TOPICS > Politics

Arafat and Sharon: Old Enemies

April 2, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now the Middle East. It has come down to a violent squaring off between two old enemies: Israel’s Ariel Sharon and the Palestinians’ Yasser Arafat.

We turn to two former journalists who have written extensively about Sharon and Arafat. John Wallach is the co-author of a biography of Arafat. He is the founder and president of Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings together Arab and Israeli teenagers, as well those from other warring nations. David Makovsky is a former diplomatic correspondent and executive editor of The Jerusalem Post, author of a book about the peace process; he is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

John Wallach, how would you describe the animosity between these two men — Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat?

JOHN WALLACH: Well, very deep. I mean, it goes back even before Beirut the summer of 1982, when Israeli forces surrounded Arafat, laid siege to 14,000 Palestinians in a 14 square mile area and according to Sharon had an opportunity to assassinate him but never took advantage of it.

Arafat I think thrives on the fact that — on adversity. The first time my wife and I interviewed him — this was back 10 years ago — he was watching a “Tom and Jerry Cartoon.” And basically he obviously identifies with Jerry, the mouse, against the tomcat, and the tomcat has been alternatively Israel and the United States.

But clearly this is a man who has felt by using unconventional methods simply to survive, he can win. He declared victory in Beirut simply by escaping the net of the Israeli forces that were pounding him with artillery and with fire from the air.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the personal thing between him and Sharon?

JOHN WALLACH: Well, you know, as far as I know they have only met once; that was at the Wye Plantation some years ago.

Sharon refused to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand. They haven’t had much to do with the other personally but they are each the embodiment of what the other hates.

After all, Arafat is the embodiment of Palestinian nationalism. Sharon is the embodiment of Jewish nationalism. Sharon, as far as we know, still covets the West Bank of Judea and Samaria. He has not made clear unequivocally that he is prepared for that to become a Palestinian state, and he still believes that the settlements need to remain where they are.

These are the very things that have fueled the Palestinian uprising — not only the recent one the last 18 months but previous… and you know, Sharon has a long track record having opposed the Camp David Accords in 1978 and having championed the first settlements that were established in the West Bank.

JIM LEHRER: David Makovsky, how would you describe the relationship particularly has how Sharon views Arafat?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I would say there’s a long history. I agree with John on that. And I would put it a little bit differently, and specifically I think for Sharon, Arafat is the embodiment of classic Arab rejectionism.

Ever since he formed the Fatah Party in 1964 everything that Sharon has seen about Arafat it’s not about nationalism coexisting side by side with the Jewish state, but really instead of it, as Sharon sees that.

And he feels that nothing has really changed in 38 years — that if it’s no reconciliation, if it’s no accepting of any sort of historic claims, that Jews have of talking about reconciliation, of seeing– of going on state-sponsored TV and talking about martyrdom and praising young suicide bombers, then nothing has changed in those 38 years and that it’s one direct line.

So, I think for Sharon it’s not an obsession like an old grudge match because the bombs aren’t going off in his head, but they are going off in the streets of Israel.

And, therefore, he would argue that he has said publicly he will accept the Palestinian state, but in his mind, it’s got to be with people who want to live side by side with Israel and he thinks what he did on the White House lawn with Clinton and Rabin in 1993 and if he does interviews on CNN, well, this is just a sham, it’s ruse, it’s a way of getting his foot in the door, and his actions in Arabic speak louder than any interviews in English.

JIM LEHRER: Well, David, what about those who say that as long as those two men are the central figures, the possibilities for bringing a solution here are diminished considerably because of these two men. Do you agree with that?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yeah, I do actually. I think that frankly these two people cannot bring peace together. The best hope is that they could make peace possible for their successors.

And I fear on a certain level if we don’t capture the essence of what these two men have to offer, even on a limited basis, they will tie the hands of their successors and I would like to just give a couple of quick examples.


DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think in the case of Arafat if you’re going have some arrangements in Jerusalem and sharing of holy places, you cannot do it — as Arafat says there never was a Jewish temple, it never existed, there was never really a Jewish history in the land, then his successor is going to say, well, Arafat is our George Washington; if he didn’t agree to this, how can you expect me to agree to it?

You need a peace strategy that gets Arafat at least to admit that peace means legitimacy. That it isn’t about a colonialist movement and whatever we’re doing, we’re doing it because America is a super power and Israel is stronger, but because there are two legitimate national liberation movements there: one is Palestinian and one is Zionist.

And for Sharon, I think, as the architect of the settlements, I think he has an important message for the Israeli right that he has to say. He owes history like Arafat owes history.

Even though I think they are very different and I don’t see them symmetrical in any way. But I think he owes history to tell the right in Israeli – is there is not going be peace with every settlement. Some of them have to go. I know he thinks that privately. He hasn’t said that publicly.

But, if these two men would take it to at least one level, the next — the successors can take it further. I fear though if neither does it, frankly, this will tie the hands of their successors.

JIM LEHRER: John Wallach, what do you think the chances are of these two men being able to work something out?

JOHN WALLACH: Well, I think there was a chance that existed after Sharon was elected. I remember talking to Arafat shortly after Sharon’s election, and he was actually to a certain degree looking forward to dealing with him.

