The sudden outbreak of Palestinian infighting, complete with kidnappings, killings, explosions, personnel shakeups, resignations, overblown rhetoric and all manner of Middle Eastern fireworks seemed to come out of nowhere, altering the power calculus in incalculable ways.
Out of nowhere? No. Out of a vacuum? Yes. But there is a hand moving that vacuum cleaner. Better said, there was a hand that turned on the vacuum cleaner. Thereon hangs a tale. We’ll begin it somewhere around the beginning.
A few years back, a friend of mine did some research into those famous Islamic midrassas which fill young minds with venom against the West, Israel and the Jews. He sent a young college student whose Jewishness was not evident in his name and appearance to take a tour in Saudi Arabia. There, he was invited to join a group of American college students being treated to a special introductory lecture.
Perhaps most striking about the text that was delivered on that occasion was the reverence for Yassir Arafat as a miracle worker. The amazing series of escapes from danger and oblivion that have been the hallmark of Mr. Arafat’s public career are seen by young Arabs as a sign from Heaven that victory will eventually be theirs. You may recall that in 1982, Israel was dropping massive bombs each day on Arafat’s headquarters in Tripoli, Lebanon, only to find that he had shifted locations just in time. Other times, he was present when the bombs fell and still emerged unscathed. His most astounding stunt was when his small plane crashed into a hill and he was presumed dead. A few days later, he walked into a nearby town without a scratch, the sole survivor of the deadly episode. All of this has been taken by all Arabs, not only Palestinians, to reveal a supernatural grace underpinning their efforts.
In theory, Arafat has been conducting a war for many decades against all of Israel, all its citizens, soldiers and politicians. Yet within the framework of this mythology, the man who has been seen as Arafat’s nemesis is Ariel Sharon. There is no real logical reason for this that extends very far beyond Sharon’s bluster. In truth, until recently Sharon has been comically ineffective in battling Palestinian resistance in its various forms. But when a mythology persists long enough, it will often be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Something like this is being manifested in the current scenario.
HERE IS A SYNOPTIC PEEK at the history: in the 1973 war, General Sharon was credited as the strategist who undid the early Egyptian advantage by designing a sort of end run that bypassed the Egyptian offensive front on the Israeli side of the Suez and created an offensive Israeli front in Egyptian territory. The advance guard of invading Egyptians turned around to join the battle which had been engaged behind their lines, thus forfeiting their own forward momentum.
Once ensconced as the national hero, he took on a sort of bullying pulpit, talking trash to keep the Arabs intimidated. When an uprising began in Gaza shortly after that war, Sharon was sent in quell it quickly. This he did, mostly by bulldozing the homes of offenders; after this quelling, he began kvelling ever more loudly. Whenever terrorists succeeded in killing civilians in Israel or in dominating the Northern Lebanon region, Sharon either personally or by proxy reminded the country that were his hands untied, he could dispense the sort of medicine that would put a stop to this nonsense.
Finally, Menachem Begin made him Minister of Defense and gave him the green light to initiate an attack against the terrorist bases in Northern Lebanon. The result was a horrific failure that Israel pays for every single day. The terrorists moved but were not defeated. The people of Northern Lebanon became radicalized against Israel. Menachem Begin went into a deep depression and resigned as Prime Minister, then became a recluse for about a decade until he died. The Lebanese Christians perpetrated a massacre against Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, in an area that was nominally under Sharon’s control. When Time magazine reported that he had collaborated in planning the massacre, he sued them in Federal Court in New York City and won. However, it certainly was no tribute to his ability to supervise the governance of a territory.
Since that time, every time the Likud Party was in power, it made strenuous efforts to marginalize Sharon by assigning to him ministries where he could do little damage. Still, in positions such as Minister of Housing and Infrastructure his arrogance and incompetence were legendary. Yet, somehow the bad boy reputation from Sabra and Shatila began to work in his favor, eclipsing the memory of the Lebanon debacle, giving a sort of Mafioso aura to his tough-guy swagger. So although he was never considered a serious political candidate, he managed to keep the aura of “too tough” rather than “too unreliable.” Add to this the fact that he was considered Public Enemy Number One by both the Palestinians and the Euro-Liberals (who are still trying to get him tried in the World Court for Sabra and Shatila), and he was perfectly positioned to be given the reins of power by an electorate frustrated by perpetual terrorism.
So this is the reality of the last few years: two old guys in their seventies, with their successes magnified by legend and their failures deleted from the script, strutting like peacocks into the square for one final showdown.
AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, Sharon steps up to the moment, and climaxes his career with a crowning act of genius. Rather than be drawn into the epic clash of egos, he reaches into his bag of tricks and pulls out — the Suez flanking maneuver! He does to Arafat what he did to the Egyptian forces, he announces that the battlefield is elsewhere. He simply ignores Arafat, declaring him irrelevant, thus rendering him irrelevant.
What this creates is a power vacuum in the area of public governance. The real power may still be in the hands of some guy under house arrest who still has all the bank accounts, but any authority figure whom the man on the street approaches for any government service is a toothless figure, a paper tiger. Inevitably, there must be a tussle for power, with the citizenry looking for a punching bag to absorb their frustration. For a while they were conned into making Israel the target, but finally they have begun to point the rage inward, presaging extended bouts of intramural attrition.
Sharon knew that his approach could well spark a civil war among the Palestinians. That has long been a hope among Israeli strategists, although one that they consider impolitic to trumpet in public. It has always been a staple of Jewish traditional thinking that the best way to divert the enemies from attacking is to keep them squabbling with each other. Indeed, one Rabbinic leader remarked when the Iran-Iraq War broke out in the 1970s: “I wish them both much success.”
So it was the strategy of Ariel Sharon that has successfully revealed the fault lines in the Palestinian infrastructure and catalyzed the various vectors of power into conflict. The hollow pyramid upon which Arafat was perched is in advancing stages of implosion. The boys in the midrassas have to be starting to wonder: Were all of Arafat’s miracles leading him to a great fall? Was Fate drowning him instead of crowning him?
As for us, patriots of the United States and champions of the brave people of Israel, we celebrate the success of Mr. Sharon’s maneuver, but we do so with an overtone — well, maybe just an undertone — of cautious concern. We know that any time that disparate forces are whizzing around in the vacuum, clashing with intent to predominate, there is potential for new and unpredictable patterns to emerge, not necessarily to our liking.
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