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"Three men in a boat - Sharon, Arafat and Abbas"

Robert Malley and Hussein Agha

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As he approaches the twilight of his political career, Israel’s prime minister contemplates his one last remaining task. It is the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, one that he several times has sought and that several times has eluded him: the achievement of Israel’s long-term moral and existential security by eradicating a unified Palestinian national movement.

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He feels he is closer than ever to achieving his goal. The Palestinian polity is beginning to disintegrate. A generation of Palestinian leaders have been killed or imprisoned. Step by step, Palestinians will have to begin thinking of themselves not as Palestinians but as Gazans or West Bankers, Nabulsis or Hebronites and as insiders or outsiders. This conflict is all about territory, and Palestinian territory is being carved up; it is about politics and political representation as well, and local Palestinian fiefdoms are emerging. A new reality is taking shape.

Facts on the ground, the world euphemistically calls them: settlements, bypass roads, access routes and the separation wall. Together they are carving out isolated Palestinian cantons, creating an entity that they will be free, if they so want, to designate as a state. Chaos is the harbinger of triumph. Soon, if the cards are played meticulously, patiently and well, Sharon’s legacy to the future will be much like the past: a heterogeneous, scattered, divided Palestinian polity, the undoing of all that has been done for the past four decades by his nemesis, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

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The goal is almost reached, but not yet, and two principal obstacles remain. The first is Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. To Sharon, Arafat personifies all that he has vowed to suppress: a militant nationalism opposed to the Zionist project, implacable hostility toward the state of Israel, violence, terror and, until recently, legitimacy in the eyes of the world. The second is Mahmoud Abbas. Arafat aside, Sharon sees the Palestinian prime minister as the Last Palestinian, the final leader of a unified national movement and the man potentially capable of holding the national movement together. Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) is needed to eclipse Arafat, but his ultimate failure is equally required for Sharon’s goal to be fulfilled. Let Abu Mazen succeed in order to marginalize Arafat, end the armed intifada, and achieve for Israel a measure of security. But let him succeed only so far and no further. Let him bring about a more peaceful situation without benefiting from its potential political returns. For Abu Mazen’s success could bring him strength, and his strength would revitalize the threat of a unified Palestinian movement that his rise was meant to thwart. Within those circumscribed political possibilities, Sharon views Abu Mazen’s fate as a win-win proposition: Should he succeed in ending the military confrontation, the Israeli prime minister will take the credit; should he fail, the Palestinians will take the blame.

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Sharon worries that so many of his fellow Israelis misunderstand the nature of this fight, and consequently they underestimate it. It is one national movement against another, and the two cannot both survive intact. For him the Palestinian national movement presents an existential threat to the state of Israel because it can translate both demographic growth and violent confrontation into longer-term political weapons. The 1948 war of independence goes on, with this its final battle, the one that will seal the fate of Israel for generations to come. He is sure he knows the Palestinians: knows how they think; knows how they operate because, in a way, they are his mirror image, doing what he is doing and has been doing all his life. In this, at least, they share the vision of a brutal combat between two national movements of which only one can emerge unified and victorious.

He has little confidence in those who surround or would succeed him. The next generation of Israelis, impatient, weak, spoiled, hedonistic and restless, doesn’t have what it takes yet to prevail in this struggle, may not ever have it. He does.

And how well his plan seems to be working. Next to him, he figures, previous Israeli prime ministers look like amateurs, resisting US and domestic pressures when accommodation was in order, giving in when adaptation was at hand, too rigid and too flexible at the same time. Once branded both an Israeli and an international pariah for his history, his actions in Lebanon and his role in the massacres committed in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, he is now viewed as belonging to the mainstream of Israeli politics. The world might object to his resort to brutal military tactics, to extra-judicial killings, with scores of civilian casualties. Still, he is accepted and respected, neither boycotted nor shunned. For all the sympathy of many for Palestinians, it is Arafat they are being pressed to break with, not him. He is not the aggressor; he is Israel’s protector in the international war against terrorism.

At home, he enjoys a political security unprecedented in recent Israeli history. With a third of the Israeli Parliament’s members at his side, he governs at the head of a right-wing coalition. Undermined by the intifada and the collapse of the peace process, lacking both message and messenger, the left can do little more than wait on the sidelines, voiceless, leaderless, divided and adrift. The only vocal opposition comes from the right, which suits him more than it threatens. To Americans pushing for greater concessions, he can point to the right’s strident protests against those he already has made, evidence of both his political courage and the political constraints on his policies. To the right he can point to the ever-beckoning left, who, at a moment’s notice, would likely come to his rescue to form an alternative governing coalition.

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Sharon promised peace and security. He has brought neither, and still the Israeli public, convinced of the lack of a credible alternative, gives him broad support. He has outmaneuvered opponents left and right, cutting them down to size. Age alone can stop him now.

Further afield, the regional and international landscape has been changed in ways gratifying to him. Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime has been toppled. Syria’s leaders appear more concerned with survival than with confrontation. Iran too is feeling pressure from the US. Peace treaties with Cairo and Amman have survived waves of Israeli military attacks against the Palestinians, heavy civilian casualties, the end of Oslo and Arafat’s confinement. This is no time to worry about a regional military threat to Israel.

