Our Man in Ramallah

Yacov Ben Efrat

PRIME MINISTER Ariel Sharon doesn't fancy press conferences. He knows he isn't a gifted speaker like his rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. In the week preceding February 21, however, the pressure for a word to the nation built up. Israelis had sat in front of their televisions watching funerals night after night. On the 14th the Palestinians blew up a thickly armored Merkavah tank, killing three of its crew. Five days later two Palestinians surprised eight soldiers at a checkpoint, killing six and escaping. There were actions against civilians too. On the 17th a suicide bomber killed two young people at a West Bank settlement, Karnei Shomron, and a third later died of her wounds. In response to all this, Israel let loose with aerial bombardments against Palestinian targets, killing fifty.

All week Sharon avoided the cameras. The press lashed out at him: Why this silence? Where's the security you promised? Where's your plan? On the morning of February 21, therefore, when the PM's aides announced an address to the nation that night, all ears perked up.

The speech was a letdown even for people who had ceased to expect anything from Sharon. Yoel Marcus of Ha'aretz summarized it thus: "The Lion Roared Meow." This meow was a product of the dilemma in which the PM is trapped. He can stay in power only by preserving the national-unity government. To do so requires appeasing the right and the left. The exertion of power in either direction will result in collapse of the government. The key to staying in power is not to use power: Meow.

Sharon must appease the right by bringing the Palestinian side to its knees. On the other hand, he has to play up to the left, to the Americans and to the moderates of the Arab world, appearing as a leader who won't let events drag him into war. His room for maneuver is as small as the space of Yasser Arafat's confinement in Ramallah.

These spaces are linked. Sharon placed Arafat under virtual house arrest in December, promising to release him only after PA police caught the assassins of Israeli Tourism Minister, Rechavam Ze'evi. A few weeks ago, before the Central Committee of the Likud (which leans rightward toward Netanyahu), Sharon boasted, "Arafat will be a long time under arrest." Yet the morning before the Meow speech, the PA nabbed three of Ze'evi's four killers. The move was meant to enable Arafat to attend the Arab summit in March. Now what would Sharon do? In the speech itself, the name of Arafat did not cross his lips. A journalist pressed: Would he release him? "We'll consider the matter," he clipped. The right wing declared it would leave the government if Sharon let Arafat go. The left protested: let him go. It was the old double bind.

Sharon did not tell his listeners on February 21 that a meeting had occurred with Palestinian security chiefs, Jibril Rajoub and Muhammad Dahlan, and that Israel had agreed to stop its bombings and assassinations for a week, giving the PA a chance to calm things down. There were four days of relative quiet. Then the decision fell in Israel's cabinet: it wouldn't release Arafat totally, but it would broaden his prison as far as the gates of Ramallah. Out in the real world, Palestinians started shooting Israelis again. Israel struck back. As is the space of Arafat, so is the space of Sharon.

Returning to the speech of February 21: Sharon stressed that "the state of Israel is not collapsing and will not collapse, and the course of events depends on us, our behavior, our courage." The lady doth protest too much: why tell people they are not collapsing, unless you feel they need reassurance? Sharon attacked the officers who refuse to serve in the Territories, claiming that such evidences of refusal "encourage terrorism." To the right he said, "Restraint too is power." But the only real news in the speech, and the pretext for the press conference, also contained its weakness. Sharon proposed "to establish buffer zones between us and the Palestinians." Buffer zones imply closing-off. Retreat. The proposal amounts to a tacit admission that he lacks a military answer to the Intifada.

Even within the prison of national unity (national impotence), Sharon's days may be numbered. The settlers have decided to back Netanyahu. The moderate left is losing patience too, as attested in the growing movement of conscientious objection among reserve officers.

Some time ago Sharon pronounced Arafat "irrelevant". Three days after the Meow speech, the Ha'aretz editorialist wrote: This pronouncement "has been turned on its head. Sharon has entangled himself in a genuine contradiction – he is unable to replace the PA leader and yet, after disqualifying Arafat, he has no partner for discussion, nor an address to which he can send demands or requests." (February 25.)

With all due respect to Ha'aretz, however, the "genuine contradiction" goes deeper. It is not Sharon's, but Israel's: Israel has decided that it doesn't want to rule the Palestinians, yet it refuses to allow them full independence. This contradiction bears the name of Oslo. We may also put the Oslo-contradiction thus: Israel chose Arafat to be "our man in the West Bank and Gaza." Why Arafat? Because he alone commanded the respect of the Palestinians. But the more Arafat becomes Israel's "man", the less he commands the respect of the Palestinians.

