Why Sharon and Arafat Have Nothing to Talk About

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer

It's not hard to find reasons why the proposed Berlin talks between Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres will fail to bring peace to the Mideast. For one thing, there are no substantially new ideas on the table, and for another each man faces considerable skepticism in his own camp over whether there's any point in talking at all. Listening to the statements of Arafat and Ariel Sharon, it's easy to see why. Fundamentally, Sharon is focused on achieving security guarantees without ending Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and Arafat is pursuing an end to the occupation but appears unable or unwilling to provide the required security guarantees.

Under pressure

The proposed Berlin meeting has been slammed by Israeli leaders, including key members of Sharon's cabinet, as rewarding Arafat for violence. And on the Palestinian side, many of Arafat's top advisers have dismissed talking to Peres as a waste of time, pointing out that he has no mandate from Sharon and that with no new initiatives on the table there's no reason to believe this meeting will succeed where countless previous encounters between the two men have failed. And there's open hostility to new talks down on the streets, where recent opinion surveys found that two out of three Palestinians support suicide bombings against Israel, and where Arafat's own rank and file are engaged in grassroots alliances with the same Islamist militants he's under pressure to act against.

Still, there are countervailing pressures on each side to at least resume talking about talks. Arafat is feeling the heat both from Europe and from the Egyptians to act more forcefully to implement a cease-fire. Egypt's failure during this week's U.N. Security Council debate to support the Palestinian demand for international observers was a strong signal of President Hosni Mubarak's impatience with Arafat. And it was German foreign minister Joschka Fischer who in June twisted Arafat's arm to declare a cease-fire or risk losing European diplomatic and financial support following the Tel Aviv disco bombing.

No military solution

Sharon, too, has to contend with quiet but insistent diplomatic pressure. More importantly, he needs to deliver on his promise to restore Israel's security. And though Israeli public opinion has been solidly behind his ever-stronger military measures, those steps have yet to prove capable of ending the intifada. Instead, almost a year into the uprising, the Israeli military is warning that the intifada is likely to continue for at least the next five years. And as much as Israeli voters are behind the Sharon right now, they're unlikely to accept being locked into the current violent stalemate for the foreseeable future, which forces Sharon to weigh new options.

Ironically, if the Berlin discussions were to bear fruit, that might actually deepen the crisis. Without a political mechanism for achieving a peaceful end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and creating a viable Palestinian state in those territories, there's no incentive for Arafat or any other Palestinian leader to make peace with Israel. And, of course, no Israeli leader could afford to withdraw from the occupied territories without cast-iron guarantees of Israeli security. Those two premises formed the very foundation of the Oslo peace process, and Oslo's collapse does nothing to change their validity — no peace plan will get off the ground without both ending the occupation and satisfying Israel's security requirements.


Sharon was reported Tuesday to have proposed to a group of visiting Republican legislators that "it is impossible now to reach a full peace" with the Palestinians, and that meant that Israel would have to hold onto the West Bank and Gaza. The best that could be hoped for, he told them, was an "armistice" of the type Israel signed with its four Arab neighbors in 1949, to end its War of Independence. But it was considerably easier, a half century ago, for the newly independent states of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to temporarily give up on the idea of conquering the new Jewish State in their midst than it would be for any Palestinian leader today to sign a non-aggression pact with Israel while the occupation continued.

Sharon, of course, was a staunch opponent of Oslo's "land-for-peace" principles from the get-go, and his latest proposal is a reminder that his idea of peace doesn't really involve ceding land, simply an end to hostilities. But for the Palestinians, the relationship between the two is reversed — their objective is ending the occupation, whether by violent or peaceful means, and a peace agreement only appeals in as much as it offers a mechanism for achieving that goal. Bridging the gulf between those positions may be beyond even Herr Fischer's considerable mediation skills — and that's even before they get to the vexed questions of refugees, settlements, water rights and Jerusalem.