Corridors of Power / Assessing Arafat

Last week, Major General Amos Gilad gave a talk at the Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI) in Jerusalem in which he offered his take on Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority leader's intentions.

Last week, Major General Amos Gilad gave a talk at the Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI) in Jerusalem in which he offered his take on Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority leader's intentions.

While Gilad has said similar things on numerous occasions, both in public and in private, the way he delineated the situation this time made it clear that this issue ought to be at the center of the election campaign. Based on his long acquaintance with Arafat (Gilad was, among other things, the head of the research division in military intelligence and is currently Coordinator of Government Activity in the West Bank and Gaza), he asserted that it will never be possible to make peace with him.

Gilad believes that Arafat will not be satisfied with a two-state solution and that his true aim is "Greater Palestine" - a Palestinian state extending from the desert to the sea that would include Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and even Jordan. According to Gilad, Arafat has not abandoned this vision despite his surprise at Israel's resilience in the face of the ongoing terror attacks.

Arafat was betting that the terror campaign he methodically prepared under the cover of the Oslo accords would erode Israel's bargaining ability and enable the Palestinians to dictate the terms of a final agreement. While he has been disillusioned in that regard, he still feels that he can defeat Israel by means of the Palestinians' demographic advantage, which will continue to eat away at the fabric of Israeli existence. This is why he has remained so insistent about the right of return.

Gilad says that at the Taba talks, the Palestinians were surprised by Israel's willingness to discuss, in principle, the refugees' return.

Gilad concluded by saying that while he doesn't know what kind of positions Arafat's successors will take, he knows for certain that peace cannot be achieved as long as Arafat is the Palestinian leader.

Gilad's assessment (which is shared by others in military intelligence) underlied the approach taken by the general staff in the past few years: It dictated former Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz's stance versus the PA and is key to the outlook of the current general staff. Of course, it also had a decisive influence on the approach taken by both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Barak wanted to expose Arafat's true position and, by so doing, enhance Israeli understanding of the nature of the conflict. Sharon acts as if Barak's bitter experience only reinforces his known opinion of Arafat.

Both of them, and Barak's predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, managed the affairs of state in the past six years with the learned and professional opinion of Amos Gilad well in mind.

If the current election campaign really hinged on the existential issue of the future of the State of Israel in light of the conflict with the Palestinians, Gilad's view would have been at the center of the political discourse.

But the competition for the voter's hearts and minds is being waged not by politicians or ideologues, but by "strategic advisers," publicists and advertisers. And the latter bunch is causing this crucial debate to get drowned out by the din of corruption scandals, genuine and otherwise.

Lior Horev, a central figure in Sharon's campaign, has gone public with a complaint about alleged police scheming, unhesitatingly situating the Likud as a party doing battle with the law enforcement authorities (some Likud officials have been quoted as saying that the state is witness to "a conspiracy of the `rule of law' gang against the Likud").

Meanwhile, Labor has been accusing Sharon of Mafioso-like behavior without providing any decisive evidence of this.

In all the cacophony emanating from this election contest, the voter can hardly think straight.

Major General Gilad's insights ought to be a basis for the debate in which the outlooks of the right and left diverge. The right's conclusion is that Arafat's vision provides full justification for the view that says maintaining control of all the territories will serve as the main guarantee of the state's continued existence.

The left's conclusion is that separation from the West Bank and Gaza Strip is the formula for ensuring Israel's future; otherwise, it will either become an apartheid state or lose its Zionist identity.

The need to choose between these two paths grows more urgent by the day, but in the ten days left before the election, Israeli voters will not be given a decent opportunity to weigh the two possibilities. The parties will continue to distract the public from the main issue with all this extraneous clamor that dulls the senses and induces voter apathy or even despair.