has a problem. His landslide
victory of Labor's Ehud Barak
came because the Israeli people sought security
. But Security he has not brought. Violence continues to escalate between Israel
and the Palestinians. Now Hezbollah
has decided to join the party, launching rocket attacks from southern Lebanon
and threatening other assaults on Israel's northern border. The entire Arab world
is enraged, and Egypt
just suspended all but 'diplomatic relations necessary to promote the Palestinian cause.' Everything ever achieved at Camp David
, Oslo and Wye River
may come apart, including Peace treaties with Jordan
and Egypt. Israeli's have become a bitter fatalistic people who do not believe in the future. They have reason. Within days, Israel may find itself fighting a fullscale war.
Yasser Arafat also has a problem. He's trapped in a tiny perimeter by Israeli troops who may at any moment be ordered to kill him. He has survived by decades by being right at his people's center. He seeks to govern but created a Palestinian Authority rife with corruption. He is seen around the world as a weak leader, one who lacks the moral courage to bring his people peace. Failed negotiations, corruption and and a failing economy have strengthened his political opponents, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who thrive on despair. His traditional tactic of talk then attrit through civil disobedience and occasional terrorism is failing. The Israelis increasingly do not wish to talk as hatred has boiled past the containment point. His own followers may be too angry to heed his calls for moderation. The result may not be a Palestinian state, but yet another Palestinian diaspora.
These two men have failed their people primarily because of their own personal failings. Each has traits within their personality that left them blind in important ways. Their mutual hatred is undoubted, as they have been enemies for most of their lives. Sharon has always been a military man, decisive, who solved problems by being tougher and moving faster than his foes. He leads a state born in the wake of the Holocaust, a people determined to never again sit idly by while enemies gather. Arafat is the consummate populist politician, changing his views to fit changing circumstances. He is less a leader than a surfer, but without that skill he would have never survived in a people without a political tradition, manipulated by his Arab "friends" for their own means, riven with factions. Each has a bit of what the other needs, but it would kill each of them to admit it.
President Clinton's last attempt to broker peace between the Palestinians had failed, when Ehud Barak's final offer was rejected by Arafat. The refusal was shocking for several reasons, as Barak had offered to share control of Jerusalem with the Palestinians, something all previous Israeli leaders had adamantly rejected. Sacrificing even a piece of Jerusalem would be difficult for any Jew. Jerusalem is King David's City, the capital of ancient Israel at its height. After its capture during the Six Day War of 1967, Israeli Jews had the opportunity to walk its streets for the first time in over two millenia. They saw the Wailing Wall and stood where David stood. The Jewish people are bonded by their stories. Carried into slavery in Iraq after the fall of Jerusalem, then dispersed throughout the world, they would have ceased to be Jews had not the stories of the Torah held them together. To sacrifice Jerusalem was to sacrifice the center of their heritage. Barak had gone farther than many Israelis were willing. Arafat's rejection was a slap in the face to the Israeli left, which had bet its electoral future on a negotiated peace.
To right wing Israelis like Ariel Sharon, the refusal came as no surprise. They never thought Arafat interested in peace. Arafat rejected Barak's proposal on the grounds that he refused the Right of Return, one of the oldest Palestinian demands. The right of return simply states that all Palestinians have a right to return to the land that was their home before 1948. For Palestinians, the issue seems obvious. They lived in that land, farmed that land, and many had done so for generations stretching back to Christ. Palestinians still live who remember the days when Israel was their home, and they have passed their stories onto their children and grandchildren. For many Palestinians, the conflict is an issue of theft.
But for Israelis the issue is more complex. If the Right of Return were granted, then so many Palestinians might return home that they would soon outnumber Jews in Israel. For Israel to remain a Jewish state, they would have to institute some form of apartheid. That solution is decidedly unpalatable to a people whose entire history makes clear just what apartheid means. For Israelis, the Right of Return is, and always will be, a deal breaker. Many see it as nothing more than a strategy to destroy Israel by ballot.
Whatever the reasons for Arafat's refusal, it pleases Sharon. The Israeli right had been entranced by Jerusalem. They began to dream of Eretz Israel, whose borders were deeded by God to the Jewish people. Israelis began to dream Talmudic dreams of rebuilding David's Israel, dreams that seemed practical given the overwhelming might of Israel's military. A peace they would have happily signed before 1967 they would now oppose with all their might. To help insure that David's Land would remain in the hands of David's People. They decided to create some "facts on the ground" to prevent any future Israeli government from returning land for peace.
