The first violent confrontation between Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat took place in the summer of 1981, when the new defense minister in Menachem Begin's government was forced to digest a cease-fire agreement on the northern border. This came after two weeks of Katyusha rockets, which had sent the residents of Kiryat Shmona fleeing and subdued Begin.
Arafat promised, through U.S. and Saudi mediators, to stop firing rockets from Lebanon; and he kept his word, while using the cease-fire to build up his strength. A frustrated Sharon was seeking a pretext for war in Lebanon, and also built up his strength, while searching for loopholes in the understandings.
This, more or less, is what is transpiring now in Gaza. Operation Days of Penitence is a prequel to a Yamit-again operation (the evacuation of Gush Katif) and a preface to a mini-accord with the Palestinians. In this context, as called for as it may have been in the wake of the Sderot fatalities, the Israel Defense Forces' action is not an incursion (pshita in Hebrew), but rather a sign of bankruptcy (pshitat regel). It will end, with U.S. and Egyptian mediation, in Days of Penitence understandings that will put an end to both Qassam rocket fire and IDF actions; but it will allow Hamas and the resistance committees to gather their strength for the fight over the evacuation.
Arafat's war is about Palestine - not about the Galilee or Gaza. When firing shells from Fatahland, outside the Green Line, or when stopping to do so, or when hampering Sharon's exit from Gaza and resting, Arafat is being consistent. And so are the terror organizations.
During the past four years (in which, by the way, the population of Gaza has grown by 200,000 children), the Palestinians have blocked all tentative steps toward partial progress, preferring the dubious macho "honor" of pulling the trigger to a light cease-fire that could bring them diplomatic gains. This is what happened during the "seven days without violence" that Sharon was compelled to accept following the Mitchell Committee report in the spring of 2001. And this is what is happening now, when Sharon is dying to get out of Gaza.
Like the family VW Beetle of the 1960s, or the Spitfires and Phantoms that faithfully served the air force in earlier wars, it would be fitting to send rusty cliches to a museum or junkyard. One such cliche - metaphorically applied to conflicts between states - is the advice offered to someone who wishes to sneak into his neighbor's vineyard and eat some grapes: "Decide what you want - to eat grapes or argue with the guard."
This is a simple formula, with two possible results - one purposeful and one lacking in purpose. Western logic would argue for eating the grapes, hoping that in the East, they no longer seek to pick fights with guards. This advice is useless when the goal is something entirely different, a third option - eat the guard. In this case, it would be hard to find a compromise if the guard insists on scuttling a peace process by refusing to be eaten - not even offering up a small finger.
By temperament, Arafat is a total leader, like Stalin and Churchill, or Castro. Others can become accustomed to a complex reality of balances of power and aim to reach a practical deal. But he cannot. If he were an expert in games of dice and cards, he would have already won a big jackpot - because his gamble has paid off. By using violence against Israel, he gradually pushed Israel away from its previous positions - from Camp David to the Clinton parameters, from Taba to Mitchell, Tenet, Zinni and the road map.
After September 11, 2001, Arafat had a chance to double his earnings. George Bush's formative experience was his success in overcoming his addiction to alcohol at age 40. He was able to reinvent himself and reach the White House after his wife laid down an ultimatum - either the bottle or me. In return for embarking on a new path, Bush is prepared to reset his watch and grant forgiveness for past sins. This is not in Arafat's world of concepts; when one offers him a hand, he prefers to eat it.
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