to manipulate the Palestinian leadership structure.

Arafat is apparently not a candidate for a serious and conclusive peace process. No amount of pressure will affect his nature. But he should not be removed: the consequences are liable to be more dangerous than the present reality. Toward this end, we and the US should remain in contact with him. We may be able to coerce him into stabilizing the situation and entering into tactical and temporary, interim-type agreements. With or without him, no comprehensive agreement is in sight.

But without him, we will wait for years before a Palestinian leader with his authority emerges. Meanwhile, we may have to deal with chaos or with Hamas. In a best case scenario of Arafat’s departure, the younger generation of more pragmatic Palestinian leaders, who admittedly know and understand Israel far better than Arafat, will vie for leadership. They will seek to ensure they are not stigmatized as Israeli puppets, by adopting positions at least as extreme as Arafat’s–but without the popular authority to rule.

Nor will Sharon alter his basic approach to Palestinians and to manipulating the leadership structure among our neighbors. But because he learned from the Lebanon fiasco of 1982-83 not to proceed with his designs without ensuring a broad consensus of support–a unity government, high ratings in the polls, US backing–he is very cautious this time. Each Israel Defense Force incursion into Area A goes a few meters deeper, then withdraws in deference to the consensus– until Arafat in his folly provides the next monstrous provocation.

Palestinians complain profusely about Arafat’s destructive policies behind his back; almost never in public. They both fear him and revere him: the symbol of Palestinian nationalism. By and large they do not, it should be noted, share the negative Israeli/”western” perception of Arafat as compulsive liar and dangerous fantasizer. This is but one aspect of the current broad disconnect between the two sides. Meanwhile, in Israel, pointed criticism of Sharon by the parliamentary opposition and by some in the coalition, along with a deteriorating economy and security situation, have seemingly little effect on the 70 percent or so of the public that continues to support him.

For want of a better description, and with apologies for the oxymoron–we’re stuck in an escalating status quo.

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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