Arafat Races Bush-Sharon-Abu Mazen for Palestinan State

Jerusalem was the scene of a piece of show business on Tuesday, July 2. Two prime ministers, Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas stood on their respective lecterns at the Israeli prime minister’s office in Jerusalem Tuesday, July 2, and gave a showcase peace performance that was broadcast around the world. Abbas aka Abu Mazen had no qualms about standing at a lectern draped with the Menorah emblem of the Jewish state, while Israeli and Palestinian cabinet ministers, looking like bored guests at a bar mitzvah, sat at a raised table covered with a blue-and-white tablecloth.
Both prime ministers followed written scripts: “Our conflict is political and must be solved through diplomatic means,” Abbas said – code for an end to the Palestinian uprising. Sharon quoted himself by promising “painful concession for real and durable peace for generations to come.”
Both leaders played their starring roles to the hilt.
In Washington, US secretary of state Colin Powell had a simple explanation for Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon stepping so completely out of character as to follow a U.S.-charted “road map” to peace with the Palestinians and an independent state of their own. He told Fox News on Wednesday, July 2, that it was the US victory in Iraq that convinced the old war horse to tread the peace track.
Powell may be forgiven for taking advantage of the smoothly-produced occasion marking the recovery America’s Middle East peace initiative – after three years of being battered by Palestinian intransigence – to color up the unfinished American triumph in Iraq.
However, Sharon had reasons of his own for a course that so completely stumped the pundits and his own long-faithful right-wing following.
His primary rationale was betrayed by another Israeli spokesman, Avi Dichter, director of Israel’s Shin Bet – the domestic security agency charged with detecting and stopping Palestinian suicide bombers in their tracks – in a rare speech he delivered at Tel Aviv University. In his analysis of the coming steps of the Washington-instigated peace track, Dichter warned that the moment of truth would arrive in about three weeks when the Palestinian prime minister and his internal security minister Mohammed Dahlan would be confronted with the obligation to gather illegal weapons from terrorists, especially Hamas.
If the new Palestinian leaders fall at this first hurdle, Israel will not be able to hand any more Palestinian towns on the West Bank to Palestinian responsibility. “The entire diplomatic process will stumble and could even break down,” Dichter said.
He went on to provide perspective on Israel’s place in the larger world scheme beyond the Israeli-Palestinian horizon.
“For Iran, Israel’s destruction is not just a pipedream but the subject of an active operational program. Teheran continually stokes up violence between the Palestinians and Israel, investing cash, arms and manpower in upgrading terrorist action, sending its spies over and fomenting anti-Israeli subversion. Today, Iran ranks as the number one terrorist state in the world. Israel finds it difficult to contend with the Iranian threat on its own,” Dichter said.
None of this was news to Sharon. While imbued with outstanding military and intelligence prowess, Israel, he believes, is unequal to tackling declared foes on the scale and with the reach of Iran, Syria, Hizballah and al Qaeda and must depend on its foremost ally, the United States..
This dependence has a price – one that the Bush administration, which is not particularly liberal with its handouts, will not forego. In Sharon’s view, that price is Israel’s acceptance of a Palestinian state, which is the fee for American aid in eliminating the most intractable enemies of the Jewish state. He therefore makes sure his government punctiliously toes the diplomatic course set in Washington for the Middle East.
The Israeli prime minister is also convinced that he alone can drive the country along this precarious route against all domestic opposition.
At the Jerusalem ceremony, Sharon constantly glanced at Abbas to see what impression his words were making on the Palestinian prime minister. He kept on saying “I’ — as in, “I, Ariel Sharon will spearhead the process and I undertake to grant painful diplomatic and military concessions to the Palestinians.” Use of the first person singular attested to his personal commitment to see this historical process through to the end – even if denied backing from national political and defense leaders, the public or even his own Likud party.
He was telling Abbas, the Palestinians and US President George W. Bush: “Don’t worry about domestic Israeli politics. I’m firmly in the lead and committed.”
His words were reminiscent of Bush’s own declaration prior to the Iraq War: I will lead the global war against terror and I will launch a war against Iraq and topple the regime of Saddam Hussein and his sons despite all the difficulties and over the objections of more than half the world.
And he did – proving that a strong, simplistic leadership carries its own innate momentum and logic – that is until the first cracks begin upsetting the game plan.
Today, the US president is confronted with such cracks.
A. In Afghanistan, despite Washington’s declaration of victory, the war on terror is far from over, any more than it is in Iraq. Not only is Osama bin Laden at large, but he launched his summer offensive with massive terrorist attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca in May. Needless to say, other attacks will follow against American targets and US allies, including Israel.
In Iraq, the Saddam regime has been overthrown, but the deposed Iraqi ruler and his sons remain at large and anti-American violence in the country is just beginning. Like bin Laden, Saddam has embarked on a summer guerrilla offensive in central Iraq, including the capital Baghdad, whose outcome is still to be seen.
B. Yasser Arafat continues to spin terror plots at his headquarters in Ramallah. Bush and Sharon, for all the peace ceremonial and summitry staged to boost the Abbas administration, have not tackled the fountainhead of Palestinian terror, but merely stepped round him. To paraphrase Dichter, Arafat is still willing and able to defeat their plan for a Palestinian state headed by Abu Mazan by creating his own Palestinian state with the help of Tehran that will threaten Israel’s existence.
C. It looks therefore as though the three masters of terror, bin Laden, Saddam and Arafat have weathered America’s mighty campaigns against them and are fully capable of inflicting grievous harm. Indeed, each in his own way is a potential threat to Bush’s prospects of re-election in November 2004, as well as a dire menace to Israel and Sharon’s hopes.
D. The Israeli prime minister has stuck his neck out in a way that the US president did not. He has never exposed his peace plan to any Israeli elected body – be it the government, the Knesset or even the ruling Likud party. His plan, on which the country’s survival could hinge, has never been thrown open to free and serious public debate. It might be said that Sharon has bypassed national democratic institutions and bent the country’s fate to his will, without revealing his potentially perilous plan to the electorate or the elected.
Even Bush, withal his prerogatives, made sure of congressional endorsement before embarking on a major enterprise, such as going to war. If Sharon’s course proves successful in ending the conflict with the Palestinians without endangering national survival, he may get away with this infraction. However, at the first crisis, he will be called to account. And that crisis will not be long in coming. Arafat, Saddam Hussein, bin Laden and Iran’s supreme ruler, Ali Khamenei, will make sure of that.

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