Sharon and Arafat: Time for Both to Go?

Are the region’s leaders — Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat — personally committed to ending violence?

April 9, 2002

Are the region's leaders — Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat — personally committed to ending violence?

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat both know that violence and bloodshed are bad for their respective peoples. So why are they pursuing war over peace? They do so for the same reason that George W. Bush imposed steel tariffs that he, too, knows are bad for the United States — politics.

And make no mistake, while they may be losing international support, Ariel and Yassir are winning their popularity contests at home. But it is not a high approval rating that makes a great leader. It is the ability to do what is best for the country despite all pressure — political or otherwise.

Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Yitzhak Rabin of Israel were great leaders. Both of them paid the ultimate price at the hands of extremists from the ranks of their own people for their efforts to bring peace. Sharon is no Rabin. And Arafat is no Sadat.

No, these two “leaders” are of a different breed. Sharon and Arafat are not statesmen — they are warriors. Sharon even titled his autobiography Warrior. And what name is Arafat going by now? “General” Arafat.

But this warrior mentality is not something that has recently emerged in the psyches of these soldier-politicians. It’s been with them over their entire lives.

Sharon was only 14 when he joined a Jewish defense force that protected farming settlements in the British mandate of Palestine. He fought in nearly every Arab-Israeli war and was one of the principle architects of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon — which lead to the deaths of 2,000 Palestinian refugees outside Beirut.

Arafat has been no angel either. By the age of 17, he was smuggling arms into Palestine to be used against the British and the Jews. As president of the PLO, he launched several attacks on Israel from Jordan and later from Lebanon — where he narrowly escaped the wrath of Sharon’s invasion of the country.

Now, one worries, Sharon and Arafat have joined forces to resurrect their past days of glory. The incentives of Middle East peace are apparently no match for their war nostalgia.

In the summer of 2000, when Ehud Barak offered him nearly everything he had been fighting for, Arafat was faced with the prospect of burying the hatchet — and becoming a statesman. Evidently, he wasn’t quite ready to give up his glamorous job as Palestinian war chief and thus refused the offer.

And Sharon was just as happy with Arafat’s decision as Arafat was. To return the favor, Sharon even started up a war — so that he and Arafat could play cowboys and Indians again. In a blatant political move in September 2000, Sharon delivered a fiery speech on Israeli sovereignty in Islam’s al-Haram al-Sharrif atop the Temple Mount. Just to make sure the speech had the right effect, he brought along a few hundred Israeli riot police.

Sure enough, Sharon’s political stunt not only led to his election as Israel’s prime minister, but also to a Palestinian uprising that turned Israeli public opinion against the peace process. It was a return to a more volatile Middle East — one that Sharon and Arafat know and love.

As the United States begins to actively reengage in the Middle East, one wonders what the prospects for progress are. One early conclusion jumps to mind: If the Israelis and the Palestinians truly want peace, they should get rid of both Sharon and Arafat — and substitute them with some real leaders. And who should replace them? How about the brave souls who carry on the selfless spirit of Rabin and Sadat?

Shimon Peres has a track record of making some tough, unpopular decisions for the greater good. Peres took over as Prime Minister after Rabin was shot by a Jewish extremist for signing the Oslo accords that he and Peres had negotiated. Sharon may be a brave “Warrior,” but it’s only Peres who has had the courage to take risks and make peace.

And who has the stomach for leading the Palestinians to peace? King Abdullah of Jordan already has. Jordan granted citizenship to Palestinian refugees and in 1994 signed a peace treaty with Israel. Since assuming the throne from his father, Abdullah has had to maintain a peace with Israel, which was the very thing that got Anwar Sadat shot by Muslim extremists in Egypt. Abdullah’s strong leadership could administer the Palestinian territories until a viable Palestinian state could be formed.

Under the proper leadership, Israel and Palestine could become mature, peaceful states. As it stands now, though, Sharon and Arafat have proven amply that they are content with living in the carnage of the past. Still, even these aging soldiers could play a role in a peaceful Middle East.

As Minister of Trade and Industry, Sharon helped conclude a free trade agreement with the United States back in 1985. If Israel makes peace with its Arab neighbors, perhaps he could have fun starting some Arab-Israeli trade wars — or starting trade of any kind with the Arabs.

Arafat could exchange his kafia for another hat too. With a degree in engineering from Cairo University, Arafat started his own contracting company in Kuwait when he was only 27 years old. A new Palestinian state could certainly use an engineer to help build the county up from the rubble.