Sharon vs. Arafat:

This nation has no permanent allies, only permanent interests.
-Lord Palmerston

Like the sound of car horns in a Manhattan street, daily accounts of atrocities in the Middle East, at this point in time, barely arouse one’s interest. Recent reports that Yasir Arafat has shown himself to be an untrustworthy participant in the peace process have assumed the plausibility that attaches to any claim that is repeated often enough, whether or not it is true. But the facts show that it is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who stands in the way of peace.

The Real Obstacle
Ariel Sharon is anything but a peacemaker. His long military and political career demonstrates one aim: the permanent destruction of the Palestinian dream of an independent homeland. In a recent fit of candor, quickly recanted, he mused that he should have killed Arafat in Lebanon 20 years ago–hardly words of peace, and unconscionable coming from the head of a government.

After orchestrating Israel’s disastrous and bloody invasion of Lebanon, his career was interrupted in 1983 when an Israeli tribunal found him complicit in the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Lebanese refugee camps, but Menachem Begin (himself a former terrorist in the extremist Irgun fighting the British in the 1940s) allowed Sharon to stay on in his cabinet.

He returned to prominence during the malaise following the collapse of Clinton’s Camp David talks in a stage-managed appearance on the disputed Temple Mount, an act of provocation that won him political points but at the price of setting off a new intifada. Coming at a sensitive point, his appearance allowed him to derail the peace process and topple the more dovish administration of Ehud Barak.

Sharon’s Agenda
Sharon has consistently opposed the return of occupied territory to Arab sovereignty, and was the architect of Israel’s settlement program. He is also a warmonger. For Sharon, the threat from the Palestinian uprising justifies outrageous and criminal acts of Israeli aggression: extra-judicial assassinations, attacks on refugee camps, reprisals using tanks and fighter jets. He has pursued a policy of provocation, pointing to the violence that predictably ensues to validate his claims that Israel is entitled to use whatever means necessary to ensure its security. As his country’s ultimate strongman, continued insecurity is, needless to say, in his political interest.

By continuing and accelerating the settlement program in the territories that Israel conquered by force and occupies illegally, he hopes to outrun the peace process, making the Israeli presence on the Palestinians’ land permanent and irrevocable.

The final element in his strategy is the elimination of Arafat, if not by murder then by marginalization. Sharon simultaneously accuses Arafat of failing to suppress the violence committed by Palestinian extremists and hems him in with tanks, rendering him powerless. With Arafat out of the way, Sharon’s goal would be to negotiate with local leaders and contain the Palestinians within a Bantustan-like regime, under perpetual Israeli domination.

A Perilous Alliance
By unquestioningly supporting Sharon’s policies, America is complicit in brutal oppression and injustice. This should be enough to provoke outrage and a radical change in policy. But the current conduct of US Middle Eastern policy is worse than a crime; it is a mistake.
The truth is that the alliance–without which Israel can do precious little–is a gift to America’s opponents, and outrage at the travails of the Palestinians provides a rallying cry and a pretext for anti-American action. As long as the Israeli tail wags the American dog, US interests are jeopardized by the radicalization of Arab sentiment, fomenting the very movements that the US military and intelligence services are being pressed into action to quell and subjecting US citizens to the menace of terrorist action. Further, allegiance to Israel forces the US into bed with brutal and oppressive regimes in the Arab world–chief among them Saudi Arabia–for fear that truly representative democracy will translate latent resentment into the formation of radical Islamic states, endangering American strategic interests (read: oil).

The Way Forward
Through blind support of its traditional ally, the US is frustrating its single most important foreign policy imperative: the eradication of Islamic extremism. American policymakers should recognize that an opponent is neutralized most effectively by destroying both its capacity to act and motives for doing so. Using even a portion of the leverage that the US enjoys over Israel to push for a just peace would back up the military and intelligence efforts underway right now and radically alter the map of loyalties in the Middle East.

It would be a grave mistake for America to marginalize Arafat even further. The Bush administration must force the Israeli leadership back to the negotiating table and take an active role in brokering a just settlement to the Palestinian question. By tilting away from one-sided support of Israel, the US stands to gain increased support and cooperation among populations and regimes that have a tremendous “nuisance value” to America’s strategic interest. That such a course of action would also be just and almost costless is only icing on the cake.