He did not exclude the possibility, I should say, that Sharon might be able to bring the Israeli public along in a way that Barak had not, Ehud Barak, because he had such minority support. That probably has completely evaporated now because of the conditions under which Arafat has been forced to live.

But, again, I want to come back to the central point here, which is that you have two old enemies, which are fighting with very different means. You have got Sharon fighting a more or less conventional war trying to do what he did in Beirut, which was to surround Arafat, pound him ceaselessly, and force him into exile.

Just today we had the call by Sharon for Arafat to go into exile.

Arafat, meanwhile, is fighting with unconventional weapons. He has very few weapons per se, and what is he fighting with? He’s fighting with his own invincibility, this sense that nothing can destroy me, and the United States is tying the hands for the moment of Sharon in actually being able to go after Arafat.

So Arafat is in my view actually winning. He has got two United Nations resolutions, one of which was authored by the United States, calling for Palestinian statehood. He has been able to use unfortunately terror as well as negotiation to advance his cause. One Israeli is now dying for every three Palestinians. That’s equivalent to 5,000 Americans. That’s the highest ratio that’s ever existed.

There’s paranoia among the Israeli public. So I’m afraid that both sides believe that they are on an inevitable course to wipe out the other, and that there’s very little chance for the two of them to actually negotiate anything.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way, David? Do you see it that pessimistically?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: No. Just when I hear John talk, I remember a Palestine National Council meeting in 1983 — maybe John was there — after the Lebanon defeat, and Arafat after he was exiled from Lebanon, he said we’re winning, we’re winning, you know, revolution till victory.

Sartori, a leading Palestinian moderate, said, after this meeting was being held in Tunisia, he said, with victories like this our next Palestine National Council meeting will be head in Fiji.

So whatever tactical points and PR that might be happening here, this is not helping the peoples of both sides to get to an agreement. And what’s crucial in my view is that Arafat in particular — he’s not just a symbolic figure — as Ari Fleischer at the White House said — he has a cell phone. He could give the orders to his security people and tell them to stop the violence. When he goes on “al-Jazeera,” this is the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater and saying I want to be a martyr for Jerusalem, so this is not an old grudge match; this is something going on day in and day out.

And he could make the difference because the security guys say, all we want is a written order from Arafat or a verbal order, and we’ll do what he says.

So he is indispensable I agree, but the point is, he could be constructive and not to do these tactical ideas — on television.

JIM LEHRER: John Wallach, do you agree with that?

JOHN WALLACH: Well, I agree more or less. I would just disagree with perhaps one point, and that is that I don’t believe Arafat genuinely wants to be a martyr.

If he had a choice between surrendering to the Israelis and being killed by the Israelis, he would certainly choose the latter — being killed, so he would become a martyr.

But this is somebody who remember at Camp David not so long ago when Bill Clinton brought them together said that I can’t sign this agreement because I’ll become a martyr because my own people will kill me — I’ll betray them. So this is not somebody who wants to die, this is somebody who wants to live for another day. And I think that Sharon was offering him a way out today in saying why don’t you go in exile again.

JIM LEHRER: Go ahead, finish. I’m sorry, John.

JOHN WALLACH: That’s it.

JIM LEHRER: I wanted to ask David, how do you read this exile statement today from Sharon? It’s that a serious matter?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: It talks to the mounting frustrations — I believe that you had 124 dead Israelis of these suicide attacks.

And people want to know, you know, will this bring it to an end?

I’m not clear if that will make the difference. And probably like a coach from the sidelines; he will direct the actions from outside the territories. And then said, well, what do you want from me, I’m not even on the ground.

So I don’t know if that will make the differences but it bespeaks Sharon’s frustration with this idea that people are being blown up and everyone is focused on Arafat.

JOHN WALLACH: This is precisely what Arafat wants, David. I mean, this is really playing into his hands.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t think, John, that there’s any chance that Arafat would go willingly into exile?

JOHN WALLACH: I don’t, not unless he were really physically in danger of being killed. I don’t think Sharon wants to let that happen because of pressure from the United States, specifically what Colin Powell said today about we still need Arafat.

JIM LEHRER: David and John quickly, each of you, is there any force, including the United States, that could bring these two men together in such a way?

I mean, they can’t do it on their own clearly. You’ve both made that very clear, and so have the facts on the ground, made that clear. Is there any force that could do it, David?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think the U.S. could play a role, but I think it has got to be clear on what is out of bounds, and that is suicide actions by Arafat’s own Fatah forces. Without that – I mean, we’re not talking Hamas or Islamic Jihad – we’re talking about his own people – without that I don’t see that there’s any chance, but when people have talked about we need a political process — let’s be clear that whatever political avenues have been offered Arafat has turned down.

He said it’s all or nothing, and I think as Bill Clinton said I saw in an interview this week basically there is no grand deal to be done. There might be some interim moves that could be done but that is not what Arafat wants.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask John quickly.

JOHN WALLACH: Very quickly, I think Arafat has always done the right things for the wrong reasons.

And I think there is every possibility now under the pressure that he is under that he would yield to the international demand to stop these suicide bombers, to address his own people in Arabic, call for an end, call for a cease-fire and as he has in the past, acceptance of the Tenet and the Mitchell plan, but somebody has to go in there and implement it, and it’s got to be a high-ranking American mediator; it isn’t going to happen by itself.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.