Why Arafat Will Give Sharon a Chance

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A young Hamas activist marches while holding a Hamas flag

Now that the dust has settled following Ariel Sharon's election, is there any sign of how the Palestinian Authority plans to respond to Israel's new leader?

Jamil Hamad: According to my sources, Arafat is going to wait and see, keeping his own options open, giving Sharon time and testing his intentions. In the short term, though, that means Arafat doesn't mind some violence here and there. This serves his internal situation, by showing that he's still committed to the escalation of the intifadeh. And it also underlines the message Arafat wants to put out to the rest of the world, that the region is on the verge of exploding — and as far as I can see, he's succeeding in conveying that impression, even though it's not necessarily an accurate one.

There have been reports of divisions in Arafat's circles over how to respond to Sharon's election...

Yes, the more emotional people are saying Palestinians now have to escalate the situation, and to cut Sharon short with an open confrontation. The others are saying Palestinians are not in a position to challenge Sharon, and want to avoid dragging the Palestinians into an Israeli internal problem by taking the anti-Sharon side. Those close to Arafat taking this line are saying he should not repeat the mistakes of Lebanon, where Palestinians got involved in that country's internal struggles and paid a heavy price for it.

Arafat is closer to this line that says Sharon is the Israelis' choice, and the Palestinians need to deal with him. And then, if in the course of dealing with him he offers things that are unacceptable, the Palestinians can rally international opinion against him. But they shouldn't fight him simply because he's Sharon. Of course, Arafat doesn't mind playing a few little games. But he knows he has to be careful with Sharon, because his room to maneuver with the new Israeli leader is more limited.

So he'll try and deal with Sharon?

Yes, that's what the world is asking him to do, so he's very likely to do it. The advice to Arafat from the Arab capitals, too, will be to give Sharon a chance until he reveals his positions. It's a practical position: Let's see what Sharon is for and what he is against.

Are there any signs yet of what to expect from Sharon?

He's managed to create an impression on the Palestinian street that if he's going to punish Palestinians, he'll punish Palestinian Authority people rather than the man and woman in the street. So they're actually quite hopeful. Sharon knows that he has the backing of all Israelis if he's perceived to be retaliating for Palestinian violence against Israelis. So Arafat has to be careful to avoid pushing things to a point where Sharon wins the support of all Israelis.

Arafat will face a problem dealing with Sharon and the Likud party. Not even Netanyahu represented the true spirit of the Likud, which is that they don't make deals under pressure. In recent years, Palestinians have become accustomed to a "whispering peace." Yossi Beilin has a secret meeting and whispers something in Arafat's ears; Shimon Peres comes for a midnight meeting and quietly says the words Arafat wants to hear. This is not going to happen with the Likud, and they're going to refuse to talk while violence is continuing. So the Palestinians are going to face problems of communication and understanding. And they're at a disadvantage, because the Likud people understand the Palestinians a lot better than the Palestinians understand the Likud.