Sharon and Arafat's Common Danger

Ever since the outbreak of the intifada, they've been telling us our disaster begins and ends with one rascal - Yasser Arafat. They said that if only we make him irrelevant, the terror will end, the IDF will be able to leave the territories en masse, and the tourists will return, also en masse. That thesis became a cornerstone of argument for the politicians, military officers, diplomats, and people in the street.

Doves agreed with hawks that "first we have to get rid of Arafat." Even Israel's critics in European capitals were persuaded that as long as Arafat is running things, there's no point pressuring Israel. In the year since last Passover, Arafat's relevance has shrunk - and the terror has not ceased. He is locked up in a room in the Muqata, and his stature and control over the military and civil has been eroded. And the terror continues. That is the reason for the opinion that says if Arafat leaves the arena - the terror will continue the day after.

If the violence continues after Abu Mazen takes over the steering wheel, it will be inconvertible proof that something was wrong with the road, and not the driver. Who will Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon and Government Coordinator in the Territories Amos Gilad blame - the same Abu Mazen they so eagerly wanted? Or perhaps they'll ask the government to declare him "irrelevant?" And who will they propose in his stead? Will they have the courage to recommend that American generals and peace-loving Palestinian exiles be brought in to work out a deal between the rising generation of the Hamas and the Hilltop Youth?

The failure of new leadership in Ramallah will put the "only Arafat is to blame" concept on the gallows of public opinion, alongside the concept that led to the disaster of the Yom Kippur War. The ramifications of the concept "let the IDF win" cries out to the top command of the IDF from the pages of the cut defense budget. Nobody understands better than those officers the significance of freezing major development projects to pay for the guards on the illegal outposts.

As far as the working defense chiefs are concerned, Abu Mazen's success would rescue their "only Arafat is to blame" thesis. They are constantly asking the politicians to equip Abu Mazen with the means to make him more relevant. There are steps that could be taken to help consolidate support for the Palestinian leader. These can be done discreetly and modestly, and at a very low security and political cost, and without endangering Abu Mazen by enveloping him in a bear hug. Such steps could include transferring funds through him to pay for civilian services, turning him into an address for dealing with day to day problems, easing restrictions on traveling to peace meetings, and other similar measures.

All of that can be done and should be done, today, to strengthen Abu Mazen while he struggles with Arafat over the composition of the government and its powers. But all the requests for such steps come to a halt at the same place - at the prime minister's door. Sharon is impatient with any of his aides and advisors who try to persuade him that to get rid of Arafat, Abu Mazen needs to have the goods. He refuses to hand over even a set of used worry beads before Abu Mazen proves he can "fight terror."

The prime minister told Ari Shavit in these pages yesterday that "our presence in Jenin and Nablus is temporary and meant to protect Israeli citizens from terror." Sharon knows the Palestinians didn't send Abu Mazen to the prime minister's office in Ramallah to protect Israeli civilians with empty hands.

Is it possible Sharon prefers an Arafat irrelevant to the war on terror over an Abu Mazen who is relevant to giving up Beit El? A hint of the answer to that riddle can be found in the panic in the Prime Minister's Office over the possibility that President Bush would publish the road map. The map says that after the election of a new Palestinian leadership, Israel will withdraw to the September 2000 lines and immediately dismantle all the outposts set up since March 2001.