Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Tale of Two Arch-Nemeses

As I've been reading Pity the Nation (I'll review it when I'm finished), it's been interesting to see the evolution of people in the book. Two main figures in the book are Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon. It's interesting to see the paths that their two lives took after Israel's 1982 entry into the Lebanese Civil War.
Briefly, Arafat became the head of a movement among Palestinians called Fatah. This movement eventually was folded into the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). Initially they were headquartered in the West Bank, then after the Six Days War, Jordan. King Hussein kicked them out in 1970 and they ended up holing up in Lebanon. The Lebanese didn't want them and they ended up destabilizing the country enough to start the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. They used their Lebanese base to attack Israel and after a variety of events, Israel attacked Lebanon in 1982, quickly encircling West Beirut, where the PLO was headquartered.
Ariel Sharon was a tank commander with a string of great victories to his name, including honorable service in the IDF during the Six Days War and the Yom Kippur War. As is typical of Israeli military heroes, he became a politician and rose to the position of Defense Minister, where he was in 1982. He led the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut. His intent was to wipe out the PLO, securing Israel for good. The IDF was a juggernaut and ended up causing a bunch of civilian casualties. Sharon is most notorious for letting the Lebanese Christian Phalange milita run rampant during the Sabra and Chatila massacres.

The big difference between these two is how their lives changed in their "Elder Statesman" years. Both were at the top of their respective nations (not states - semantic difference as the Palestinians don't have a state of their own) and ended up facing off across Jerusalem instead of across Beirut as they did in their younger years. Arafat, of course, got a Nobel Prize in 1994 as one of the architects of the Oslo peace treaty. Until recently, Sharon was noted most for going to the Wailing Wall back in 2000 in an incident that, in theory, started the second intifada. The PLO had been talking about a second intifada since Bill Clinton's last ditch peace efforts failed at the end of his presidency. Arafat once again decided to use violence to achieve his dream - a unified Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. The problem with this vision, other than 5 million Jews living in that Palestine, was that it was uncompromising. Israeli PM Barak was busy negotiating and they had worked up to the Palestinians getting 94% of Gaza and the West Bank (here's a map). Was this Israel's final offer? At the time, yes. However, Barak wanted to secure his name in the history books as the man who once and for all fixed the problem. He probably would have given more, maybe even traded some land in the Negev for some West Bank land. Arafat didn't give him that chance. As the proverbial leopard who didn't change his spots, Arafat tried violence to persuade Barak to agree to the partition. Instead, he ended up with his old nemesis, Ariel Sharon.
At first Sharon acted just as everyone would expect. He hit back, and he hit back hard. The Palestinian people, who up until the intifada were able to have jobs and work in Israel proper, were cordoned off in Gaza and the West Bank. Arafat was surrounded in Ramallah. Terrorists were blown up with military strikes. Bulldozers ran over Rachel Corrie. A security fence was begun around the West Bank (which, ironically, followed the same boundaries that Barak proposed for the Israel/Palestine split) that effectively stopped suicide bombers and at the same time codified what would be Israel proper when all was said and done. Then a funny thing happened. Sharon became the leading chance for peace in Israel. He didn't have anyone to work with on the Palestinian side because Arafat never renounced the intifada or the violence that was happening. Instead, Sharon unilaterally declared that Israel would withdraw from Gaza and guard the border. He alienated some Jewish settlers, but it happened. He began the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank that were on the Palestinian side of the barricade. Again, he alienated more settlers. He still pressed on, but it wasn't so he could be know as the man who brought peace to Palestine. Rather, he wanted to be the man who brought security to Israel and disengagement was the best way out. He didn't change his stripes either, but his goals were more noble than Arafat's. Arafat devoted most of his life to pushing the Jews into the Mediterranean, Sharon spent his trying to prevent it. In the end the one who will be judged best by history will likely be Sharon because he was the only one who had the guts to make the tough decisions even though he was alone in doing so.

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