Jewish settlements began as a spontaneous movement of mostly Orthodox Jews to set up homes and near places important in Jewish tradition. That way they might control them. It proved popular, and soon recieved Government sanction. Politically, settlement expansion proved essential to keeping small right wing and orthodox parties inside any governing coalition. This explains why even Labor governments could not stop settlement construction, though they did slow them. But more and more Israelis became settlers, manyl ultra-Orthodox, determined to preserve Eretz Israel. The peace process had always been about Land for Peace, but the conservatives were determined that if a Labor government were to trade land for peace, they?d have to uproot thousands of Israelis to close that deal.
Ehud Barak was well aware of that when he made his historic offer to Yasser Arafat. But he made it anyway. Barak had served in Israel's military for 35 years, and become one of the most decorated soldiers in Israel's history. His experience had taught him the price of war. He'd seen his people slowly turn from a happy, optimistic people to a state that lives for today, unable to believe in the future. Israelis drink more than ever, and their savings rate has fallen and promiscuous sex increased among the non-Orthodox as Israelis have increasingly adopted a "live for today" attitude in the face of unending hostility. Barak wanted a future for his people. He also understands demographics. Palestinians have more children than Israelis. If Israel chooses to hang onto the West Bank and Gaza, within fifty years Jews would become a minority in their own country. If they wished to remain a Jewish state, they would be forced to choose between apartheid and ethnic cleansing. Faced with declining popularity and opposition from both Jewish and Palestinian extremists, he gave it his best shot, and offered to share Jerusalem.
Arafat turned him down. Probably he felt he would be assassinated if he sacrificed the right of return. Certainly someone would have tried to kill, a fate he has dodged more than once. The Camp David strategy promoted by the U.S. stressed getting agreement on the easier issues first in order to build momentum. But that also meant that no one had ever really discussed final status issues before, where questions like Jerusalem and the Right of Return were bound to come up. Jerusalem had been mentioned in Israel, primarily by right wingers determined to prevent any sharing. Under Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel moved it's capital to Jerusalem just to make that point. But there had been no discussion whatsoever among Palestinians about the Right of Return. Without some 'preparation', for Arafat to sacrifice the Right would have come as bolt from the blue.
Arafat's refusal came as slap in the face to Israel's left, many of whom felt Barak had gone to the very edge of where any Israeli could go. It convinced many centrists that Arafat didn't want peace. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who certainly do not want peace, decided to highlight their refusal with a couple bombs. Ariel Sharon's election was virtually assured. Fearing for his own safety, Arafat probably denied his people their best chance ever for their own state. He did not see the moment as singular, instead decided to withdraw and retrench, preparing his own people while he used civil disobedience and occasional violence to put pressure on Israel.
What Arafat probably had in mind was a replay of intifadah version 1.0, the same intifadah that brought down Benjamin Netanyahu. Palestinian boys in the streets, on TV, throwing stones at Israeli tanks. A few boys died, but with each one, pressure grew on Israel to negotiate. The scenes reminded Israelis of David and Goliath. But they saw themselves in the role of Goliath, a thought guaranteed to make any Jew uncomfortable.
But Hamas and Islamic Jihad had other ideas. They were terrified by Barak's offer, for had Arafat taken it they would have been swept away by the desire of the mainstream Palestinians to get on with a normal life. You know make money, have kids, the normal things most people much prefer to politics. They were pleased as Sharon to see the deal fall through, for surprisingly parallel reasons. Islamic extremists, they too see themselves as fighting for land deeded to Muslims by Allah.
The Sharon government made it easy for them. Not surprisingly, the first thing Sharon did was take almost everything in of Barak's proposal off the table. He did so abruptly and began flexing Iraeli military muscle. Israel showed open contempt for Palestinian negotiators, leading many analysts believing the real point was to get the Palestinians to walk out so Israel wouldn't get the blame for killing the talks. Nor did the incoming Bush Administration offer any help. American diplomacy has been a constant an Arab-Israeli conflicts for fifty years, and US headbanging is critical to keeping the peace process going. But seeing no quick solution and more interested in domestic issues, the Bush Administration decided to let the two sides beat on each other for a while, hoping some sense would emerge.
It hasn't. The fault belongs to both sides. From the Israel came an expansion in settlement activity. Under the Wye River Accords which set up the current Palestinian political administration, Israel was to freeze all settlement activity. The Sharon administration decided to create new settlements under the pretext of "expanding existing settlements to their natural limits". Settlements didn't grow as new buildings were constructed next to old ones. Instead work began at a distant location, with the clear implication that everything in betwen would soon become part of that settlement. Essentially, the policy implied that almost everything would be Jewish.
