Editorial: A Bird in the Hand

The stand-off between the United States and Iraq has revealed the immense gap between Yasser Arafat and his people. The average "Palestinian on the street," it turns out, can read the political map better than his leaders. Not only that: he is also more steadfast in the choice of his allies. The demonstrations of support for Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people broke out spontaneously. They expressed deep popular opposition to the American-Israeli axis, into which Arafat had dragged the Palestinians after the first Gulf War. The burning of U.S. and Israeli flags evinced the depth of the people's hatred for the region's new masters and its admiration for anyone who challenges them. As for Arafat, he had supported Iraq in the previous war, when there seemed to be reason enough to denounce its militant leader. This time, when most of the world backed Saddam, he chose to obey his American boss – and found himself once more on the losing side.

The sight of pro-Iraq demonstrators, waving pictures of Saddam, was a shock to the Palestinian leadership. In a one-man regime such a thing is unheard of. Here was competition: a leader who, despite a long and difficult siege, knows how to maneuver and achieve his goals. Therefore – even if U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had not told Arafat (as she surely did) that the demonstrations were most embarrassing – he had reasons of his own to squelch them. West Bank police chief Rhazi Jibali outlawed all pro-Iraq demonstrations and closed down nine TV and radio stations. The demonstrations continued. The pressure from the street increased. The leadership began to waffle.

Suddenly pictures of Arafat began to appear next to those of Saddam. Fatah (the Arafat branch of the PLO) began to take charge of the demonstrations, according to the principle, "If you can't beat them, join them." Then the crisis blew over. The demonstrations ceased. And what about those TV and radio stations? Still shut. Arafat was not able to follow the example of King Hussein. The monarch ordered tanks into the rebellious city of Ma'an. After having them fire at the crowds, he imposed a strict curfew. For ten days his soldiers went from house to house, arresting about four thousand. If you can't join them, beat them.

Even as the Palestinian masses expressed by informal referendum their opinions of the peace process and their leader (with his taste for defeat), another development was taking place in secret. This involved Arik Sharon. He has been responsible, we recall, for several major tragedies in the history of the Palestinian people: in the 70's he commanded the death squads that suppressed a revolt in the occupied Gaza Strip; he directed the bombardment and siege of Beirut in 1982; he has been the main moving force behind the settlers' movement from its inception until this day. Now seventy, Sharon still has plenty of juice. This "war criminal," as the Palestinians once called him, this "hangman of Beirut," has now become the politician to whose door they flock. On February 4, Ben Caspit published a long piece in the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv, entitled, "The Secret Plan of Ariel Sharon." He disclosed the following facts: Alongside the official talks on confidence-building measures, such as the Palestinian airport in Dahaniyya and the industrial park at the Karni checkpoint (both in the Gaza Strip), the two sides have been holding secret discussions of a different sort altogether. Arafat has taken these talks quite seriously: he sent his chief aides, Abu Mazzen and Abu Ala.

Within the Oslo framework, Sharon believes, the Palestinians will not agree to what Israel wants, namely, that they should forfeit the intermediate withdrawals to which his country has committed itself and proceed at once to the final arrangement. His solution is simple. He wants to stop the hourglass. He thinks he can get them to agree to cancel Oslo altogether. In such a case, what would the Palestinians get in return? They will get the territory that Israel is ready to give up now, which is less than ten percent of Area C (the part of the West Bank that Israel directly controls). But they will also get a new understanding with a right-wing government. "This will be somewhat less than a peace agreement, rather a makeshift solution, which will ultimately increase the Palestinian-controlled areas to about 40 percent of the West Bank. It will create a kind of status quo that both sides can live with, while they gradually develop a stable relationship. Conditions will be created for the growth of confidence, and for projects in the fields of economy, security, and society." (Ma'ariv, February 27, 1998) None of this is enough, of course, to persuade the Palestinian leadership. What rabbit, then, does Sharon have in his hat?

Israel's ruling, right-wing Likud, claims Ben Caspit, is afraid of a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood in 1999. The European nations might support it, and such an event, without an agreement to limit the new state, might turn into a difficult problem. Now the Likud wants to give up as little as possible. Oslo, with its deadlines and phased withdrawals, might take on a certain momentum, especially if backed by American pressure. The Likud is ready, therefore, to put forth a declaration of its own: that at the end of the process (which is not to be bound by deadline), an independent (though de-militarized) Palestinian state will arise next to Israel. In short, Sharon has been telling the Palestinians: All the cards are in our hands, and we don't want Oslo. That process is the product of the Labor Party, and it's come to a dead end. You signed an agreement with the side that cannot deliver. If we keep on like this, things may reach a point of explosion that won't do you any good either. Unlike the previous government, when we sign with you, we can bring the people with us. You're better off with a bird in the hand.

As of March 2, the Palestinians have rejected Sharon's offer. They are still betting on American pressure. The U.S. has a plan calling for an Israeli retreat from 13% of Area C in three phases. If this does not materialize, however, the Sharon proposal may prove to be more than a pipe dream. In the summer of 1993, we recall, the Palestinian leaders got shaky knees when the heads of the Labor Party told them, "You'll never get a better deal than this one. We're in power. It's now or never." Today come the Likud leaders, telling them: "We can bring along our entire people, but you'll have to lower your expectations. Otherwise, the whole thing will blow up in our faces. It's now or never."

For a leadership in defeat, the size of the surrender does not much matter – the important thing is to be able to market it to the people. At this point, however, an unexpected factor has entered the equation: the partial, relative victory of Iraq, and the weakening of America, in the latest round at the Gulf. The Palestinian leadership, it seems, was counting on a U.S. attack. Then it could have said to its people: "See? What can we do? They're just too strong." Now reality is slightly different. Defeat no longer seems inevitable. It will be harder to explain. And when explanation comes harder – so too, oppression.