Siege of Mr Arafat shows Mr Sharon's weakness

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Prime Minister seems willing to strike but not to wound Yasser Arafat. There is a macabre dance going on in the Palestinian leader's compound in Ramallah, with increasingly detailed reports of precisely which rooms on which floors of the building have been invaded by Israeli soldiers.

The whole world knows that Ariel Sharon has the power to do what he likes with Mr Arafat. He could kill him, apprehend him and put him on trial or deport him; he could close down the Palestinian Authority and try – even more than he is doing already – to do its police work of rooting out the suicide bombers; his forces could reoccupy the entire West Bank and Gaza; he could raze the whole of Ramallah and any other Palestinian town. But even Mr Sharon implicitly admits the futility of any of these things by not doing them.

Strange to say of the brutal former general that his worst fault is weakness. The hard man responsible for the massacres of Sabra and Chatila 20 years ago helped trigger the present crisis by his provocative show of force at Temple Mount in Arab Jersusalem 18 months ago. He was elected by the Israeli people, justifiably frustrated by Mr Arafat's refusal to accept the best deal the Palestinians have been or are ever likely to be offered, to crush terrorism by force. Yet he finds himself almost as powerless in practice as his despised enemy.

In his weakness, Mr Sharon can do nothing but humiliate Mr Arafat, preventing him from travelling and – literally – parking his tanks in his yard. This plays so directly into the hands of the militants and suicide warriors on the Palestinian side that it is difficult to believe that the Israeli Prime Minister cannot see it. If Mr Arafat loses all respect from his own people, how can he be expected to restrain them? How can he offer them any alternative to terrorism? No wonder he was forced last week to adopt the rhetoric of jihad and martyrdom.

Mr Sharon is – metaphorically – just as trapped. To abolish the Palestinian Authority and re-occupy its territory would not stem the flow of young zealots willing to strap explosives around their bodies and walk into crowded Israeli places, it would increase it. Yet the quasi-ritual humiliation of Mr Arafat is almost as counter-productive.

Real strength requires a largeness of spirit and an understanding of the enemy. Lacking these qualities, Mr Sharon and Mr Arafat are locked in a mutually debilitating embrace.