It is hard, perhaps impossible, to overstate just how much anger settlement expansion creates among Palestinians. Water is scarce throughout the region. When a settlement is established it gets all it wants. The Palestinians lose water. If a couple ultra-orthodox extremists set a trailer on a corner and call it a settlement, the Israeli Army provides troops to provide security. If Uncle Omar's olive grove happens to be across the street, it's leveled because snipers might use it for cover. Necessary for security you understand, so sorry. People get evicted every day just for living too close to settlement. Every tank and troop carrier reminds the Palestinians they have no real control over their own destiny, that whatever the Palestinian Authority may claim, Israel still rules this land, which they believe is theirs. The settlers themselves are armed to the teeth, and among the most rabid of Israelis. It was a settler who entered a mosque and shot 83 Palestinians dead before he ran out of ammo and was killed by the crowd.
Sharon also has an obsession with Arafat. In a way this is an Israeli obsession. Every time any terrorist activity occurs in Israel, it always occurs at the will of Arafat. Sharon himself has said, "We know who is guilty. We know who is responsible. Arafat is guilty of everything that is happening here." Israeli cabinet members have said on the record that every single act of violence was personally planned by Yasser Arafat, and that if he was to command the Palestinians would all line up behind him and stop the violence.
Yeah right. Maybe if they were talking about Saddam Hussein. Or Stalin. Maybe. Only an efficient police state has that kind of power. Yasser Arafat is no Stalin. The Palestinian Authority is no KGB.
The real beneficiaries of this obsession are Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Like Sharon they want the maximalist solution. Genocide or ethnic cleansing, whichever comes first. They realize that if they set off a bomb, the Israelis are quick to blame Yasser Arafat, whom they wish to replace. Not Hamas, who actually recruited and trained the suicide bomber. And the Bush Administration joins right in on pressuring Arafat. Israel cuts economic ties, which leads to Palestinian unemployment, and increased poverty. Which leads to more resentment and radicalization. And because they actually did the bombing, Hamas gets all the credit among the angry youth. There are plenty of angry youth, thanks to high Palestinian birth rates.
From the point of view of Hamas and Islamic Jihad this is a win-win situation. They get to kill Jews, and their political opponent Arafat catches most of the flak. Israel's responses, economic and military, pushes Palestinian opinion toward them. Since they get credit for the confronting Israel, they gain in power, while Arafat loses. For them, there is no reason whatsoever not to encourage suicide bombing. They're probably somewhere beating themselves in celebration over the current violence.
To some degree, there is justification for Israel blaming Arafat. As head of the Palestinian authority he is the would-be head of government for the new Palestine. Well, if you want to govern, govern! But blaming Arafat accomplishes nothing, unless your primary purpose is to delegitimize the entire peace process. Which Sharon has publicly stated he opposes. Or perhaps convince the Bush administration to give Israel carte blanche in dealing with the Palestinians.
If Arafat's failure was one of moral courage, Sharon's is one of vision. Intifadah 1.0 reminded Israelis of David and Goliath in the wrong direction. But when stones were traded for guns and suicide bombs, the story Israelis are reminded of is the Holocaust. If the Jewish people learned one thing from the genocide is that there is no percentage in quietly riding out pogroms until their persecuters tired of violence. The Nazis didn't get tired. The new story Jews point to is the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, where a few tough men held off the Nazis for days with stolen arms and sheer courage. Intifadah 2.0 looks to Israelis like SS Stromtroopers, and they're not going to take it any more. Sharon comes from that generation, men who remembered the Holocaust and aren't about to permit another. Any violence brings up that memory. They do not trust in the good intentions of others, only their own will and strength.
Sharon grew up with the myth of the 'Sabra'. Coming from the Hebrew word for Lion, the new Israeli man was supposed to be tougher and smarter than his opponents. The pre-holocaust accomodating Jew was reviled for not resisting the Nazis earlier. The new Sabra would resist, and win. Sharon sees himself as one of the lions.
When Islamic Jihad and Hamas began to step up their attacks, Sharon decided to step up military pressure. Israel upped the ante by beginning the assassination of Hamas's leadership. Hamas responded by assassinating Israeli Minister of Tourism Rehavam Zeevi, who had publicly spoken of giving every Arab a one way ticket out of Eretz Israel. Zeevi advocated ethnic cleansing.
