Small World

Jewish World Review March 15, 2001 / 20 Adar, 5761

Odd couple is Arafat's best chance

By Richard Z. Chesnoff -- THEY are without doubt the oddest couple in Israeli political history. But the partnership of the new superhawk Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the darling of the Israeli right wing, and his new superdove Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the elder statesman of Israel's left, may just work.

Indeed, these two septuagenarians may succeed in reaching a deal with the Palestinians where their younger predecessors, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, failed.

The secret to their potential success is sheer pragmatism. For all his tough talk, Sharon, unlike Likud rival Netanyahu, knows that a deal has to be made with the Palestinians. The retired general also has an old soldier's keen awareness of how to negotiate with the Palestinians, when to talk and when to listen. Most significantly, he believes in steady but gradual steps, rather than in constantly grabbing for an elusive ring of overall settlement, as Barak did.

Peres is on much the same track. Though famous for Garden of Eden ideas about fraternal peace between Jews and Arabs, and often ridiculed for his penchant to talk about "turning tanks into tomatoes," Peres, too, has become a gradualist. Largely ignored by Barak (who rarely listened to anyone), he has been urging interim agreements that advance peace by postponing decisions on such fireball issues as Jerusalem.

Official Palestinian response to the new Israeli leadership duo has been mixed: positive one day, negative the next. Nonetheless, there is a slow, unwelcome realization among some Palestinians that their costly new intifadeh is getting nowhere fast.

"Where is this all leading?" Palestinian analyst Daoud Kuttab asked recently. The very fact that people like Kuttab, one of the first intifadeh's most vocal defenders, have dared to publicly question the shadowy leaders of the current violence is of major significance.

Other Palestinian critics of Arafat and Co. are far from interested in ending violence or making peace with Israel. The terrorist fanatics of Hamas and other extremist groups are increasingly outspoken in their attacks on Arafat's regime, especially on the unbridled corruption of many of the aging Palestinian chief's closest advisers. Several greedy Arafat insiders already have been mysteriously assassinated. Now, reports Israeli Arab journalist Khaled abu Toameh, one of the best-informed newsmen in Jerusalem, other Palestinian mucky-mucks have gone into hiding.

So where does this leave Yasser Arafat? Up the proverbial creek, with a diminishing supply of paddles. Cut off from their jobs in Israel thanks to the intifadeh, and now under security blockade, the Palestinian population faces economic chaos and the Palestinian Authority financial collapse — save for the monies Arafat and his cronies have cached away. One Israeli intelligence report says an increasingly desperate Arafat recently offered Iraq's Saddam Hussein $20 million in cash if he has to flee Gaza and seek asylum.

Before he takes the money and runs, Yasser would do well to strike a deal with Israel's odd couple. Maybe then he can retire at home.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News. His latest book, recently updated, is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.


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