Israel Blew It, Big Time

Ariel Sharon won the international contest entitled "who hates Arafat more?" but that was not enough for him - he put Arafat under siege, brought tanks to the yard of his residence and sent bulldozers to break down the walls of his bedroom.

It's hard to be objective when you're writing in Hebrew about Yasser Arafat. The hatred in Israel toward that man has long transcended all boundaries of reason. It had become hatred for its own sake, more than his personality, acts and mistakes could justify. The Israelis have always hated him because they saw him as their No. 1 enemy.

It would have been possible perhaps to understand that hatred in the midst of the hostilities. But after Oslo the situation was supposed to have changed - this attitude was to have been replaced by the "peace of the brave," historical reconciliation, olive branches handed to IDF soldiers in Ramallah and the joint Nobel Prize given Yitzhak Rabin, Arafat and Shimon Peres.

But no. In Israel people continued hating him. Rabin's opponents turned Arafat's kaffiyeh into a symbol of all the awful things attributed to Rabin. Only the SS officer's uniform was worse. To this day many say that Peres lost the elections in 1996 because of the picture the Likud spread, showing Peres and Arafat ascending a staircase clasping each other's hands.

Since the last intifada Arafat has become a double enemy. Ehud Barak "exposed" his real face at Camp David and began attacking him energetically, although both sides almost reached an agreement on all the issues at Taba. Ariel Sharon won the international contest entitled "who hates Arafat more?" but that was not enough for him - he put Arafat under siege, brought tanks to the yard of his residence and sent bulldozers to break down the walls of his bedroom.

Although these acts humiliated an entire nation (Arafat's), Sharon continued this policy. The siege on Arafat persists today, and Israel is the one granting permission to doctors - Jordanian or Egyptian or Tunisian - to examine him. It also decides whether he would see his wife or not. With such a baggage of hatred and hostile acts toward the man, it is hard to see the truth about Arafat.

The truth is, that despite all his mistakes and errors, and there have been very many of them, Arafat is the undisputed historic leader of the Palestinian people. For the Palestinians, Arafat is the first leader who put his nation and the Palestinian cause on the international map.

He may be criticized for the way he chose. He used weapons. He got into trouble with the Jordanians, the Lebanese, the Syrians. But the Palestinians see that this was the only way in which he could establish the independence of the Palestinian people and its leadership.

We may hate the armed struggle he chose to use, which was partly terror against innocent people, which is unacceptable, although the Palestinian side suffered numerous innocent victims. But the Palestinian nation - in Jordan, Lebanon, the occupied territories, and even Israel's Arabs, see his military activity as "the only language this world understands." This is a harsh statement, but many on the Palestinian side believe it. The world respects only power. For example, they cite the withdrawal from Lebanon and the Yom Kippur War.

We can talk from today to the next decade about the corruption, and there is malignant corruption under Arafat's leadership. But one thing is obviously clear to every Palestinian: Arafat personally is not corrupt. There is no other leader in the world who lives with such frugal modesty. He eats little, his garb is simple. He devotes himself entirely to his nation's cause in his own way. Therefore, even when the Palestinians criticize the corruption in the Palestinian Authority, Arafat is not touched. From their point of view, he is a pure leader.

These qualities and others have given Arafat a special status among his people. This status weakened a little at the beginning of the intifada because the public has had enough of wars and wants to live in peace and quiet. But his incarceration reaffirmed his status and even strengthened it. Arafat suddenly because a leader, even in the eyes of his rivals. Even Hamas started signaling that they are ready to accept his authority. The weaker Arafat appeared to get and the more he was mourned in recent years, so his public status grew stronger and stronger.

Today Arafat is still the strongest man in the Palestinian leadership. Were he to contend in the most democratic elections possible with international monitors, even Israeli supervision, he would win yet again by a tremendous majority. With such a leader Israel would have done well to reach agreements and close deals. But Israel blew it, in a big way. Arafat was not a leader who pleased the governments of Israel. This is the most natural thing there is. But any agreement he could have signed, he would have been able to sell to the Palestinian public easily. This quality is not easily found.

The writer is a commentator on Israeli affairs on Arab television channels and in the newspaper Al-sharq Al-awsat.