RAMALLAH - A brief visit to the shell-pocked Muqata in Ramallah, a long conversation with the Palestinian Authority chairman and the reactions to the interview he gave to Ha'aretz, leaves one with the impression that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon really did succeed at turning the Palestinian leader into someone irrelevant. Only a little more than a year ago, a declaration by Arafat (into a tape recorder) about his commitment to the Clinton framework would have occupied the national agenda for days. If the statement was a trial balloon, the apathy of the Israeli establishment will force Arafat to pop it. When the Labor Party ignores a statement that has already drawn fire at Arafat from the rejectionists, one could expect (hopefully?) that the prediction that he'll deny it all will be self-fulfilling.
Incoming chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon said recently that the important battle is for world public opinion. The delays in the Bush speech, the silent support the U.S. is giving to Israel's military operations, and the government's restraint with regard to the illegal outposts in the territories are testimony to Sharon's successes on that all-important front.
The reaction of the political establishment, or more precisely, the absence of a reaction, shows that it has the upper hand in Israeli public opinion, as well. Terror has introduced mythical modes of thought, like the belief that the entire conflict begins and ends with Arafat and that his expulsion will solve the problem. The cheering in the Palestinian street over the horrific images of children dying has displaced any attempt to examine the social, political and economic processes taking place in the Palestinian territories.
Sharon is not alone in the battle for American and Israeli public opinion. It's doubtful he would have been so successful if not for the support he's received from the Oslo party, and most of all Ehud Barak, "heir" to Yitzhak Rabin. When the outgoing leader of the "peace camp" roams the world speaking of Arafat's lies, who cares that the same Sharon who promised the Palestinians "painful concessions" approves financing for protecting more than 60 illegal settlement outposts. Yossi Sarid drew an interesting comparison last week, asking outgoing Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz if, as an "apolitical chief of staff," he would recommend to the police to deploy forces to protect illegal gambling parlors and brothels.
The violence, the occupation, the suffering and the expulsions are a spreading cancer in the public discourse. So what if the head of the authority (whose comments were widely published in the Palestinian press) said that he supports the anti-suicide bombing advertisement taken out by Palestinian intellectuals. Even if Arafat were to sing "Hatikva," in the best case they'd say he wasn't relevant, and in the worst that he's off-key. The obsession with his credibility frees the government of Israel - and the U.S. - from the need to make courageous decisions.
It's easier to dismiss Arafat's statement with "Do you really believe that liar?" than to remember that the government of Israel, while never rejecting the Clinton framework, never accepted it either. It's much easier to dismiss Arafat's statement with "Now he remembers to say something?!" than to reach page 366 of Gilad Sher's book "Within Reach." Barak's chief of staff quotes his boss on the Clinton framework from a cabinet meeting on December 27: "I do not intend to sign a document that will transfer sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians." Sher writes on page 361 that "Clinton proposed the Haram al-Sharif - the plaza and the mosques - be under Palestinian sovereignty."
Clinton's own lying ("I never had sexual relations with that woman") did not harm the credibility of his own accounts about Camp David. The fact that Sharon was found in court to have not told the truth to Menachem Begin on the way to a war that cost hundreds of lives, did not get in the way of him becoming prime minister. It's very possible that Arafat is fooling the entire world and that the interview in the Muqata was only meant to squirm out of expulsion. But what if hidden in it is a shred of a chance to end the cycle of bloodshed, for a two-state deal and a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem that keeps them out of the state of Israel?
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