The crowning achievement is his relationship with the US and with President George W. Bush in particular. Some feared (or hoped) that Sharon’s handling of his relations with the Bush administration would be his undoing; it has proved to be his strength. In the past he had needlessly alienated and provoked his US ally. He sees the US better now. He can pursue his main longer-term objectives while accommodating Bush’s needs. From former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir he has learned the two core principles of his policy: hit the Arabs (here, the Palestinians) hard and keep the Americans happy.

Around him, some of his more ideological and rigid partners worry openly about the implementation of the US-sponsored “road map” for peace and the prospect of a Palestinian state. How shortsighted their view, how devoid of imagination. It is not outright annexation of the Palestinians that ought to be the goal, or their impoverishment. Sharon sees all too well the risks inherent in both. Palestinians are not the enemy; Palestinian nationalism is. In the longer run, annexation will mean either apartheid or the end of the Jewish character of the state. The continued impoverishment of Palestinians will mean constant resentment and potential violence. A mini-Palestinian state - defined as he, Sharon, would define it, limited as he would limit it, hardly a sovereign state and barely viable and without links to the outside world - is a gift to Israel, not to the Palestinians. It is a ready-made answer to Israel’s dilemmas, resolving its demographic problem, maintaining its security, thwarting the reemergence of a national Palestinian movement and, above all, turning an emotional national struggle into a routine border dispute. This is why statehood, for which the Palestinians have fought for so long and Israel has resisted so fiercely, ironically has now become an Israeli interest and a Palestinian fear.

Sharon has evoked a long-term interim arrangement with the Palestinians; the road map talks of a Palestinian state with provisional borders that should be the prelude to a final agreement. One way - the wrong way - would be to simply resist the road map. In Sharon’s world, the better way is to mold the provisional borders into a long-term interim arrangement, always preserving Israel’s mastery - by dragging the process out, forever postponing the prospect of a final deal, and by continuing to build settlements, only this time under the cover of a recognized Palestinian state.

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Not that all before him is clear or smooth. There are potential deep problems ahead. Sharon came into office without being particularly sensitive to the state of the economy; but he has come to see that others in the country are, and that the continuing lack of security and political deadlock with the Palestinians are taking their toll. With the Iraq war over, adjustments have to be made; some form of political deal will have to be pursued. He knows too that Israeli public opinion is fickle, susceptible to short-term pain and short-lived hopes; he has both suffered and benefited from these in the past.

Sharon has come to know the US president as well as he could, but to him, as to most others, Bush remains something of a mystery, inattentive to detail, yet taken with grandiose ideas and stubborn in pursuing their realization. Such spurts of zeal are jarring to the deliberate, focused, painstaking Israeli leader. He may one day face unexpected pressure from Washington of a type and with an aim that he is unsure of. Tactics will have to be used to take care of that, and what tactics cannot accomplish will have to be done through the passage of time. Sharon can procrastinate and, if it is truly needed - but only if it is truly needed - make use of the assets he enjoys in domestic US opinion so as to keep the president from demanding too much.

He has stocked up in anticipation of such uncertainties. Over the last two-and-a-half years, he has accumulated a heavy load of tangible political assets. Some were meant to be held on to. Others were meant to be spent. There are Palestinian prisoners taken only to be released, territory that Israel occupied with an eye to later withdrawals, settlements - such as the barely inhabited outposts recently dismantled - that are established only to be subsequently removed. He has agreed to political plans, calculating that they are not likely to be carried out. Such moves have been made at a cost, but that cost is part of the game of putting the ball back in the Palestinians’ court, gaining time, all the while protecting the supremacy he really cares about.

Yielding what you previously took brings you to where you once were, but a new precedent has been set with the taking; accolades for the apparent concessions come from abroad and, at home, the catcalls that come from the Right are few and bearable. The first time the Israeli Army entered Gaza, there was a US outcry and troops were rapidly withdrawn. By now, some two years later, it is the price of withdrawal rather than the principle of entry that is being negotiated. It takes patience and flexibility, a mastery of time and a solid understanding of what counts and what does not. Sharon trusts that he has more of each than anyone else.

Some lament that Sharon has not changed. Others protest that he has changed too much. How odd, pointless, and tiresome this debate must sound to him. Long experience of highs and lows has taught him an indelible lesson: that nothing protects one from change so much as change itself. Politics is an affair of constant fine-tuning, a careful weighing of Israeli public opinion, economic realities and the interests of the US, with its sudden and limited attention span. Constraints are just obstacles that one must bypass in order to better reach one’s true objective. The map of a mini-Palestinian state that he proudly claims he accepts today, surrounded and perforated by Israeli territory, is the same one he has had in his pocket for the past 20 years. If calling it a state is the price to be paid, so be it. It is one he has come to accept willingly long before so many others on his right as well as on his left. Some might panic and some might sweat. Not he - his eyes are continually set on the ultimate goal, as he coolly, stubbornly and implacably heads toward it.


Published Saturday, July 26th, 2003 - 09:37am GMT

Robert Malley is Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group was special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs. Hussein Agha is a political analyst and author in London and was an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team at the Madrid peace talks in 1991.

Courtesy of the Beirut-based Daily Star.

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