It took awhile for the comparison to be made between Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein, but it finally happened. The leader of the National Religious Party and minister of housing and construction, Effi Eitam, suggested yesterday that we learn a lesson from the Americans on how to deal with "a mass murderer." If it were up to him, he declared, he would sentence Arafat to death. This sums up the comparison being drawn by Israeli policymakers between our bloody conflict and the war in Iraq. This one's a scoundrel and that one's a scoundrel. This one needs to be kicked out, and so does that one. The similarity cries out to the heavens - how could we have not noticed this until now?
Like a half-truth that is sometimes worse than a lie, a selective comparison is also liable to lead to distorted perceptions and, consequently, to wrong decisions. Arafat does indeed regard terrorism against civilians as a legitimate means to attain political goals. It's true that a very problematic person stands at the head of the Palestinian Authority, and that he not only harms Israel but also acts to the detriment of his own people. But the question the decision makers should be considering is not whether or not to put Arafat on trial, as the Americans would do to Saddam. Instead, these decision makers should be asking themselves whether the Americans would still act against Saddam in the same way if the wanted Iraqi ruler were a venerated leader of his people, who had struggled for decades against foreign occupation.
Let's assume for a moment that Arafat is indeed Saddam's Siamese twin, and that all of the U.S. decisions in the Iraqi campaign are worthy of imitation - would the beheading of Saddam, for the glory of the superpower, turn the beheading of Arafat into an Israeli interest? Would the political implications of liquidating a ruler who has gone into hiding be anything like the expected implications of striking against, or banishing, the most powerful person in the territories? Minister Ehud Olmert proposes turning the Muqata into Arafat's solitary confinement. Would the minister of industry and trade, employment and communications recommend to his insurance agent to insure the life of the Palestinian who agrees to step into the shoes of the imprisoned leader?
The difference between the Iraqi case and the Palestinian case lurks behind the threat from the Prime Minister's Office that Israel will not negotiate with any prime minister Arafat appoints in place of Mahmoud Abbas. The inherent difference is that the U.S. can allow itself to appoint whomever it wants as head of the temporary government in Iraq. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times succinctly expressed the U.S. approach to Iraq by quoting a saying of Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University: "In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car." The Americans did not come to Iraq to claim a patrimony. If within a year or two - or three to four years at the most - the Iraqis do not take control of their affairs, the American soldiers will dust off the evacuation order from Vietnam.
The United States will not collapse, even if the heirs to Saddam's regime turn out to be twin brothers of those who inherited the Shah's throne in Iran and Baghdad cuts off relations with Washington. The government of Israel, on the other hand, is not showing any signs that it is planning to get out of the territories, though it is also not keen on running the schools and hospitals there. Therefore, a Palestinian address - that is, a central governmental authority - is an essential Israeli interest. The choice Israel faces is not between Abu Mazen and Abu Ala. It is the choice between a secular address (as problematic as it might be), or an extreme Islamic address or total anarchy.
In a cover story last week entitled "From Baghdad to Jerusalem," the Economist noted the different moods in the two capitals. The British weekly wrote that the Iraqis believe that the Americans mean it when they say they don't intend to remain there and that this is a source of a certain amount of optimism in Baghdad. The Palestinians also believe that Minister Eitam and his colleagues in Israel's government mean every word when they vow never to leave the territories - and this is a source of despair in Jerusalem.
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