Don't make him a life prisoner

Editorial

Haaretz

June 25, 2004

Ariel Sharon does not wish Yasser Arafat, aged 75, a long life. But on Wednesday, in an unworthy and unnecessary statement, the prime minister said, "For the next 45 years the man will remain in the Muqata in Ramallah." Sharon was commenting on the possibility that Arafat would be let out of the blockade Israel has imposed on him and allowed to move to Gaza.

The broader context was the visit of Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who arrived to discuss with government officials the Egyptian initiative for security involvement in the Gaza Strip during the implementation of the disengagement plan.

Sharon is not willing to recognize the fact that even if Israel and the United States have disqualified Arafat as a partner to the peace talks, for his own nation he is still the admired national leader and will probably remain so until his death and even after that. Sharon also obstinately refuses to understand this: Arafat's status and certainly the objection to his incarceration arouses widespread solidarity throughout the Muslim world. Now Sharon has added to the ongoing humiliation of the Palestinian Authority chairman yet another degradation, in an utterance which cannot be justified in any way.

Sharon's statement, and his way of thinking, mostly harm the Israeli interest. Israel should not be looking to stir up emotions that are already inflame d between itself and the Palestinian Authority. The statement constitutes a blatant insult to the Palestinians' feelings, and has no redeeming value. Such a disparaging attitude toward Arafat is not helpful to any of the government's goals in managing the conflict - goals that in themselves can be the subject of a great deal of criticism.

With his foolish statement, Sharon shot international Israeli diplomacy in the foot, and also damaged his own political plans. Moreover, anyone could easily interpret the statement as the complete reverse of Sharon's declarations of his readiness to establish a Palestinian state, before 45 years have elapsed.

The statement is characterized by severe shortsightedness from another aspect. Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon said in the past that Military Intelligence had checked and found that no one in Arafat's family in recent generations has lived longer than 70 or 75 years. While this astrological occupation with the chairman's life expectancy is somewhat despicable , it indicates that Arafat may end his life while still in the Muqata, even without Sharon's forecast being realized in full. What interest does Israel have in becoming an international punching bag, should the Palestinian leader die under the oppressive siege the IDF has imposed on him at the prime minister's order?

Indeed, it is possible that if Arafat resumes his travels round the world he would cause Israel a certain amount of damage, but this must be weighed against the tangible damage that has already been caused by his forced stay in his office in the Muqata and against the damage involved in any other future scenario that keeps him a life prisoner.