Three Men in a Boat

Ariel Sharon, Abu Mazen, Yasser Arafat
Ariel Sharon, Abu Mazen, Yasser Arafat; drawing by David Levine

It is a hot summer day in the Holy Land. Three men are looking out their windows. What do they see? What might they be thinking?



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As he approaches the twilight of his political career, Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, contemplates his one last remaining task. It is the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, one that he several times has sought and that several times has eluded him: the achievement of Israel’s long-term moral and existential security by eradicating a unified Palestinian national movement. He feels he is closer than ever to achieving his goal. The Palestinian polity is beginning to disintegrate. A generation of Palestinian leaders has been killed or imprisoned. Step by step, Palestinians will have to begin thinking of themselves not as Palestinians but as Gazans or West Bankers, Nabulsis or Hebronites, insiders or outsiders. This conflict is all about territory, and Palestinian territory is being carved up; it is about politics and political representation as well, and local Palestinian fiefdoms are emerging. A new reality is taking shape.

“Facts on the ground,” the world euphemistically calls them: settlements, bypass roads, access routes, the separation wall. Together they are carving out isolated Palestinian cantons, creating an entity that they will be free, if they so want, to designate as a state. Chaos is the harbinger of triumph. Soon, if the cards are played meticulously, patiently, and well, Sharon’s legacy to the future will be much like the past: a heterogeneous, scattered, divided Palestinian polity, the undoing of all that has been done for the past four decades by his nemesis, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The goal is almost reached, but not yet, and two principal obstacles remain. The first is Yasser Arafat. To Sharon, Arafat personifies all that he has vowed to suppress: a militant nationalism opposed to the Zionist project, implacable hostility toward the state of Israel, violence, terror, and, until recently, legitimacy in the eyes of the world. The second is Abu Mazen. Arafat aside, Sharon sees Abu Mazen as the Last Palestinian, the final leader of a unified national movement, the man potentially capable of holding the national movement together. Abu Mazen is needed to eclipse Arafat. But Abu Mazen’s ultimate failure is equally required for Sharon’s goal to be fulfilled. Let Abu Mazen succeed in order to marginalize Arafat, end the armed intifada, and achieve for Israel a measure of security. But let him succeed only so far and no further. Let him bring about a more peaceful situation without benefiting from its potential political returns. For Abu Mazen’s success could bring him strength, and his strength would revitalize the threat of a unified Palestinian movement that his rise was meant to thwart. Within those circumscribed political possibilities, Sharon views Abu Mazen’s fate as a win-win proposition: should he succeed in ending…

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