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The Psychology of Sharon
by danny
03 August 2003 20:29 UTC
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"Three men in a boat - Sharon, Arafat and Abbas"

Robert Malley and Hussein Agha

As he approaches the twilight of his political career, Israel's prime
minister contemplates his one last remaining task. It is the
fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, one that he several times has
sought and that several times has eluded him: the achievement of
Israel's long-term moral and existential security by eradicating a
unified Palestinian national movement. He feels he is closer than ever
to achieving his goal. The Palestinian polity is beginning to
disintegrate. A generation of Palestinian leaders have been killed or
imprisoned. Step by step, Palestinians will have to begin thinking of
themselves not as Palestinians but as Gazans or West Bankers, Nabulsis
or Hebronites and as insiders or outsiders. This conflict is all about
territory, and Palestinian territory is being carved up; it is about
politics and political representation as well, and local Palestinian
fiefdoms are emerging. A new reality is taking shape. 

Facts on the ground, the world euphemistically calls them:
settlements, bypass roads, access routes and the separation wall.
Together they are carving out isolated Palestinian cantons, creating
an entity that they will be free, if they so want, to designate as a
state. Chaos is the harbinger of triumph. Soon, if the cards are
played meticulously, patiently and well, Sharon's legacy to the future
will be much like the past: a heterogeneous, scattered, divided
Palestinian polity, the undoing of all that has been done for the past
four decades by his nemesis, the Palestine Liberation Organization

The goal is almost reached, but not yet, and two principal obstacles
remain. The first is Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. To Sharon,
Arafat personifies all that he has vowed to suppress: a militant
nationalism opposed to the Zionist project, implacable hostility
toward the state of Israel, violence, terror and, until recently,
legitimacy in the eyes of the world. The second is Mahmoud Abbas.
Arafat aside, Sharon sees the Palestinian prime minister as the Last
Palestinian, the final leader of a unified national movement and the
man potentially capable of holding the national movement together. Abu
Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) is needed to eclipse Arafat, but his ultimate
failure is equally required for Sharon's goal to be fulfilled. Let Abu
Mazen succeed in order to marginalize Arafat, end the armed intifada,
and achieve for Israel a measure of security. But let him succeed only
so far and no further. Let him bring about a more peaceful situation
without benefiting from its potential political returns. For Abu
Mazen's success could bring him strength, and his strength would
revitalize the threat of a unified Palestinian movement that his rise
was meant to thwart. Within those circumscribed political
possibilities, Sharon views Abu Mazen's fate as a win-win proposition:
Should he succeed in ending the military confrontation, the Israeli
prime minister will take the credit; should he fail, the Palestinians
will take the blame. 

Sharon worries that so many of his fellow Israelis misunderstand the
nature of this fight, and consequently they underestimate it. It is
one national movement against another, and the two cannot both survive
intact. For him the Palestinian national movement presents an
existential threat to the state of Israel because it can translate
both demographic growth and violent confrontation into longer-term
political weapons. The 1948 war of independence goes on, with this its
final battle, the one that will seal the fate of Israel for
generations to come. He is sure he knows the Palestinians: knows how
they think; knows how they operate because, in a way, they are his
mirror image, doing what he is doing and has been doing all his life.
In this, at least, they share the vision of a brutal combat between
two national movements of which only one can emerge unified and

He has little confidence in those who surround or would succeed him.
The next generation of Israelis, impatient, weak, spoiled, hedonistic
and restless, doesn't have what it takes yet to prevail in this
struggle, may not ever have it. He does.   And how well his plan seems
to be working. Next to him, he figures, previous Israeli prime
ministers look like amateurs, resisting US and domestic pressures when
accommodation was in order, giving in when adaptation was at hand, too
rigid and too flexible at the same time. Once branded both an Israeli
and an international pariah for his history, his actions in Lebanon
and his role in the massacres committed in the refugee camps of Sabra
and Shatila, he is now viewed as belonging to the mainstream of
Israeli politics. The world might object to his resort to brutal
military tactics, to extra-judicial killings, with scores of civilian
casualties. Still, he is accepted and respected, neither boycotted nor
shunned. For all the sympathy of many for Palestinians, it is Arafat
they are being pressed to break with, not him. He is not the
aggressor; he is Israel's protector in the international war against

At home, he enjoys a political security unprecedented in recent
Israeli history. With a third of the Israeli Parliament's members at
his side, he governs at the head of a right-wing coalition. Undermined
by the intifada and the collapse of the peace process, lacking both
message and messenger, the left can do little more than wait on the
sidelines, voiceless, leaderless, divided and adrift. The only vocal
opposition comes from the right, which suits him more than it
threatens. To Americans pushing for greater concessions, he can point
to the right's strident protests against those he already has made,
evidence of both his political courage and the political constraints
on his policies. To the right he can point to the ever-beckoning left,
who, at a moment's notice, would likely come to his rescue to form an
alternative governing coalition. 

Sharon promised peace and security. He has brought neither, and still
the Israeli public, convinced of the lack of a credible alternative,
gives him broad support. He has outmaneuvered opponents left and
right, cutting them down to size. Age alone can stop him now. 

Further afield, the regional and international landscape has been
changed in ways gratifying to him. Former Iraqi dictator Saddam
Hussein's regime has been toppled. Syria's leaders appear more
concerned with survival than with confrontation. Iran too is feeling
pressure from the US. Peace treaties with Cairo and Amman have
survived waves of Israeli military attacks against the Palestinians,
heavy civilian casualties, the end of Oslo and Arafat's confinement.
This is no time to worry about a regional military threat to Israel. 

