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Conventional wisdom holds that Ariel Sharon's recent attack on Yasser Arafat's compound was a failure. Sharon's stated goal was to marginalize Arafat and force the handover of some of his lackeys wanted by the Israelis on charges of terorrism. But the attack turned world opinion against Sharon, forcing him to withdraw without the prisoners he wanted. Further, it made Arafat more of a martyr, rallying the Palestinians behind him and squashing attempts by other moderate Palestinian leaders to force democratic reform of the Palestinian Authority.

But I wonder if Sharon's attack might not have been a success, from his point of view, for some of those same reasons. It seems clear that Sharon has little interest in negotiation with the Palestinians. Negotiation implies some degree of equality, of two aggreived parties coming together to work out a mutually beneficial solution. Rather, he wants to be able to dictate terms, a powerful victor laying down the law for his adversary. His proposals at the Camp David summit have been widely hailed as groundbreaking concessions (and they did go farther than previous Israeli proposals). But they were issued like ultimatums, and the rhetorical use of this story has subtly emphasised this fact by casting Arafat as merely reactive, faced with a simple option to take or leave Sharon's offer.

But to do this, Israel needs the moral high ground. The story hawks tell themselves says that Palestinian nationalism is inherently an illegitimate uprising pursued through unconscionable means. Therefore Israel -- as the defender of justice and right -- must be able to dictate the terms of the solution, lest their morality be compromised by the Palestinians. This story requires that a despotic terrorist sympathizer (Arafat) be the focus of Israel's struggle and Palestinian hopes for self-determination. An assertive Palestinian leadership not tainted by despotism or terrorism would complicate the issue, sapping the hawks' black-and-white vision of the conflict and leaving them uncertain how to proceed.

I don't mean to suggest that Israeli hawks would encourage terrorism in order to undermine Palestinian legitimacy -- that's far too cynical an accusation to make without evidence. What I am suggesting is that by seeing the situation through a certain prism, and acting accordingly, they prevent any alternative visions from gaining ground. Focussing on Arafat makes him the avatar of Palestinian nationalism, thus justifying their focus on him.


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