The year 2001 is about to end, but at the last moment a new word - a Latin one to boot - has entered the Hebrew political lexicon: "irrelevant".
This is a new phase in the fatal duel between the two veteran gladiators, both experienced and shrewd, Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat. Sharon has declared that Arafat is "irrelevant". Arafat has turned the tables by making a speech that focused world attention on him. All the while Sharon's tanks are parked a hundred yards from Arafat's office, their cannons aimed at his head.
If Sharon imagined that Arafat would run away or plead for his life, he doesn't know the man. In 1982 I met him in a besieged West Beirut, during the heavy bombardments, when hundreds of Sharon's agents were searching for him in order to kill him. He was in high spirits, at his best.
If Arafat imagined that by the speech he would disarm Sharon and cause him to stop, he doesn't know the man. Sharon never lets up. When he encounters an obstacle, he goes around it. When he doesn't get what he wants on the first try, he will wait and try again and again and again.
If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a clash between two great historic movements, Sharon and Arafat are their most outstanding representatives. Sharon is the ultimate Zionist. Arafat is the embodiment of the Palestinian national movement.
This is a clash between an irresistible force and an immovable object.
On the one side, Zionism, whose consistent aim is to turn all the land between the Mediterranean sea and the Jordan river (at least), which is called in Hebrew "The Land of Israel", into a homogenous Jewish state. This to be achieved trough a "strategy of phases" - a Zionist method, and the settlers implement it.
On the other side is Palestinian nationalism, whose aim is to establish an independent Palestinian state on Palestinian land. For lack of an alternative, the Palestinians have given up 78% of the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea, which they call Filastin, and the intifada is designed to turn the other 22% into the State of Palestine.
When Sharon came to power, he presented himself as the benign grandfather, who loves sheep and children, and whose only desire is to enter the history books as the man who brought peace and security to the area. That was a successful fraud, in the spirit of "make war by tricks". The Israeli public, which wants peace and longs for security, believed him and elected the Israeli de Gaulle, the old general who has lost his best comrades in battle and understands that nothing is more precious than peace.
For people who know Sharon, were both sad and frightening to behold: a naive public following a pied piper.
Sharon doesn't care either for peace or for security. For him they are signs of weakness and degeneration. From the moment of attaining power, he had a quite different agenda: to destroy the Oslo agreement, remove the Palestinian Authority and its armed forces, give new impetus to the settlement movement. For that purpose he acquired Shimon Peres on the cheap, in order to camouflage his true designs in the eyes of the world, and started the great campaign. (Actually, he had started it even earlier, when he went to the Temple Mount and lit the fire.)
Those who assert that "Sharon has no political plan" are quite wrong. He has got a clear plan: to go on with the offensive and liquidate the Palestinian leadership, in order to break the spirit of the Palestinian people, bring Hamas to power, so that he will be able to say that there is nobody to talk with. He believes that the Palestinians will eventually flee the country (as in 1948) or resign themselves to a life in several isolated and surrounded enclaves (like South African Bantustans).
Faced with this onslaught, Arafat resorts to the classic Palestinian strategy: Sumud (steadfastness). Survival. Not to move. Not to surrender. Not to be dragged into a civil war. To use the meager means in his arsenal - political action, diplomacy, violence, in varying doses - in order to enable his people to hold on. His greatest asset is the ability of his people to absorb punishment, which makes Israeli generals mad with frustration.
The battle is far from finished. I believe it will end in a draw - no mean feat for the weaker side. And the draw will lead, inevitably, to a historical compromise.