Ahead of the expected attack on Iraq, Israel's public relations corps has pulled out an old standing order from the days of the first Gulf War, to take special care not to create any linkage between that conflict and "ours." The last thing Ariel Sharon needs right now is for the French to remind the world that Israel refuses to sign the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons treaty and that it has disobeyed a long series of Security Council resolutions. The last thing Sharon needs is for The New York Times to ask why, 12 years after Bush senior freed Kuwait by force from the Iraqi occupation, his son is lending a hand and money to Israel to deepen its occupation of the territories.
But suddenly, Israeli officials are announcing that Arafat is next on George W. Bush's list after Saddam. They promise that the morning after the war in Iraq, or in its shadow, and less than an hour after the next terror attack in Israel - whichever comes first - our boys will pull the ra'is out of the Muqata and send him on his way. Benjamin Netanyahu, the national spokesman, is in a hurry. In an interview to Channel Two on Friday night, the foreign minister was already complaining about the double standard that characterizes the world's attitude toward the two dictators.
One can understand the politicians' temptation to glue Arafat to Saddam. Those comparisons do wonders to public opinion. Only 17 percent of Americans polled last week by the Princeton Institute, for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, knew that none of the 9/11 hijackers was Iraqi. About half said that Saddam Hussein's people were behind the 9/11 attacks. If Bush managed to turn Saddam into an Osama bin Laden clone, why shouldn't Sharon turn Arafat into a Saddam clone?
Amazingly, Sharon is providing an answer with the contacts he has with Arafat; President Bush doesn't meet with Saddam subordinates and also doesn't send his chief of staff to meet with the Iraqi interior minister. Danny Naveh can say on the radio that meeting with the Palestinian interior minister cannot be counted as "contact with Arafat" but every Palestinian child understands that Interior Minister Hanni al-Hassan is more representative of Arafat than Minister Naveh is of Sharon. Palestinians older than Naveh can certainly remember the games of hide-and-seek between Yitzhak Shamir's representatives to the Madrid Conference and the Washington talks, and the PLO personnel who stayed in the rooms next door to the delegations from the territories.
Sharon's frank statements to Mitzna about Netzarim and Kfar Darom show that the purpose of his talks with the PLO are no different from what Shamir was after - 10 years of delays. But Sharon also learned from Shamir's experience that it's perfectly all right to deceive the Americans - but never, ever, to quarrel with them. Like some of the intelligence assessments he reads and hears, Sharon takes into account that the double standard argument could pop up the day after the war. He knows that the world expects the U.S. to drag Israel by its ear out of the territories.
The leaks about the meetings between Sharon's people and Arafat's raise suspicions they are mostly meant to prove there's "movement," to ease the Arab and European pressure on Bush to impose the road map on Israel. The public effort to drive a wedge between Arafat and his top officials could show that there is something to the argument that the move was not meant to renew the negotiations with the Palestinians but to drag the Labor Party into the coalition talks. After all, the last two years have already proven that efforts to drive a wedge between Arafat and the likes of Abu Mazen, only send them back to lining up behind Arafat, and cutting off ties with Israel.
The double standard is not U.S. discrimination in favor of Arafat relative to Saddam. It's the U.S. discrimination against dealing with the bleeding Israeli-Palestinian conflict compared to innumerable other regional conflicts.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now