To put this contradiction another way: Like Netanyahu, Sharon despises the Oslo Accords, yet he has no better alternative. The only course open to him is to bring Arafat to his knees, forcing him to accept Israeli terms. On his knees, however, Arafat would truly be irrelevant – as would his acceptance of Israel's terms.

Blood is being shed because both leaders, Sharon and Arafat, seek the unattainable. Sharon will never get the Palestinians to accept a make-believe state, while Arafat will never get a true state with Jerusalem as its capital. Oslo remained relevant only as long as the real issues were postponed. In September 2000 these issues came to a head, bursting the dam.

After months of low-intensity warfare, the Israeli public is not about to put its security in Arafat's hands. They didn't elect Sharon to bring them peace. They elected him to tamp down the flames of the Intifada. His task is to contain the conflict, not to resolve it. If he wanted to take a policy lead, he'd be careful to keep a partner on the other side. The biggest thing that the Labor Party achieved with Oslo was precisely this creation of a partner. Without him, Israel could not have gained Palestinian acceptance for so humiliating an agreement. This is the inheritance Sharon spurns. He doesn't seem to understand that by undermining Arafat, he sets in motion tectonic tremors that threaten the entire Arab world.

The Saudi Initiative

One fine day, New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman asked Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia something like this: "Why don't the Arabs offer to normalize relations with Israel in return for withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza?" Abdallah answered something like, "Tom, you took the words right out of my mouth! That's exactly the plan I happen to have in my drawer."

The Saudi initiative has fallen like ripe fruit into the waiting void. Mubarak of Egypt and the two Abdallahs (of Jordan and Saudi Arabia) have been on edge for weeks. Sharon's imprisonment of Arafat sends out tremors, as said, that threaten their regimes. How can they sit idly by, their peoples want to know, when an Arab leader has to wait on Sharon for permission to move?

Saudi Arabia has a special problem. Since September 11, the American press has not ceased attacking it. While the White House rants against Iraq, everyone knows that thirteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudis.

Before September 11, Saudi Arabia had begun to take a defiant line with the US. In the light of its current initiative, we do well to recall that the Saudis refused to give Arafat the go-ahead for accepting a deal at Camp David. Later, Crown Prince Abdallah even spurned George W. Bush's invitation to the White House. These were no mere whims. The Saudi regime is in deep economic trouble. (Per capita income has plummeted since the 1980's from $16,000 to $6000. Unemployment has rocketed. The country is deeply in debt.) The royal family has been able to stay in power, until now, because of an unholy alliance with Islamic militant groups, which agree to direct their criticisms away from the regime in return for the family's cooperation. These groups resent, just as Osama Bin Laden does or did, the presence of American bases on Saudi soil. The bases are there, moreover, because the US lacks faith in the future of the Saudi regime. It wants to have a military presence at hand, in case the Saudi oil reserves, one quarter of the world's supply, come up for grabs. (See "Globalization Hits Saudi Arabia," Challenge #68.)

The Saudis, then, were defiant – until September 11. They found themselves overnight in terrible odor with Washington, and suddenly they remembered their need for it as a buyer and supplier, their stalwart ally and ultimate defense. Under pressure of American ire, the family groped for a lifeline. And Thomas Friedman of all people, arch Saudi baiter, threw it.

The Saudi balloon has had one result so far: it has doused the Saudis with rosewater. Apart from that, what does it entail? If Israel were ready to dismantle the settlements and pull back to the lines of 1967, leaving, for example, the newer neighborhoods of Jerusalem, there would be no need for outside initiatives. But Israelis, hoping for hope, hear the initiative as they prefer to: merely as an opening position, prior to compromise. They want to believe that the Saudis, who torpedoed Camp David, have undergone a change of heart because of September 11. The fact is, the Saudis have already gotten what they need: the rosewater.

And America?
The US is hostage to the present leaders in the Middle East. It has no replacement for Sharon, Arafat or the Saudi royal family. The leaders know this and Washington knows it. If elections occurred in Israel now, Labor would be trampled. The sole alternative to Sharon is an even bigger trouble-maker, Bibi Netanyahu. As for Saudi Arabia, the alternative to the royal family is the Islamic militants. And the alternative to Arafat? Chaos, horror.

All the regional leaders, together with the US as their patron, are bound together in a dance of death. The Arab leaders want to use the Saudi initiative in order to win back enough of the Israeli public to rid themselves of Sharon. Yet their goal remains containment and survival: to ease the pressures from the street. Sharon too aims no higher than containment and survival: he has proved at least as unwilling as his predecessors to face the reality of what would be needed to achieve real peace. As for Arafat, in his seven years as PA chief he has accomplished nothing except to maintain his dictatorial apparatus.

A true resolution would require the creation of a true Palestinian state. This is beyond what Israel will allow and beyond the concerns of Arab leaders to achieve.