The Israeli response was to move in more tanks and surround Palestinian neighborhoods. Tanks squash cars like bugs and knock over walls with the greatest of ease. And that's without firing a round. Palestinians died and anger grew. Arafat's al-Aqsa fighters decided to ignore their boss and start shooting themselves when they saw their homes threatened. They fought hard and won some renown. The Palestinian Authority is now fully engaged, and Arafat had better have something to show if he wants to be obeyed.
Sharon is running out of military options. He can kill Arafat, but that will make him a martyr and do nothing to reduce Palestinian violence, since they don't need Arafat to make bombs. It will also incense almost everyone this side of Dick Armey. Both the Shin Bet and Mossad has told him that killing Arafat will lead both Egypt and Jordan to chuck their peace treaties with Israel. They might even attack, leading to another great Arab-Israeli war. Or he could begin expelling the Palestininans, which would lead to war. With almost everyone. And to an oil embargo that will hurt Israel's biggest supporter, the United States. Americans will discover that their economy has tanked, alongside gas lines. All for a country that just committed a war crime. Israel might find itself truly alone.
Of course Sharon and other Israeli right wingers have openly spoken of replacing Arafat with another more moderate leader. They fantasize. It's not like the Palestinian Authority has a Vice President, or any other legitimate line of succession. Arafat's where he is because he knows how to speak to the differing factions that make up his people. Not one other Palestinian enjoys sufficient stature to take his place. And Israel might not like the leader who does emerge, as one of the popular frontrunners leads Hamas and the other is in an Israeli prison. Israelis ought to remember that they helped Hamas get started, as a counterweight to the PLO.
If Sharon wants to win this one he needs to back off and ride the wave of bombings out. Deprived of new provocations, sooner or later people will get tired of blowing themselves up. They will see that it hasn't worked. And Israel will gain in international stature as it will be rightly seen as the victim. But that's a very, very difficult strategy when people are trying to kill you. If I were an Israeli, I'd be angry. Violently angry. And I don't have the Sabra myth to live up to.
The Palestinians should put away their bombs and guns and go back to throwing stones. Sustained non-lethal resistance is tough to resist. International pressure on Israel will become unbearable. Ariel Sharon will be forced out and replaced by a peace-maker rather than an ultra hawk like Benjamin Netanyahu. Peace will have a chance. But the Palestinians have reason to be angry, did even before the latest cycle of violence Restraint is really difficult when your dander is up and your population is loaded with young men.
Today both Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon stand on the edge of disaster. Both will have to deny their own natures in order deal with the problems faced by their people. Sharon will have to show consistent restraint, and learn to deal with the Palestinians as something other than annoying vermin. He must realize that Palestinian anger was not created and cannot be controlled by Yasser Arafat. He will have to forsake the sword he wielded for much of his adult life. Arafat will actually have to lead, to come up with new ideas, and capture the imagination.
It may be too late. Tempers have grown so high that appeals to the mind hold little appeal. Both sides seem increasingly convinced that it is impossible to live together in peace. Arafat, who could have been compared to Gandhi and Mandela, if he had made peace. There are are times when leaders must accept risks and seek a new path. Arafat could have had greatness, but chose to play it safe. Now he seems irrelevent, a figurehead who lacks both the imagination and authority to lead his people. But he's probably the only game in town if and when negotiatons begin. The Bush Administration has finally decided to become involved, sending Secretary of State Colin Powell
For Sharon, he's tried getting tough and the Palestinians did not back down. That was to be expected. Once anger rises beyond a certain point, it defeats fear. He dare not go farther, or he may find himself standing in front of a War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. Shimon Peres warned him of as much in late March. But he still has a chance, if he can rise beyond his limitations, and control his anger. If the Bush administration really leans on him, he too has a chance.
Few such chances remain for either man.
On November 11, 2004
Yasser Arafat died, ending any possibility that he might play a positive role in bringing his people to final peace. At the end of his life he will be remembered as man who defined the Palestinian nation but lacked the moral and political courage
to turn the Palestinian nation into a state
. On August 15, 2004 Israel began the difficult and emotionally wrenching task of removing Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip
in preparation for ending Israel's occupation of this land.
The person who made this happen was Ariel Sharon. Previously a tireless advocate for the settlement policy he came to realize that the occupation was, at least in Gaza, more of drain than a boon to Israel. This decision abandoned much of his past efforts and led to an open confrontation with many of the same hard-liners in his own Likud party that helped him to the top. At the end of the day Ariel Sharon proved the one who was capable of change, that he had the courage to stand up to his own people when events called for it. In the end of the day, Ariel Sharon was the one with courage and vision. It seems that at the end Yasser Arafat's last contribution to his people was his own death.