Sharon the Merciless and Arafat the Corrupt

Self-delusion has crossed the Atlantic. George Bush is having visions again – just as he did before the most recent bloodbath in Israel and Palestine – and Colin Powell, whose latest Middle East mission was a wholesale disaster, wants to devise “a set of principles” for an Arab-Israeli peace. And, as usual, it is the occupied, not the occupier, who is warned this is the “last chance” for peace.

That the United States wants to enlist the Europeans, Russia and the UN in its plans for a Middle East peace conference is perhaps the only sign of realism in the initiative. Otherwise, it’s the same old twaddle.

Yasser Arafat has to earn “trust” – this from the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer – and will not, for the moment, receive any invitations to the White House. He has to curb “terror”. But Ariel Sharon, whose army was accused of war crimes in Jenin by Human Rights Watch yesterday, will be joshing with Mr Bush in Washington next week.

It was impossible, in Jerusalem yesterday, to take any of this seriously.

Mr Arafat had just emerged from his Ramallah headquarters to call the Israelis “Nazis” while Mr Sharon, only two days earlier, had announced that Netzarim, the illegal Jewish settlement in the Palestinian Gaza Strip, was the same as Tel Aviv. Since Mr Sharon came to power, no fewer than 34 new settlements or outposts for Jews, and Jews only, on Arab land, have been constructed.

A glance at the events of the past 24 hours shows just how far the Bush administration has strayed from reality. For days, the US President demanded that Israel withdraw its troops from West Bank cities. Mr Sharon simply ignored him. “When I say withdraw, I mean it,” Mr Bush snapped at one point. Mr Sharon ignored him.

Yesterday, as Mr Powell warned Mr Arafat that it was his “last chance” to show his leadership, the Israeli Prime Minister was sending an armoured column to re-invade the Palestinian city of Nablus for the second time in two weeks. There was to be no “last chance” for Mr Sharon; only for the iniquitous Mr Arafat.

And what on earth, one wondered, was the point in parading the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, alongside Mr Powell on Thursday night? The UN Security Council resolution calling for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian Authority areas of the West Bank – supported by the United States – is still being flagrantly ignored by Israel. Only a day earlier, Mr Annan was forced, in utter humiliation, to disband his fact-finding mission to Jenin after Israel refused to accept it. So what was his presence supposed to mean? The impotent secretary general just stood next to the equally impotent US Secretary of State.

The squalid, corrupt little dictator of Ramallah, Mr Arafat, and the brutal, merciless leader of the Middle East’s mightiest army, Mr Sharon, have nothing to offer each other. Mr Arafat cannot fulfil his required role of colonial governor – to “control his own people” – while Mr Sharon cannot fulfil his promise to provide Israelis with security. As one of his legal advisers admitted hours after Washington’s call for a peace conference, the diminution in Palestinian violence “won’t last for ever”.

Never, since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, have Israelis and Palestinians been so far apart. So what possible inducements can Washington extend to either side? If Mr Arafat wants an end to occupation and to settlements on Palestinian land, and a capital in east Jerusalem, Mr Sharon will not oblige. If Mr Sharon wants to go on building settlements and maintaining the occupation and claiming all of Jerusalem as the “eternal and unified capital of Israel”, Mr Arafat will not oblige.

Meanwhile, the Americans blissfully hope that Mr Bush’s “visions” – of Israeli and Palestinian states happily co-existing side by side – will survive the next two months. How is this possible? It is only a matter of time before the next vicious Palestinian suicide bomber blows up himself or herself in an Israeli city. And thus only a matter of time before Israel smashes its way into West Bank cities all over again.

In fact, Israel doesn’t need an excuse to do this any more.

Yesterday’s thrust into Nablus was another precedent. Far from being a retaliation, Israel did not invade Palestinian territory in response to Palestinian attacks. It said it had entered Nablus to prevent “future” attacks. Needless to say, the nature of this precedent went unreported.

So we are back to the “last chance”. But “last chance” for what? If Mr Arafat does not earn that all-purpose American “trust”, what is supposed to happen? Is he to be liquidated? Will the Americans choose another Palestinian leader? Or will they just let the Israelis build more settlements (something the Israelis are doing anyway) and abandon the “visions” and walk away from the Palestinians, leaving them to the mercy of Mr Sharon and his dreams of a Greater Israel?

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.