- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2001

For the first time in their official lives, Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat are facing the same problem of wartime political strategy. Since neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have won or lost yet, when if ever could either leader declare or accept a cease fire he knows his public mistrusts, as does he?

Prime Minister Sharon decided this is the time to declare a cease fire even though it violated his repeated promise there would be none while Palestinian violence continued. He did it because the United States, the foreign country by far the most important to Israel, told him through its president and secretary of state that the U.S. efforts for peace might become impossible unless combat ceased immediately.

Mr. Sharon did it at the cost of risking his most valuable political assets among Palestinians as well as Israelis the reputation for toughness toward the Palestinians, and for keeping his word, particularly to the Israeli people.

Mr. Arafat has broken his word to Israel so often that the nations of the world would be afflicted with fatal stupidity if they still expect him to keep the next one. Time beyond counting, he has solemnly promised to end combat with Israel, and stop Palestinian terrorism which often winds up killing more Palestinians than Jews.

But one promise he makes almost every day to his people, plainly or tacitly, he cannot break because his regime would end and so would he. The promise is that the war against Israel would not peter out in quick cease fires or other Israeli concessions to the Palestinian movement but in the end of Israel, however long it took.

Astoundingly, Israel gave more and more land, arms, money and got nothing in return.

The awakening came last year when then Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Palestinians proposals that would give Mr. Arafat chunks of Jerusalem, plus nearly 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and carve Israel so it would be impossible to defend against the Palestinians and their close allies longing for combat Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya. Palestinians would give up nothing, except perhaps postpone for a while the fruition of their dreams of colonizing or eliminating Israel, its dignity and its religion. When the Palestinians turned down the Barak proposals, they were delivering a message to Israel peaceniks, Labor and its prime minister: to hell with you and all other Israelis.

When the time came to choose a new prime minister, Israelis were fed up with constantly giving and never getting anything that would provide hope the Palestinians would ever fulfill Mr. Arafat´s promise of ending war, terrorism and religious hatred. A substantial part of the election victory of the conservative, strong-willed Mr. Sharon was that there would be no more talks with the Palestinians until they ended all violence, including terrorism. I have liked Mr. Sharon for years; still do. He is a dreamer for Israel of the dreams of the people of all besieged nations for the strength of arms and will to retain freedom and attain peace.

Mr. Arafat may have the same dreams plus the end of Israel and its culture, and the demise of its religion. He knows his opponent is the Israeli army but his daily targets are Israeli civilians. For me, and most of my Israeli friends, Mr. Sharon´s mandate of no talks without the end of violence was the only sensible one after a half-century of combat interspersed with lies and negotiations that generated more lies.

But Mr. Sharon felt he had to listen to the American administration, Israel´s best friend still. The president and the secretary of state felt strongly that a cease fire first, with talks later, would mollify perennially anti-Israel Europeans and some of the Arab states. Like almost all my Israeli friends, after Mr. Sharon´s election, I had hoped United States and Israel would mix less in each other´s affairs. But I know that if things went bad for either country, I would want the other to jump in to help it. I would probably break my position that there should be no talks until violence ended, not before, as the price of keeping the critical support of the new American administration. I would not like that price any more than Mr. Sharon does.

But still I wondered if Mr. Arafat was so determined to assure Palestinians and other Arabs that the goal was not the end of combat but the end of Israel, that he would again tell America and Israel to go to hell. He was, and he did.

A.M. Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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