Stronger Than Sharon

Israel's major failure is not in the way it is conducting its struggle against Arafat the man, but in the way it copes with Arafat the symbol.

On the Israeli balance sheet covering the four years of the intifada, efforts to isolate Yasser Arafat must be listed in the column of failures. Israel has invested a lot of energy in the personal struggle against the Palestinian leader, but the result is quite meager. Even from his imprisonment in the Muqata, Arafat is the supreme Palestinian adjudicator. Those who have tried to rebel against him or express too much independence have lost their positions or been compelled to atone for their sins in an obsequious journey to Ramallah, as happened with Mohammed Dahlan. Arafat's political situation is better than Ariel Sharon's position in the Likud.

The governments of Sharon and Ehud Barak managed to convince the Israeli public, and large parts of the international community, that Arafat is not a partner, but a problematic leader, liar and source of trouble. Keeping away from Arafat is such a big issue that even Yossi Beilin, who recognizes Arafat's legitimacy and the necessity of negotiations and agreements, recommends speaking to him via envoys.

The "policy of isolation" has gone through several transformations. It was born when Sharon unsheathed it after Rehavam Ze'evi's 2001 assassination. Afterward, it was described as a compromise between those who wanted to expel or assassinate Arafat and those who wanted to negotiate with him.

In 2003 the government promised that weakening Arafat and pushing him in a corner would bring about "alternative leadership." Now the government is trying to completely ignore the Palestinian leadership. "We have completely dried out Abu Ala," said a senior Israeli official proudly, using the nickname of Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

To German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who asked in Jerusalem this week what will happen after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, government officials responded: "We don't care, that's their problem." Fischer replied, "You know that it will end in disaster."

From Sharon's perspective, the advantage of the current situation is that as long as Arafat is in power, Israel is exempt from holding negotiations and can act as it wants. Both candidates in the upcoming U.S. presidential election have promised to ostracize Arafat, and even the Europeans have stopped calling for his release. Sharon is indicating to aides of Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry that returning Arafat to power is likely to prevent a withdrawal from Gaza.

But what comes out of all this? Israel's major failure is not in the way it is conducting its struggle against Arafat the man, but in the way it copes with Arafat the symbol. The heavy Israeli pressure over the last four years of fighting, backed by generous American support, has not moved the Palestinians a millimeter from the positions they put forth at Camp David and at Taba. Even Sharon's major diplomatic achievement, U.S. President George W. Bush's April letter, doesn't deviate from the proposal espoused by his predecessor Bill Clinton: annexing the settlement blocs with an agreement, and Israeli veto power over Palestinian refugees' return to Israel. Arafat stuck to his positions, with increasing support from the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, and Sharon was compelled to propose unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank and to move the separation fence closer to the Green Line.

Sharon's mistake was that isolating Arafat appeared from the beginning to be an angry reaction to terror, and not a considered process from which a diplomatic price could be extracted (even though U.S. officials discussed detailed scenarios for Arafat's future).

Now there is no way out. Calling for Arafat to be released from the Muqata is political suicide in Israel. Even the suggestion that Palestinian police carry pistols was subject to political pressure from the right. No one will call for the revival of the symbol of the hated Oslo Accords. Sharon is in danger of losing his seat for far less than that.

The conclusion is that the conflict, which will now be entering its fifth year, is still far from reaching its end. Even if the disengagement plan is implemented, the Palestinians will try to profit from the chaos and destruction in Gaza. Israel might gain short-term praise for dismantling the settlements in Gaza, but will feel compelled to continue occupying the West Bank, despite the heavy moral and international price.