Weekend Edition Saturday: September 13, 2003

Shifting Peace Prospects for the Mideast


This isn't the first time that Israel has been at the brink of banishing Yasser Arafat. At this time last year, Israeli media reported that during an emergency meeting of the Israeli cabinet, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested putting Mr. Arafat on a helicopter and sending him to Jordan or Tunisia, but intelligence chiefs reportedly argued that exile would only make Yasser Arafat stronger. Akiva Eldar is a political columnist for the newspaper Ha'Aretz, and he joins us from his home near Tel Aviv.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. AKIVA ELDAR (Ha'Aretz): You're welcome.

SIMON: And what's your feeling, Mr. Eldar? Would Yasser Arafat in exile be stronger, more sympathetic internationally than Yasser Arafat in Ramallah?

Mr. ELDAR: I don't think so. The problem is not really Arafat, if he's in Ramallah or Tunis or in Cairo. The question is if we are going to get a better Arafat, someone that will be more sympathetic to the idea of the Israeli occupation. I think it's too easy for some people in Israel to believe that it all starts and ends with Arafat, and I'm afraid that the morning after they wake up without Arafat, they're going to miss him because there will be no one else to blame it on, and things are not going to get any better.

SIMON: The United States has been so explicit at saying that they don't think this is a good idea. It's raised the interpretation that the announcement of the Israeli cabinet is a negotiating position, it's not a real strategy.

Mr. ELDAR: Yeah, actually, I also suspect that at least part of the explanation of why they did this is that Mr. Sharon was under great pressure from his partners in the coalition from the radical right, and he found his way to let them feel that they got something out of what they were hoping to get, which is the expulsion of Arafat, so they got a statement. And I think that he expected the United States to tie his arms and then he can say, `Well, you know, I went an extra mile, I did my best, but, you know we cannot afford to undermine our special relationship with George W. Bush.' But he has to balance the pressure between the United States on one hand, and even in the Likud itself there are voices who are calling to do something.

And the problem really, I think, is that it shows that people are really confused in Israel. It's not only the members of the cabinet or the prime minister. After every attack--and unfortunately, there have been so many of them--they're looking for some miracle, something to offer people who are so desperate and confused. And, you know, they used to say that, `We have a bank full of targets,' and now it seems that the bank is getting bankrupt.

SIMON: I gather you have written that you don't think that Prime Minister Sharon is necessarily interested in reaching some kind of peace that would entail an autonomous Palestinian state. Is that still your feeling?

Mr. ELDAR: Well, my feeling is that what Sharon wants is the end of the day he wants a kind of a Bantustein(ph), which is, you know, the Palestinian version of Bantustan, the South African Bantustan. He really wants to get rid of the occupation because, you know, the occupation is a burden on Israel. It's not because he cares so much about the Palestinian need for self-determination and so on. The problem is that the maximum concessions that Sharon is willing to offer the Palestinians is very far away from their minimum expectations, so we are really in a deadlock.

And the other thing is that Big Daddy, who presented this road map that people are starting to forget, is not willing to take the two wild kids into a closed room and make sure that they make peace.

SIMON: Mr. Eldar, looking back on it, with the advantage of, you know, a week of hindsight, who wanted Mahmoud Abbas out of power more, Ariel Sharon or Yasser Arafat?

Mr. ELDAR: And you can add to this, of course, the Hamas and the United States. Everybody has contributed something to this mess. The Israelis, who didn't give Mahmoud Abbas the goods that he could deliver his people and show that he can do better than Arafat did. And then Arafat, who, you know, as every politician, doesn't really wish his successor to do better than he does because the victory, the breakthrough that Mahmoud Abbas would have brought would be the ultimate proof that Arafat is really, what the United States keeps saying, is the problem and not the solution.

SIMON: Is there a public movement for peace...

Mr. ELDAR: Oh ...(unintelligible).

SIMON: you sense it in Israel? I'm trying to avoid terms like `road map' or `peace process' or `formal structure.' Do you discern an actual organized movement there for peace?

Mr. ELDAR: I know that there is an authentic support, but it will take some dramatic steps. For instance, a removal of one single settlement from Gaza could have a great impact, or an arrest of five terrorists on the other side, you know, by the Palestinian Authority, could have great impact on the Israeli side. But it takes some courage and some political risks on both sides.

SIMON: Mr. Eldar, thanks so much.

Mr. ELDAR: You're welcome.

SIMON: Akiva Eldar, political columnist for Ha'Aretz magazine, speaking with us from just outside of Tel Aviv.

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