Unreconstructed enemies serve each other's needs

October 06, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

CRITICS of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat like to say that he never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

This may be so, but the same could be said about his archenemy, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

First, for 10 days last month after two suicide bombing attacks, the Israeli army methodically and almost destroyed what was left of Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. This succeeded in making the Palestinian leader relevant again after a period in which his relevancy even among Palestinians was diminishing.

Now, there are reports from Israel that the military has been practicing a plan to kidnap Arafat from Ramallah and drop him off at some isolated St. Helena. The military refuses to confirm or deny the report, which means it's probably true. More about that later.

Many Israelis, including the far right, thought the Ramallah siege was a grave error. Some of the criticism arose from the fact that the operation infuriated Washington at a time when the Bush administration is trying to rally Arab support for a war against Iraq. Some of it came from Israelis who realized the siege helped to restore Arafat's popularity among his own people.

I spent 10 days in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza just before the suicide bombings resumed last month. For more than a month there had been no suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. It was a one-sided lull. During the same period, the Israelis knocked off dozens of Palestinians, some of them suspected terrorists, most of them civilians - "collateral damage." While this lull existed, Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, told me, "We have reached the point where there are more suicide belts than there are volunteers." It was an exaggerated boast in retrospect, but it helped to explain the fury with which Sharon reacted when the suicide bombings resumed.

At the same time as the suicide attacks had dropped off, moves were afoot on several fronts that signaled a prospect of change on the Palestinian side.

Important among these was the challenge to Arafat's dictatorial tendencies from the Palestinian population and from within his Fatah organization. Every Palestinian I spoke with outside of Arafat's inner circle expressed some level of disgust with the corruption and rudderless state of the Palestinian leadership.

The sentiment was strongly expressed by professional men, businessmen, laborers and mothers. The message, in effect, was that the crowd Arafat brought with him from exile in Tunis in 1993 was living comfortably, even luxuriously, while most Palestinians were not, and many were suffering great hardship.

The Palestinian legislative council seemed to be reacting to this sentiment when it took the unusually bold step of refusing to endorse Arafat's new Cabinet. Prominent Palestinians also were speaking out and writing publicly about the unhappy direction of the leadership.

Arafat was under pressure to accept a prime minister who would be responsible for running the Palestinian Authority while Arafat presumably would be less involved in the day-to-day mechanics of government. Arafat, a micromanager if ever there was one, did not like the idea, but it had currency.

In Jericho, advisers from the United States, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia had begun a program to train a new security force for the Palestinian Authority. The idea was that most of the 30,000 or so Palestinians carrying arms in a variety of Palestinian security forces would be culled and replaced with new people. These would be trained as real keepers of the peace and security, rather than as "fighters."

Nothing happens quickly in the Middle East - the presence of Sharon as prime minister of Israel and his abiding nemesis, Arafat, as head of the Palestinian Authority is proof enough of that. But some progress was being made in the direction supported by people who believe in peaceful co-existence.

One thing was clear: The less that pressure for change appeared to be coming from the United States or from Israel, the better the chances.

Into this tenuous progress Sharon hurled the Israeli army last month, reacting to the suicide bombings by surrounding Arafat and destroying every building around him, even though most Israelis and Americans acknowledge that Arafat has no control over the bombers from Hamas and Islamic Jihad and no means to go after them if he wanted.

Arafat must have loved it. Irrelevant yesterday, back on top today. Palestinians poured into the streets in support of him. The idea of a prime minister was dropped. The Israelis withdrew from Ramallah under pressure from the Bush administration. The status quo ante was restored. An opportunity - to change and reform the Palestinian leadership - was lost.

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