He's Climbed Up the Tree Again

Less than 24 hours went by after Ariel Sharon was forced to relinquish his intention of destroying Yasser Arafat's status before he came up with a new plan to achieve the same end.

Less than 24 hours went by after Ariel Sharon was forced to relinquish his intention of destroying Yasser Arafat's status before he came up with a new plan to achieve the same end. Ahead of Sharon's meeting with President Bush on Tuesday, the Prime Minister's Office has announced that he plans to make Israel's agreement to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians conditional upon the negation of Arafat's influence. Statements made during government and security cabinet meetings last week make clear that Sharon continues to believe that Arafat cannot be a partner to any diplomatic agreement.

In retrospect, there is little doubt that Sharon's insistence on isolating Arafat in his Ramallah compound mired Operation Defensive Shield in complications, and damaged Israel's international status. The siege on Arafat attracted attention all over the globe; it stirred shock waves in Egypt, Jordan and other Arab states; and it sanctified Arafat's image in the eyes of his Palestinian people.

After Arafat was released from the Ramallah compound and the negative results of the move to incarcerate him there became clear, several cabinet ministers, particularly Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, made haste to divorce themselves from the isolation decision, claiming that they had opposed it from the start. Now the same mistake is reoccurring; and Sharon, and his government colleagues, would be wise to nip the mistake while it is still in the bud.

After Sharon erred (as he puts it) when he promised President Bush that he would not harm Arafat physically, and after his efforts to eliminate Arafat's influence by enforcing the siege also failed, Sharon now wants to cause the international community to ignore Arafat's presence. Sharon designates to Arafat a purely symbolic role in an international peace conference being planned by the "Madrid quartet;" substantive negotiations, on Sharon's plan, are to be conducted by the "new generation" of Palestinian leaders.

Reports leaked this weekend by persons close to Sharon indicate that the prime minister wants the transition from a violent conflict to diplomatic talks to be conditional upon the adoption of major changes in the Palestinian Authority's structure, and in governmental procedures followed by the PA. In Sharon's updated view, the PA should undertake comprehensive reforms leading to democratization, accountability in terms of the use of funds allocated to it, and the consolidation of its security forces. Without such changes, there's no chance of reaching an Israel-Palestinian agreement, Sharon believes.

New conditions set out by the prime minister have a convincing ring. Views held by Minister Natan Sharansky echo in Sharon's demands - for years, Housing and Construction Minister Sharansky has claimed that no credible agreement can be reached with the Palestinians so long as they are ruled by a tyrant.

Unfortunately, the new Israeli position is a fantasy: there is little chance that of all Arab nations, the Palestinian community will adopt democratic processes. Such a scenario of democratization is particularly unlikely to unfold within a few months as a result of external pressure.

Sharon's demand appears to be a new ploy that cloaks a hidden goal - to avoid painful decisions regarding the future of the territories. In addition, the prime minister's new position appears to continue an obsessive hunt after Arafat. The gist of the new demand is to eliminate the Palestinian leader's influence, and turn him into a stuffed animal.

Before Sharon becomes irreversibly committed to his new position, he would do well to consider his steps. He has no chance of succeeding with this new initiative. Factors which have thwarted his past efforts to remove Arafat from the stage will be in play this time as well. Moreover, much as the situation galls Sharon and strikes him as being unjust, for many in the world Israel's prime minister is the mirror image of the Palestinian leader. He, too, is considered a likely candidate to stand trial for war crimes; he, too, is viewed as a leader who holds extremist views; and he, too, is not considered an acceptable partner for dialogue.