Invasion of the body-snatchers
March 29, 2001
by Meyrav Wurmser
The Jerusalem Post, March 20, 2001, Tuesday
As the magnitude of Ariel Sharon's election victory became apparent, Marwan Barghouti, the head of Fatah's Tanzim militia in the West Bank, said: "We are not concerned with Sharon, Barak, or Peres. The occupation must become a losing enterprise... (Sharon) is the last shot in the Israelis' arsenal. Let them use it, and they will realize that they must leave our land..."
Barghouti apparently believes the Palestinians have the ability to defeat Sharon's anticipated harder line. Barghouti is hardly alone. He reflects an overall confidence among Palestinian leaders that they alone dominate the course of events and politics in the entire territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
So confident is the Palestinian leadership of its ability to dominate, that it cares not a whit about the political circumstances in Israel. This reflects itself in two ways. First, they believe they have the power to make and break Israeli governments. For Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, it does not matter which Israeli prime minister is in power. Left, right or center, he continues to believe that he alone determines the longevity of Israel's governments.
Second, because Arafat believes he can easily influence the fate of Israeli governments, he sees no need to compromise. Several days ago, speaking before the Palestinian National Council, Arafat listed his demands for a political settlement with Israel: control of Jerusalem and the right of return of refugees. As always, Arafat stuck to his guns. Even the swearing in of Israel's new Sharon government failed to impress upon Arafat that he might have to change his tune.
He contemptuously assumed that if any given Israeli government refuses to give in, he has ways of either breaking its will or bringing it down. The means are flexible: some days it is terror, others it is spurning generous concessions offered at huge political risk.
The bottom line is that Arafat has very little respect for the sanctity of an electoral verdict. One can hardly expect more of him; the subtleties of democratic governance are not his forte.
So how should one understand Arafat's confidence? Arafat thinks strategically, while Israel thinks only reactively. Arafat is a student of the best Soviet strategic thinkers, all of whom understood that power is not the most important thing. Victory comes through combining force and diplomacy to gnaw away at, and eventually crack, the political core of the opponent, be it a geographic point, key symbol or political idea. For Israel, that point, symbol and idea converge on Jerusalem - the focal battleground of Arafat's war.
ARAFAT'S methods are not new. He and his entourage have twice before entered nations by invitation only to then, from within, quickly impose their dominance on their much larger and more powerful hosts. In 1970 they turned on King Hussein of Jordan. They miscalculated. With Israel and America's help, Jordan crushed and expelled the PLO. In Lebanon, Arafat calculated more accurately. By 1977 Lebanon was no more; Arafat was the de-facto potentate in that unfortunate land.
The Lebanese gave his strategy a name: "the shenanigans from Faqhani," the district housing Arafat's headquarters in Beirut. They were referring to Arafat's use of instability and anarchy to seize the initiative and bend the course of events and politics to his advantage. Arafat never frontally assaults his opponent with an invading army; he undermines his host from within, especially in its capital, be it Amman, Beirut, and now Jerusalem.
Arafat watches Israeli politics through the lens of a military campaign. That is why Barghouti describes Sharon's victory the way a battlefield general would gauge his opponent's remaining ammunition. Despite Israel's overwhelming power, Arafat sees Sharon's victory and the successful functioning of Israeli democracy as secondary to the power and corrosive influence of his own words and actions.
He believes he can control Israel's politics, induce paralysis and outmaneuver Sharon. If Sharon fails to bend, Arafat will dig in, act to undermine and possibly topple his government. Arafat hopes to turn Israel's democratic character into its weakness.
Last January, a Lebanese friend of mine visited Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood. Seeing sandbags in the windows, concrete protection walls against snipers, and entrenched tank positions, he gasped and said: "Oh my God, you have brought Beirut into Jerusalem."
Israel now faces a choice. Will it become again the master of its own house and assert its real power, or will it drift into the tragic end which met Lebanon? Let us hope that Barghouti and his don underestimated the remaining will of Israel.
Meyrav Wurmser was formerly a Senior Fellow with Hudson Institute.