The crowning achievement is his relationship with the US and with
President George W. Bush in particular. Some feared (or hoped) that
Sharon's handling of his relations with the Bush administration would
be his undoing; it has proved to be his strength. In the past he had
needlessly alienated and provoked his US ally. He sees the US better
now. He can pursue his main longer-term objectives while accommodating
Bush's needs. From former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir he has
learned the two core principles of his policy: hit the Arabs (here,
the Palestinians) hard and keep the Americans happy. 

Around him, some of his more ideological and rigid partners worry
openly about the implementation of the US-sponsored "road map" for
peace and the prospect of a Palestinian state. How shortsighted their
view, how devoid of imagination. It is not outright annexation of the
Palestinians that ought to be the goal, or their impoverishment.
Sharon sees all too well the risks inherent in both. Palestinians are
not the enemy; Palestinian nationalism is. In the longer run,
annexation will mean either apartheid or the end of the Jewish
character of the state. The continued impoverishment of Palestinians
will mean constant resentment and potential violence. A
mini-Palestinian state - defined as he, Sharon, would define it,
limited as he would limit it, hardly a sovereign state and barely
viable and without links to the outside world - is a gift to Israel,
not to the Palestinians. It is a ready-made answer to Israel's
dilemmas, resolving its demographic problem, maintaining its security,
thwarting the reemergence of a national Palestinian movement and,
above all, turning an emotional national struggle into a routine
border dispute. This is why statehood, for which the Palestinians have
fought for so long and Israel has resisted so fiercely, ironically has
now become an Israeli interest and a Palestinian fear. 

Sharon has evoked a long-term interim arrangement with the
Palestinians; the road map talks of a Palestinian state with
provisional borders that should be the prelude to a final agreement.
One way - the wrong way - would be to simply resist the road map. In
Sharon's world, the better way is to mold the provisional borders into
a long-term interim arrangement, always preserving Israel's mastery -
by dragging the process out, forever postponing the prospect of a
final deal, and by continuing to build settlements, only this time
under the cover of a recognized Palestinian state. 

Not that all before him is clear or smooth. There are potential deep
problems ahead. Sharon came into office without being particularly
sensitive to the state of the economy; but he has come to see that
others in the country are, and that the continuing lack of security
and political deadlock with the Palestinians are taking their toll.
With the Iraq war over, adjustments have to be made; some form of
political deal will have to be pursued. He knows too that Israeli
public opinion is fickle, susceptible to short-term pain and
short-lived hopes; he has both suffered and benefited from these in
the past. 

Sharon has come to know the US president as well as he could, but to
him, as to most others, Bush remains something of a mystery,
inattentive to detail, yet taken with grandiose ideas and stubborn in
pursuing their realization. Such spurts of zeal are jarring to the
deliberate, focused, painstaking Israeli leader. He may one day face
unexpected pressure from Washington of a type and with an aim that he
is unsure of. Tactics will have to be used to take care of that, and
what tactics cannot accomplish will have to be done through the
passage of time. Sharon can procrastinate and, if it is truly needed -
but only if it is truly needed - make use of the assets he enjoys in
domestic US opinion so as to keep the president from demanding too

He has stocked up in anticipation of such uncertainties. Over the last
two-and-a-half years, he has accumulated a heavy load of tangible
political assets. Some were meant to be held on to. Others were meant
to be spent. There are Palestinian prisoners taken only to be
released, territory that Israel occupied with an eye to later
withdrawals, settlements - such as the barely inhabited outposts
recently dismantled - that are established only to be subsequently
removed. He has agreed to political plans, calculating that they are
not likely to be carried out. Such moves have been made at a cost, but
that cost is part of the game of putting the ball back in the
Palestinians' court, gaining time, all the while protecting the
supremacy he really cares about. 

Yielding what you previously took brings you to where you once were,
but a new precedent has been set with the taking; accolades for the
apparent concessions come from abroad and, at home, the catcalls that
come from the Right are few and bearable. The first time the Israeli
Army entered Gaza, there was a US outcry and troops were rapidly
withdrawn. By now, some two years later, it is the price of withdrawal
rather than the principle of entry that is being negotiated. It takes
patience and flexibility, a mastery of time and a solid understanding
of what counts and what does not. Sharon trusts that he has more of
each than anyone else. 

Some lament that Sharon has not changed. Others protest that he has
changed too much. How odd, pointless, and tiresome this debate must
sound to him. Long experience of highs and lows has taught him an
indelible lesson: that nothing protects one from change so much as
change itself. Politics is an affair of constant fine-tuning, a
careful weighing of Israeli public opinion, economic realities and the
interests of the US, with its sudden and limited attention span.
Constraints are just obstacles that one must bypass in order to better
reach one's true objective. The map of a mini-Palestinian state that
he proudly claims he accepts today, surrounded and perforated by
Israeli territory, is the same one he has had in his pocket for the
past 20 years. If calling it a state is the price to be paid, so be
it. It is one he has come to accept willingly long before so many
others on his right as well as on his left. Some might panic and some
might sweat. Not he - his eyes are continually set on the ultimate
goal, as he coolly, stubbornly and implacably heads toward it. 

Originally published in The Daily Star <http://www.dailystar.com.lb> ,
Lebanon, July 26th, 2003

Robert Malley is Middle East program director at the International
Crisis Group was special assistant to President Bill Clinton for
Arab-Israeli affairs. Hussein Agha is a political analyst and author
in London and was an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team at
the Madrid peace talks in 1991. 

A selection of the best news, articles, and resources that people of
good conscience need to avert the crisis facing the world.

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