Last spring, Secretary of State Colin Powell made his last shuttle swing through the region. When he reached the Prime Minister’s Office there were three demonstrators from the Likud and two from Kach. One shouted through a loudspeaker, in heavily accented English: “Arafat and Saddam are the same.” Powell didn’t listen. It’s doubtful the voice penetrated his security perimeter. But since then, that lone demonstrator’s voice has become the official voice of Israel.
The “National Explainer,” Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, explained this week that Saddam and Arafat “believe in the same path, the path of terror meant to break Israel” and he expressed hope that the elimination of the Baghdad dictator will be a precedent for dealing with “similar dictators who live not far from here, like the one living in Ramallah.” Gilad said if there is a positive change in the wake of the war in Iraq, “Arafat won’t be here by the end of the year and that’s something we should welcome and know how to exploit well.”
Gilad represents a broad consensus in the top echelons of the political and security establishment, which is showing enthusiastic anticipation for the American assault on Iraq. Israeli officials are convinced Israel is on the right side, with the strong Americans, who will settle their accounts after the war with the Europeans, the Arabs and everyone else who tried to get in the way. They see the Bush administration’s lack of interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and believe that after the war, the Americans will leave Ariel Sharon alone, and not demand he compensate the defeated Arabs with Israeli concessions.
In conversations with Sharon’s representatives, the Americans don’t even put on a show of pressure. The settlements aren’t mentioned. The Israeli-Arab portfolio in the White House has been handed over to Elliott Abrams, a right-wing Jew close to the Pentagon hawks. His deputy, Flint Evert, who had been promoting the “road map,” was thrown out after failing in a report on the preparations for the January conference in London, to which the British sent invitations through Yasser Arafat. State department officials who backed pressure on Israel were worn down on bureaucratic struggles.
In the eyes of the prime minister, the war in Iraq is an opportunity to change the balance of power in the area. Sharon proposes a division of labor: Israel will take care of Arafat. America will smash the sources of Arab power: terrorism, missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Sharon reminds U.S. visitors that a victory in Iraq won’t solve all the problems in the region and that Syria, Libya and Iran have to be dealt with. This week, Undersecretary of State John Bolton visited Jerusalem. He’s an administration hawk. There was no sign of any difference of views in the conversations he had with his Jerusalem hosts.
But the Israeli optimism is not only about the future. It’s also about the present. There are already cheers of victory over the Palestinians (“the worst is behind us”). The signs are encouraging: Mubarak is courting Sharon, Arafat announces he’ll appoint a prime minister, European and UN diplomats are ready to “waste” Arafat, their former protege, and admit privately that Sharon has beaten his veteran rival.
Sharon, a political marathoner, keeps surprising his eulogists. He reoccupied the territories and defeated Arafat in the arena of international legitimacy, which in the past tilted toward the Palestinians; terror is at a tolerable level; Sharon won a landslide election, and is now trying to worm the Labor Party into the government.
This was all achieved without giving up a millimeter or tree of the territories, but at a heavy price to the economy and society in Israel. Over and over, Sharon avoids the difficult decisions with the help of his friend in the White House, and it appears he will succeed in dissolving the “road map,” which is inconvenient for him.
But the victory cheers appear to be premature. Arafat is still here, and it’s not clear how long it will take to remove him. The war in Iraq has yet to begin, and anything that goes wrong there, any problem that pops up, could ruin the rosy scenarios devised by the prime minister and his aides.
ALUF BENN writes for Ha’aretz.