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Sharon's OK Corral: with the Americans behind him, the Israeli leader thinks he can force Yasser Arafat into permanent exile

28 January 2002

Within the next few weeks, if Ariel Sharon has his way, the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will leave his besieged compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah on a one-way ticket to nowhere.

Mr Arafat is under virtual house arrest. His compound is ringed by Israeli tanks and he hasn't been allowed out since before Christmas. The Sharon dream is that sometime soon, Mr Arafat will decide he can't take it any more, and head off into exile.

After another suicide bombing in Jerusalem yesterday, and with the Americans now piling on the pressure as relentlessly as the Israelis, Yasser Arafat's world is shrinking around him. According to Israeli officials, Mr Sharon is determined that Arafat must go. What the Israeli prime minister is waiting for is a telephone call, perhaps from a third party intermediary - France, maybe, or one of the EU envoys - to float an idea. How would Mr Sharon react, the caller might ask, if Mr Arafat were to seek to leave Ramallah for medical treatment? In Paris, perhaps, where his wife Suha now lives, or Kuwait or Egypt? And Mr Sharon will say yes, on one condition. Mr Arafat won't be coming back.

This, said a well-placed Israeli official the other day, is the OK Corral. Two old men are facing each other down. It's personal, and it goes back a long way. Only one of them can emerge a winner. And Mr Sharon is determined that it will be him. It's 20 years since he first had Mr Arafat in his sights, in Beirut at the start of Israel's disastrous Lebanese engagement. He forced the Palestinian leader into exile - to Tunis, on that occasion - and he intends to do so again.

To Mr Sharon, the Oslo peace process, under which Yasser Arafat was allowed to leave Tunis, set up his headquarters in the West Bank and Gaza and take control of towns like Ramallah, was a terrible mistake. No peace is possible as long as Mr Arafat is around. That's why he must go.

And if he does go, what then? The Sharon plan, as outlined to me this week, is based on the conviction that there are plenty of Palestinian officials who would be prepared to do a deal on Israeli terms. Israel's continuing behind-the-scenes contacts with Palestinian leaders, using, among others, Sharon's own son as an envoy, have led him to believe that senior Palestinian negotiators also see Mr Arafat as an obstacle in the way of an agreement and an end to the violence which has killed more than 1,000 people, the vast majority of them Palestinians, in the past 15 months.

We have no way of knowing if this is simply wishful Israeli thinking or if it is based on a genuine assessment of privately expressed Palestinian sentiments. But the fact that these ideas are now being floated indicates that Israel believes it may be about to win an important victory and finally see the back of a man who to many, in government and among voters, has never been more than an untrustworthy terrorist.

But why should Yasser Arafat, a man who has devoted his entire life to fighting for a Palestinian state, throw in the towel now? The Israelis seem to believe that as an elderly man in indifferent health, he may no longer have the stomach to go on fighting. They believe he is psychologically unable to do a deal, that he has been wheeling and dealing for so long that he can do nothing else. They refuse to accept that he may be holding out because until now - even at Camp David in 2000, when Ehud Barak offered him more than had ever been offered before - he has not been able to negotiate a deal that would be acceptable to the Palestinian people.

But suppose Ariel Sharon's dream is no more than that. Israel has a Plan B, and even a Plan C. Plan B is what the Israelis call "separation" - at its crudest, this means building a fence to separate Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. The problem is that Israeli settlements, dotted all over the Palestinian territories, will need to be fenced off as well, as will their access routes. That means thousands of miles of fences, and thousands of armed guards to patrol them.

Plan C looks even less attractive: reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Tear up the Oslo accords and go back to pre-1993, with Israeli conscripts patrolling every Palestinian town and city. Some Israeli security chiefs are reported to believe they could quickly arrest all known Palestinian activists, lock them up and put an end to the shootings and suicide bombings. Israeli voters are unlikely to be keen, however, as the reason they backed Oslo was that it got their sons and daughters out of Gaza, and they will not want to see Israel re-emerge as a full-scale occupying power.

So Plan A remains the favorite, with Yasser Arafat heading off into the sunset, drummed out of town by the biggest, baddest cowboy. The Americans, say the Israelis, are looking the other way, their attention is elsewhere. They seem to have little or no interest in dealing with Yasser Arafat again. For Ariel Sharon, therefore, now is the time to say a final goodbye to the man he's been battling for more than two decades.

Robin Lustig
Published in the Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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