December 5, 2001
If the assault on his helicopter facilities in Gaza City and the enforced closure of
the sole Palestinian airport were insufficiently clear signals, the Israeli missile
attack on Yassir Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah yesterday made Ariel
Sharon’s intentions evident. Mr Arafat is a virtually stranded figure, both
physically and politically, and his freedom of movement depends entirely on the
charity of the Israeli Prime Minister.
The complex demands of coalition politics in Jerusalem, notably his preference
for retaining the Labour Party in his Cabinet, may mean that Mr Sharon stops
short of ordering the targeted killing of Mr Arafat and does not declare the
peace process to be dead and buried indefinitely. But he would not weep if Mr
Arafat went into exile.
Mr Sharon would be wise to exercise this element of caution. His spokesmen
have said that it is not his policy to kill Mr Arafat, although Israel plainly could if
it so aspired, and he should not abandon that promise. The death of Mr Arafat
would not of itself resolve Israel’s security dilemma and it would,
understandably, be the cause of enormous trouble.
Nor should the Prime Minister announce that negotiations with any
representatives of the Palestinians will be suspended in perpetuity. He should
also strive to hold together a broad coalition – including the Labour Party – lest
he find himself dependent on the votes of small, often extreme and invariably
self-interested political factions. A national unity pact is still in the interests of
The immediate task facing Mr Sharon is to assume command of security within
the West Bank and Gaza Strip as swiftly as he can and with the smallest
possible civilian casualties. It should be possible for Israel to round up the
Hamas and Islamic Jihad high command and encourage the rest to vacate the
In that sense, there is a ‘military solution’ to this crisis. After the terrorist
cells have been disarmed, though, a medium-term strategy is essential. As Mr
Sharon is aware, a return to the state of affairs before the Oslo peace process
began would not be a comfortable option. There are senior Palestinians who
pressed Mr Arafat to accept the peace deal outlined at Camp David 17 months
ago as well as local officials with whom Israel could work.
It will not, however, be possible for such individuals to open a dialogue with
Israel in the immediate aftermath of Mr Arafat’s defeat without being deemed
quislings by their contemporaries. A period of time will have to pass before
overt discussions are possible.
There is a range of measures Israel could undertake to facilitate matters.
Mr Sharon should make it clear that he does not want to take away the
administrative authority enjoyed in the West Bank and Gaza and that, subject to
civil peace, he would be happy to expand that autonomy.
An opportunity will exist for the vast sum of aid which is poured into the
Palestinian Authority to be used on projects likely to broaden prosperity rather
than to line the pockets of Mr Arafat’s factional associates.
The diplomatic backchannels should be kept open. Formal deliberations
between moderate, realistic Palestinians and Mr Sharon are, for both parties,
implausible now, but others in his Cabinet can engage in secret diplomacy in
quiet locations at a distance from the region. The Labour Party is well placed to
conduct such exploratory talks, which is why, among other reasons, it should
not storm out of office.
Although there has been bullish talk in Israel about dividing up the West
Bank into cantons, it would be rash to dispose of the notion of a ‘national
solution’ here forever. The best possible outcome for all concerned would be if
Palestinians, as well as Israelis, come to regard the political emasculation of Mr
Arafat as a blessing in disguise.