There was a moment during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 when an Israeli sniper in Beirut had the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his gun sight. The sniper, though, was under orders not to kill the Palestinian leader because Israel felt that the world fallout would be too great — so he snapped a picture of Arafat instead. Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was defense minister at the time.
Nineteen years later Sharon and Arafat are again stalking each other. It looks like much has changed since that wild summer of '82. But don't be fooled. These two old warriors once again have each other in their gun sights. Sharon still views Arafat as a lying terrorist out to destroy Israel, and Arafat still views Sharon as a brutal thug out to destroy Palestinian nationalism. They would each like to finish what they started in 1982 by eliminating the other politically.
But what is striking about their rematch is how differently the two men approach it. Sharon has forgotten nothing about Arafat, but he has learned something from his mistakes back in the summer of '82. Arafat has forgotten nothing about Sharon, but he has learned nothing from his mistakes in the summer of '82.
How so? Sharon believes that he was defeated in Lebanon, not by the Palestinians, but by the left and center of the Israeli public, who turned against the war with massive street demonstrations — making it impossible for him to finish off Arafat and the PLO — and by the United States and the world, who turned against the war after the Beirut massacres — making it impossible for Sharon to reshape Lebanon.
Therefore, the "new" Sharon is doing all he can to hold together a national unity government, to cultivate the Israeli and global press, to make nice with the United States and to restrain himself from being goaded by the Palestinians or Syrians into any excessively bloody retaliations.
While the new Sharon still wants to destroy Arafat, a la the old Sharon, he knows he can't get away with it politically unless Arafat behaves blatantly like the old Arafat. And Arafat just may accommodate him.
Arafat has forgotten the two lessons of the Lebanon war. Lesson No. 1: The Palestinians can't defeat Israel's army in a conventional war. They can make life unpleasant for Israelis, but they can't defeat Israel. They got steamrolled in Lebanon trying — and it was only Sharon's excesses that turned Israeli and world opinion against the war and saved Arafat from total destruction in '82. Intifada II is just another futile attempt by Palestinians to forcibly evict Israel from the West Bank.
Lesson No. 2 is that the only time the Palestinians have made real progress toward statehood is when they rented power from Israel — when they got the Israeli left and center to support the Palestinian negotiating position and thereby press the Israeli government to deliver what the Palestinians wanted. The United Nations, the United States, the Russians, the Arabs have gotten the Palestinians nothing. It was the power of the Israeli left and center that saved the Palestinians in Lebanon and delivered them Oslo I and II. And it's also the only power that can deliver them a state.
Rather than enlisting the Israeli left and center on his side — the only power that can force Sharon to uproot Israeli settlements — Arafat has alienated them by launching Intifada II, after a serious Israeli peace offer at Camp David. Arafat has done something Sharon was never able to do in '82: convert the Israeli left and center to Sharon's view of this conflict — that it is a struggle to the death between Israelis and Palestinians.
Even so, the Israeli left and center — two-thirds of Israel — still crave a peace with the Palestinians, and if you don't understand that you don't understand Israel and its unquenchable quest for normalcy. The Palestinian people can still win over that two-thirds, but only if they put a credible peace plan on the table that affirms the permanence of the Jewish state.
As for Arafat, he can probably still buy the Palestinians a cease-fire or two from Israel, maybe even another interim deal, but not a final peace. It's not because he's blunder-prone. It's because when you make the same blunder over and over it isn't a blunder anymore. It's who you are and what you stand for — and who Arafat is and what he stands for is not compatible with any final peace.
New York Times News Service