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From the April 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 4)

Arafat and Sharon: Endgame

No Exit from Ramallah


Reinhard Meier, Neue Zürcher Zeitung (conservative), Zurich, Switzerland, Feb. 2, 2002

Ramallah, March 6, 2002: The wife and son of 27-year-old Fawzi Mrar mourn his death. Mrar, one of Yasser Arafat's bodyguards, was killed the day before when an Israeli helicopter fired rockets at his car (Photo: AFP).
Are Yasser Arafat’s days as head of the Palestinian Authority and figurehead of the Palestinian cause now truly numbered? For weeks, Arafat has been cooped up under virtual house arrest in his Ramallah residence, closely guarded by Israeli tanks. Under these conditions, and with the partial destruction of his police force’s infrastructure, it is difficult to see how he can effectively put an end to the terrorism of the violent factions in his fragmented “autonomous territory.”

In the international arena, too, Arafat is more isolated than he has been for a long time. Egypt’s President [Hosni] Mubarak reportedly phoned him a few days ago for the first time after weeks of silence. The head man in Cairo is clearly angered over the highly publicized affair of the arms-smuggling ship Karine A. Palestinian clients reportedly bribed Egyptian officials so that the ship with its 50 tons of weapons could safely navigate its way through the Suez Canal. Arafat’s insistence that he knows nothing about the arms-smuggling operation has not been very convincing so far.

At any rate, the Bush administration took that occasion to virtually freeze its relations with Arafat, relations which had already been decidedly cool because of continued Palestinian terrorist attacks. That is a severe setback, if not a politically devastating one, for Arafat. Everyone knows that, given the present dead-end situation, no new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are likely to get under way without strong American mediation efforts. That may be just fine as far as Israeli ultranationalists and Palestinian militant extremists are concerned. Those forces are not interested in negotiation and compromise anyway. That is also doubtless true of [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon—at least as long as Arafat remains the nominal leadership figure on the other side. But the fact that Bulldozer Sharon was elected Israel’s prime minister a year ago is partly a consequence of Arafat’s unwise reaction to Barak’s settlement proposal at Camp David and the Palestinian’s transparent duplicity in the subsequent outbreak of the second Intifada.

Sharon will inevitably consider the physical and political isolation of his intimate enemy Arafat as a success. But so far, Israelis have experienced precious little in the way of a redemption of Sharon’s promise to bring peace and security. The spiral of violence and counter-violence continues, despite the fact that Arafat has become “irrelevant,” in Sharon’s words.

It remains unclear who would take over as Arafat’s successor in the event that he should resign or be forced out in the foreseeable future, as the Israeli government vaguely hopes. Would it be Palestinian pragmatists or would it be those extremists who apparently still believe that they can achieve their objectives through violence? Sharon’s real political test will begin only if and when the realization penetrates on the Palestinian side that nonviolent methods are more promising for the realization of their territorial claims than war and terrorism. For at that point, Sharon, too, could no longer hide behind any pretexts to avoid negotiations with the Palestinians. He would have to make perfectly clear just what he means when he speaks of his own willingness to make “painful compromises” with the other side. And in that event, Washington would have to give more thought to the fact that Palestinians claim a state of their own and demand an end to the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

Washington wants to put a stop to the terrorists, not to torpedo a fair Israeli-Palestinian territorial compromise. Even though it may see things differently, a Palestinian leadership with any real vision would have to include in its political calculus the fact that, since Sept. 11, the United States has given the fight against terrorism absolute priority and will accept no other ranking for it.

There is reasonable doubt about whether Sharon ever intends to agree to a withdrawal from the territories and to a viable Palestinian state. The hard fact is that determined forces on the extreme political right of his governing coalition vehemently reject any thought of relinquishing Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon has never tried to energetically counter these advocates of an expansive Greater Israel policy. On the contrary, only a few days ago, at a meeting with a settler group, the prime minister assured them: “I am not prepared to evacuate [even] one of the settlements, neither in the foreseeable future with interim agreements nor later after conclusion of a final treaty.”

If that statement was uttered seriously, it can only mean that Sharon’s idea of a Palestinian state is a collection of scattered “Bantustans.”

The example of South Africa showed clearly that such highhanded, colonialist-inspired formulas do not lead to lasting conflict resolution. If Israel wishes to remain a vital and credible democracy, it is in its own profound best interests to free itself from its de facto rule over 3 million Palestinians in the occupied territories. It is with good reason that serious voices inside Israel continue to warn of the internal hardening brought about by this power relationship, which is demeaning for occupied and occupier alike.

The present hopelessness in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is due in part to the fact that neither people has managed to achieve a viable social consensus about what it will have to give up in order to reach a mutual understanding. Sharon and Arafat both bear particularly heavy responsibility for this state of affairs and its tragic consequences. In public, they almost always speak self-righteously about their demands against the other side, but never about what they themselves are prepared to give.

As long as that remains the case, and as long as no new life is breathed into the long-buried basic ideas of the understanding reached in Oslo nearly a decade ago, neither Arafat nor Sharon will experience the fulfillment of their grandiose promises.


 
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