For a long time Yasser Arafat has been waiting for a phone call from an Arab leader, but the phone hasn't rung. The most senior Arab figure to visit him in recent months was Omer Suleiman, the Egyptian minister of intelligence, and the visit ended with harsh exchanges. What's left of the Palestinian Authority has become a playing ground that is open to all, without a guard: Egypt is inviting the leadership of the radical organizations, Britain is inviting the official representatives, one senior official or another pays an occasional visit to Jordan - but beyond this, absolutely nothing is heard from the direction of the Muqata, Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah.
Arafat seems to be fading away to the point where even Hamas announced last week that it intends to put forward a candidate of its own for the elections that will one day be held for the PA. The talk about possible candidates to replace Arafat is no longer taboo. The names of Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who heads several not-for-profit associations, Abu Ala, Abu Mazen and others are already being examined by Arab commentators in the Arab press outside Palestine.
On the face of it, this is a major success for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policy of making Arafat irrelevant. A policy that in the course of being implemented also shattered all the mechanisms of rule that the PA had established in the territories, broke up the PA into fragments and gangs, and above all awarded Hamas and Islamic Jihad the franchise to set the Palestinian agenda.
The looming war against Iraq has given the Arab states a new pretext for unity that has in the meantime eclipsed the Palestinian question, which, from Israel's point of view, has thus become a strictly security issue. And Israel, after all, knows how to deal with security problems: a few more tanks, a couple more targeted assassinations, just a few more house demolitions - and quiet will return.
On the assumption that, despite the Sharon scandal, a right-wing government will be formed in the wake of the January 28 elections, one doesn't have to be very smart to conclude that the Palestinian problem, as a security problem, will continue to preoccupy Israel, and only Israel, for more years to come.
The imaginary wait for a war in Iraq as a means to open Aladdin's Cave, as some sort of magic that will immediately resolve the Palestinian problem is no more than a delusion. The establishment of a new regime in Iraq is not a matter for a week or two, and even if there is no war, the Iraq issue will continue to be the sole international and inter-Arab focus in the region. The terrorist attacks in Israel will receive only the usual condemnations, and Israel and Palestine will be relegated to the category of an uninteresting local conflict. Something along the lines of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Russia and Chechnya. A conflict that has ceased to be an international threat, even if it serves as a pretext for attacks by branches of Al-Qaida. Even the conflict in Cyprus will be perceived as more important. Victories and losses in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be measured like pitched battles fought by street gangs: who tore out whose eye and who seized control of another bit of turf.
According to this approach, Arafat's neutralization can definitely be considered a personal victory for Sharon. He realized the wish of his government, which quakes with fear in the face of every political scenario: a tolerable low-level conflict without the need to pay a political price. The beauty part of this neutralization move is that it makes it possible to impute the responsibility for everything that happens in the territories to a political cadaver. Terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic Jihad or the Tanzim militia? Arafat is to blame. No political solution? Arafat is to blame. The Palestinians are suffering? Arafat is to blame for this, too. No one intends to deprive Arafat of his true blame and his missing of opportunities, but for that the Palestinians will settle accounts with him.
Suddenly, though, a paradox that sends one into despair is revealed: irrelevance, it turns out, can cut both ways. The greater the efforts made by Sharon to render Arafat irrelevant, the more he neutralized Israel of any political role. The result is that both leaders are neutralized and irrelevant, managing one of the world's most intractable conflicts while behind them the two nations wait for the emergence of a relevant leadership.
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