Yasser “The Builder” versus Ariel “The Bulldozer”. Even their nicknames are testimony to a shared lifetime of animosity that has become a microcosm of the passions that have divided Palestinians and Israelis for generations.
From Beirut in 1982 to Ramallah in 2002 and the years beyond, Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon have spent their lives fighting for causes diametrically opposed to each other, their mutually hateful relationship as much a personal, as political contest.
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For Sharon, his problems are clear cut: opposition to his plans for a withdrawal from Gaza from members of his own Likud Party and militant settlers, that could stir up serious civil unrest within Israel itself.
Arafat, meanwhile, faces accusations of corruption and cronyism, resulting in an open challenge to his old guard from a younger generation angry at his failure to achieve anything from an intifada about to enter its fifth dangerous year.
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Sharon’s “disengagement” plan calls for the removal of 8000 Jewish settlers from Gaza, where they live in 21 fortified enclaves among 1.3 million Palestinians, and closing four of the 120 settlements in the West Bank by the end of 2005. But Sharon has also made it clear Israel intends to cement its hold on larger settlements in the West Bank, where most of the 240,000 settler population live – a strategy Palestinians say is aimed at denying them a viable state.
Indeed, barely a day after Sharon faced the rebellious Likud vote, the other side of his so-called bargain was there for all to see, with the announcement of plans to accelerate settlement expansion and build yet another 1000 houses on the West Bank. Not only are these settlements already in breach of international law, but any planned expansion is at odds with whatever is left of the road map for peace.
Sensing Sharon’s dilemma, the Bush administration suddenly and quietly adopted a policy change, signalling approval of growth in some Israeli settlements. Yesterday’s New York Times quoted unnamed officials as saying the administration now supported construction of new homes in some settlements as long as the expansion does not extend into undeveloped parts of the occupied territories. Until now the US position has been that all settlement activity should be frozen.
The paper quoted a Bush administration official as saying Washington had decided “not to compound Sharon’s political troubles at a time when he was battling hardliners”.
But in the Gaza settlements due for removal, Sharon – once considered the godfather of settlement expansion – has more enemies than allies. Hardline settlers say they are preparing a fully fledged rebellion against the pullout. In Israel itself, security forces are on high alert – for once not simply because of a Palestinian terrorist threat, but in response to threats by Jewish extremists to assassinate political and security officials. The mood evokes memories of the hate-filled atmosphere that preceded the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
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As if this wasn’t bad enough, pressure is mounting from Palestinian communities at large for a return to the principles of the first intifada – mass civil disobedience, locally orchestrated – to wrest the initiative from Arafat, his cronies, and indeed the militants who want to take over from him. This, say activists, would return the intifada to its true role as a people’s uprising, bringing back global attention and support.
“There is nobody immune from mistakes, starting from me on down. Even prophets committed mistakes,” said a confident-looking Arafat at his West Bank compound last week. It was a rare acknowledgment, the first such admission since internal unrest blew up last month in the greatest challenge to his authority since he returned from exile a decade ago.
But like his old foe Sharon, Arafat didn’t remain cowed for long. Only a day after his comments, the Palestinian parliament postponed a session in protest against what one lawmaker called Arafat’s “stalling” over the signing of a package of anti-corruption reforms.
Near-legendary political survivors as they are, crunch days lie ahead for both The Builder and The Bulldozer alike.
Both of them have been too close and too powerful for too long. We need another like Rabin in Israel, and the Palestinians have to kill Arafat.