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Opinion | ISRAEL

Sharon's Shameful Analogy

November 04, 2001|HILLEL SCHENKER | Hillel Schencker is a Tel Aviv journalist

TEL AVIV — "Twins" was the caption on a placard bearing photos of Yasser Arafat and Osama bin Laden at a recent right-wing demonstration in Jerusalem.

It is a message Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has also tried to broadcast. Since Sept. 11, Sharon and many on the Israeli right have been eager to convince the world that, as Sharon put it, "Arafat is our Osama bin Laden." In the same vein of logic, they've also suggested that Arafat's Palestinian Authority is analogous to Bin Laden's Al Qaeda.

Such reasoning is deeply flawed, and, not surprisingly, it hasn't resonated very well with Washington or with the rest of the world. The trouble is that Palestinian Authority head Arafat, determined not to repeat the mistake he made during the Persian Gulf War when he allowed Palestinian grass-roots' frustrations to push him into supporting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, has unequivocally and repeatedly condemned the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. He has expressed sympathy for the American victims and distanced himself from anti-American fundamentalism. He even gave blood during a much-ballyhooed Palestinian blood drive for American victims of the attacks.

Recently, having failed to convince the world that the Palestinian Authority was just like Al Qaeda, Sharon has floated another analogy: that the Palestinian Authority is the equivalent of the Taliban, in that both regimes harbor terrorists. But this argument, unveiled following the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, is also flawed. Unlike the Taliban, which has still not condemned the attacks of Sept. 11, Palestinian Authority leaders immediately spoke out against Zeevi's assassination, which was carried out by members of the small opposition Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to avenge the assassination of their leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, two months earlier. The PFLP opposes the 1993 Oslo accords and the Palestinian Authority's readiness to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel.

As much as Sharon would like it to be so, Arafat does not equal Bin Laden or even Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. On the contrary, Arafat and his contemporaries in the mainstream Palestinian leadership probably offer the last chance for this generation of Israelis to arrive at a pragmatic solution to the conflict.

Arafat is unquestionably a flawed leader (not that Israeli leaders are paragons of perfection). He should have responded more favorably to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer at Camp David last summer, even if it was inadequate from the Palestinian perspective. He should have jumped at the guidelines for an agreement set forth by then-President Clinton last December. And he could and should do more to control Palestinian street violence.

The Israelis would prefer a Palestinian leader who possesses the combined qualities of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. We would like the Palestinians to take a Ghandhian, non-violent approach in their protests. But this is the Middle East, and things have a way of escalating here.

What we must keep in mind is this: Despite everything that has happened during the past year, this generation of Palestinian leaders remains committed to a negotiated political solution based on a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, alongside the state of Israel. And they have all participated in peace-oriented dialogues with Israelis.

Back in l974, PLO Chairman Arafat authorized two of his representatives, Said Hammami in London and Issam Sartawi in Paris, to begin a dialogue with Israeli Zionists. The thanks Hammami and Sartawi got for participating in these dialogues was assassination by rejectionist Palestinian extremists. The talks continued, though, despite the violence and eventually produced a generation of Palestinian leaders who believe in the bargaining table, even if agreements have been elusive.

Arafat himself, and some of his colleagues in exile, like his current deputy Abu Mazen, were direct participants in these dialogues. Other Palestinians who participated included local West Bank and Gaza leaders such as the late Faisal Husseini, Saeb Erekat and Ziad Abu Zayyad, all members of the Palestinian Authority government, and Dr. Nabil Shaath, who essentially serves as its foreign minister.

In l989, 25 Palestinians from the current leadership met 25 Israelis at a "Road to Peace" Columbia University conference co-organized by the Israeli monthly New Outlook and the Palestinian daily Al-Fajr. The keynote Palestinian speaker, Dr. Shaath, reported back to Arafat after the conference that, "I now believe we have mainstream Israeli partners for a fair agreement."

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