Sharon victory Arafat's fault

March 25, 2001|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- Only the tragic deterioration of Mideast politics could have created a situation in which Israeli leader Ariel Sharon would be warmly welcomed to the White House.

Mr. Sharon has been a lightning rod at home and abroad for decades -- for good reason.

Nearly 20 years ago he alienated the Reaganites when he engineered the war in Lebanon and was indirectly responsible for the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila.

Ten years ago, George H.W. Bush's secretary of state, James Baker, labeled Mr. Sharon "an obstacle to peace" -- because he had orchestrated the building of Israeli settlements all over the West Bank. Mr. Sharon's relations with the Clinton administration were frigid.

Only Yasser Arafat's epic errors -- and the Palestinian violence that made the peace process moot -- could have propelled Mr. Sharon to a landslide win last month and new respectability in Washington.

But the current Bush team should be under no illusions that Mr. Sharon has a plausible strategy to calm the violence.

The flaws of Mr. Arafat and Mr. Sharon, when mixed together, are like an explosive chemical combination that could ignite a regional war.

Mr. Sharon was elected on a promise that he would get tough with the Palestinians and stop the intifada (uprising). But he has a record of not knowing when to lay off the sticks, nor having much generosity with carrots.

Nicknamed the "Bulldozer," he has a military history of using brutal force against Palestinian civilians.

Mr. Sharon believes no long-term peace settlement is possible with the Palestinians and that the two sides must talk instead about interim arrangements. He also says no talks can begin, or severe economic pressures on the Palestinians cease, before the violence ends.

But he offers ordinary Palestinians little incentive to press their leaders to accede to these conditions. His proposed interim arrangements would leave the Palestinians with the limited amount of land they now control, which is divided into chunks by Israeli settlements and roads.

Under these conditions, Palestinians can't conduct normal travel and commerce. The settlement grid also prevents Israelis from physically disengaging from the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza -- even though many Israelis think this is the best short-term solution.

So long as Jewish settlements criss-cross Palestinian areas, settlers must traverse them, too, and Israeli soldiers must protect the settlers, leading to constant Israeli-Palestinian clashes.

West Bank road-and-settlement building is likely to continue under Mr. Sharon, even in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. This could lead to explosive clashes in the current climate.

With no hope of a cohesive state and the prospects of more settlements, ordinary Palestinians may be inspired to join the intifada rather than press their leaders to bring it to an end.

But -- and here is the catch-22 -- Mr. Sharon and his policies won't change unless Palestinians press Mr. Arafat to end the violence.

Mr. Sharon's election is the direct product of Mr. Arafat's mistakes.

A few intellectuals have proposed that Palestinians only mount nonviolent demonstrations. Others condemn the corruption inside the Palestinian Authority and its inability to control gunmen. But this kind of thinking has not reached anywhere near critical mass.

It must be encouraged, by Israelis and U.S. policy. Unfortunately, a draconian Sharon policy may isolate the questioners and push ordinary Palestinians to join the violence.

This puts a burden on the Bush administration, despite its desire to watch the Mideast mess from the sidelines.

It needs to find ways to prevent Mr. Sharon from making things worse and to disabuse Mr. Arafat from delusions of international rescue.

For the moment, that may be the best that the administration can do.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa., 19101, or by e-mail at trubin@phillynews.com.

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