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Ariel Sharon knows he is unable to kill, or remove, Yasser Arafat. So why did he tell Israel's three major newspapers that the Palestinian leader has no insurance guarantee against assassination? The answer is simple: For Israel's prime minister, words do not have binding authority.

Sharon wants to get rid of Arafat, but he is unable to fulfill this wish. By his own admission, Sharon erred when he promised the U.S. government he would not harm the Palestinian Authority chairman. Sharon alluded to his promise to the Americans when trying to placate hotheads in his party who wanted Arafat's scalp. Then, at the end of last week, Sharon decided that, in order to win support in Likud for his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, he should stir things up in the party, raising expectations that revenge is to be taken against Arafat. Throwing caution to the wind, he reversed his earlier position, and pulled out his threat to kill the PA leader. So what's new? Nothing. The only thing that changed is his political need.

Sharon has no problem coining phrases whose message is something that he has no real intention of turning into a reality. When Sharon talks about sending out an order that will remove Arafat from the historical arena, he knows he is misleading his listeners: Sharon doesn't have the wherewithal to do so, the majority of the defense establishment disagrees with the move, and he is committed to his promise to President Bush. So he said what he said about Arafat - so what? Tomorrow he'll say the opposite.

Meantime, he has caused damage: Sharon has forced the U.S. government to warn him about an escalation in the region, drawn fire from European countries, sparked protests and concern from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (with whose ruler he conferred just two weeks ago). The main thing is that he signaled to Likud's membership that the assassination is just around the corner. In Israel's domestic political arena, the excited passions he has fanned by tossing out this threat against Arafat will overshadow the sober analysis offered by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, according to which the U.S. government has no reason to expect that Sharon will renege on his promise to Bush.

Sharon is a cynic of proportions that have no rival in Israeli politics. He is more cunning, hard-hearted and remorseless than any other politician. This is the man who said farewell to his soldiers, at the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, by asking them in a letter to support his political career; he is the man who tried to muzzle then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir at a Likud meeting by bandying about the demagogic slogan, "Who wants to end terror;" he is the man who terribly embittered then-prime minister Menachem Begin, and made a mockery of a coalition partner, Shimon Peres, who departed on a mission to discuss matters with Arafat while Israel Air Force helicopters hovered in the skies to carry out assassinations. Today, Sharon is fighting to keep his post as prime minister, and so he believes any means can be used to win his struggle. He'll carry on his fight for political survival even if it means reneging on his commitment to Bush, Israel's one pillar of support in the international diplomatic arena. Tomorrow, Sharon figures, he'll find a way to placate the U.S. president.

Indeed, Sharon's behavior raises the possibility that he'll be willing to gamble about Bush's support, even as he involves the U.S. president with his separation plan. At first glance, the separation plan seems to have emerged in the security-diplomatic sphere, and it is in this context that Sharon seeks the U.S. government's cooperation; but Sharon's current unbridled, reckless rhetoric creates suspicions that perhaps the separation initiative was also a ruse, designed to create a facade of a major diplomatic maneuver while its true purpose was to improve Sharon's own personal position, as he faces the police and the attorney general. In fact, statements are being made today in Israel about how the corruption case against Sharon ought to be ignored, in view of the "historic policy" that is to be enacted in the Gaza pullout. Sharon himself has stirred suspicions that, just as he doesn't hesitate to bandy about empty threats to kill Arafat, despite his promise to Bush, he is capable of entangling the U.S president in a far-ranging diplomatic initiative that he has no real intention of carrying out.