For those who track the ongoing Al-Aqsa Intifada, the only scenario possibly more disconcerting than Yasir Arafat getting knocked off by the Israelis is Ariel Sharon being assassinated by the Palestinians—an act that would surely loose unprecedented waves of Israeli military violence against the Palestinian Authority, likely culminating in its destruction. The odds of such a thing happening to Sharon are, however, slim. His personal security is tighter than ever, and while he may not have gone far enough for some on the Israeli right, he’s not in danger of being killed by one of his own, as Yitzhak Rabin was.
But in a situation where extremists on both sides are ascendant, politically, Sharon’s days may be numbered; Benjamin Netanyahu and his retrograde settler supporters are lurking conspicuously on Sharon’s right. Still, at this point, the difference between Sharon and Netanyahu is essentially rhetorical. While Sharon has begun to recast his definition of the conflict as one not against Palestinians but against select “terrorists,” his actions—especially in the wake of his cabinet’s declaration last week that the Palestinian Authority is “an entity that supports terror”—move increasingly closer to what the far-right Likudniks want: the annihilation of the PA.
“Arafat comes in for a fair share of criticism,” says a veteran CIA Middle East specialist, “but I’m sorry, the catch-22 they’ve put him in is either going to cause a Palestinian civil war, or doom him to failure. Telling him to get everything under control but then making it difficult, if not impossible, for him and anyone else to move around, and declaring the security forces charged with getting everything under control as terrorists themselves—leaving them subject to assassination—is hopeless.
“And while the Israelis say they’ve always gone after ‘terrorist’ targets,” the specialist adds, “they’ve in fact also gone after those members of the Palestinian leadership who have two important attributes: One, they were interested in a two-state solution, and two, they were the kind of people who were strong enough to be the peace party in Palestinian leadership. Most of these guys have been killed. Frankly, I have long suspected the Israeli strategy is to kill the moderate Palestinians as well as militants and send this thing careening towards an endgame where Israel has the extremist enemy it wants.”
Indeed, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the human rights-oriented Shalom Center in Philadelphia notes, one need only consult an exceptional recent story in the right-of-center Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot for confirmation of this idea. On November 25, Alex Fishman, the paper’s security expert, reported that the Israeli government was aware that the Palestinian Authority had finally prevailed on Hamas in mid November to accept a quiet, tenuous deal in which Hamas would refrain from any suicide attacks within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
All bets were off, however, after the November 23 Israeli assassination of Hamas leader Mahmud Abu Hunud—which, according to Fishman, was exactly what Sharon’s government wanted. “Whoever gave a green light to this act of liquidation knew full well that he is thereby shattering in one blow the gentleman’s agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority,” Fishman wrote. “Whoever decided upon the liquidation of Abu Hunud knew in advance that that would be the price. The subject
was extensively discussed both by Israel’s military echelon and its political one, before it was decided to carry out the liquidation. Now, the security bodies assume that Hamas will embark on a concerted effort to carry out suicide bombings, and preparations are made accordingly.”
Says Waskow: “Sharon is driving Palestinian society more and more to the right, to the fanatics, which is calculated to create the results he wants. If there’s a Palestinian civil war, no matter who wins, it would shatter the Palestinian Authority, which meets his needs. If there isn’t a war, he can point to the suicide bombings as justification for more military action. And you can’t blow up a Palestinian police station and then say, ‘Why aren’t you arresting people?’ You can’t cut off all traffic on the roads and say, ‘Why aren’t you acting like a real government?’ ”
Not, adds Waskow, that this all redounds on Sharon. “The Palestinians, and Hamas especially, are profoundly and shallowly stupid, too,” he says. “I keep envisioning, imagining, wishing, that after Sharon’s incursion to the Temple Mount, what if instead of stone throwing, there had been massive sit-downs, no stones, no weapons, but general strikes—what if Arafat had behaved like Gandhi. If Arafat had been a profoundly great leader, he would have led a nonviolent resistance 14 months ago. There is so much stupidity to spare on both sides. But Israeli stupidity is compounded by the fact that they have 10 times the power.”
Harold Gould, a visiting professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on South Asia and terrorism, says he shares Waskow’s desire for a Palestinian Gandhi, but believes the possibility is simply too far gone; the Israeli right’s obsession with applying an archaic colonialist model to the Occupied Territories has made it all but impossible. “The Israelis think all they have to do is keep the Occupied Territories chopped up and continuously impose police actions, and it just doesn’t work,” Gould says. “Countries like India that went through the colonial experience instinctively understand where Palestinian anger and violence are coming from. Israelis, Americans and most Westerners, like the British during the Raj, still don’t get it. As in all past colonialism, there comes a point at which the victims refuse to be rational anymore.”
But in this care, one can easily make the argument that the colonialists revel in apocalyptic irrationality as well. In 1923, radical Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky—spiritual father of not only of Menachem Begin but of Meir Kahane—wrote that the “sole way” for Jews to deal with Arabs in Palestine was through “total avoidance of all attempts to arrive at a settlement”—which Jabotinsky euphemistically termed the “iron wall” approach. Not coincidentally, a picture of Jabotinsky graces Sharon’s desk. As the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim noted in a letter last year to the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research, Jabotinsky held that the only time to negotiate with Arabs was after the “iron wall” had been built. “The mistake of some of Israel’s leaders, and especially the leaders of the Right,” Shlaim lamented, “is that they regard Israel’s military superiority not as an asset in negotiating a final settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians, but as an instrument for perpetuating Israel’s mastery over them. The politicians of the Right still believe that the only language the Arabs understand is force. . . . [but] Israel can only have peace with the Arabs when it is prepared to meet them halfway.”