All Writings
September 22, 2002

Why Is Sharon So Fixated On Arafat?

I am tempted to draw an analogy between President Bush's fixation on Saddam Hussein and Prime Minister Sharon's on Chairman Arafat. Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon believe that the focus of their respective obsessive attention is evil, engaged in, and supportive of terrorism. They also believe that the removal of these two from office will open up the prospects for regional peace, change the political dynamic in the Middle East, and create new strategic opportunities for their countries. Finally, both leaders believe the ouster of Saddam and Arafat will enhance their own domestic political position, as elections in both nations loom closer.

I will leave the president's fixation on Saddam for another column. My focus here is why Sharon seems so intent on doing away with Arafat; specifically: is his apparent obsession what it appears to be, or is it really a tactic designed to serve a larger political agenda? I share the prime minister's view that Arafat has outlived his usefulness to the Palestinian people and has in fact now become a serious obstacle to the peace process and should go. But if Sharon is trying to force Arafat into submission, he will fail. What, then, is his goal in making Arafat the focus of his battle against extremist Palestinians? Four reasons come to mind:

First, by blaming Arafat for the continuing violence, Mr. Sharon can stall the negotiating process and make no concessions that he does not want to make at this juncture. Arafat's presence on the scene provides a perfect excuse for this stance, especially when there is growing regional uncertainty, a restive coalition cabinet Mr. Sharon must deal with, and a lack of a public consensus in Israel about what, if any, solution has a good chance of success. The fact that Arafat is clinging to power with all of his might plays directly into Sharon's hands–unfortunately, to the detriment of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Second, Sharon knows that Arafat no longer has any influence on either Hamas or Jihad–the two terrorist groups that have vowed to continue their violent attacks, including suicide bombings against Israeli targets. To root out the leadership and members of these two organizations, a major incursion by Israeli forces into Gaza will be necessary. For political reasons (concerns over the U.S. response and the potential for heavy casualties), Sharon does not want to tackle Hamas and Jihad head-on, at least not at this stage; Arafat, therefore, becomes a convenient target on whom Israelis can vent their anger. Sharon must know, however, that threatening Arafat's life or virtually "castrating" him will do nothing to deter Hamas or Jihad. In fact, they will be pleased to see Arafat killed or exiled. When the Israeli army was sent in to destroy what was left of his compound in Ramallah in the wake of the two latest suicide bombings, the leaders of Hamas and Jihad, who took credit for the attack, vowed to continue the suicide bombing.

Third, the prime minister knows that any major concession to the Palestinians will be too much for his coalition partners on the right and certainly woefully insufficient for the Palestinians. Sharon wants to hold onto his coalition government for as long as he can. The closer he gets to the next scheduled elections (October 2003), the better he hopes to fare politically. Sharon, consequently, has no political incentive to make any major peace gesture to the Palestinians; he would rather assume a wait-and-see attitude than risk the premature collapse of his government, an event that will precipitate early elections. Such elections would not be auspicious at a time when the American war drums are growing increasingly louder. Beating up on Arafat, then, performs a political function punishing and isolating him, while keeping him in place until the time is ripe to deal with a new leadership.

Fourth, with the possibility of war against Iraq looming so large, Sharon is certainly not in any hurry to make a deal with the Palestinians. War may well change the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. It is not an entirely far-fetched hypothesis that the Palestinians in Jordan, who are extremely sympathetic to Saddam– and constitute more than 65 percent of the population– may rise up against the Hashemite Kingdom or, at a minimum, assume the reigns of government, while keeping the king as a figurehead. For Sharon, this scenario, if it were to unfold, would be a dream come true. Indeed, it fits into what he has been thinking for many years, namely, that there is already a Palestinian state in Jordan and, therefore, no need to create another. Moreover, should this scenario materialize, the assumption among Sharon's closest aides is that the pressure for major territorial concessions along the lines of UN resolution 242, which require Israel to return territory captured in the 1967 war, will be considerably diminished.

Meanwhile, for the Palestinians, the political climate has changed dramatically in the past few months. Arafat and his cabinet have been rejected by their own parliament. He is criticized vociferously by his people for the pervasive corruption in his administration, for letting the second Intifadah get out of control, and for much of its disastrous consequences. With the exception of supporters of Hamas and Jihad, Palestinians generally want to end the violence, and no matter what the outcome of the next Palestinian elections for president and legislative council (scheduled for January 2003), Arafat is finished politically. If Mr. Sharon wants to seriously reduce and even end the suicide bombings, he must target the leaders of Hamas and Jihad and their operatives, and he knows exactly where they are: in Gaza

Sharon has been disingenuous in his dealing with Palestinians and may very well squander, as Arafat has done repeatedly, another opportunity to finally bring an end to the senseless bloodshed. The Israeli prime minister is right in his refusal to deal with Arafat, but wrong in being fixated on a leader who is no longer relevant to the political process, and for using him as an excuse not to advance the cause of peace.