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Beyond the Arafat-Sharon Blood Feud
Published on Saturday, April 13, 2002 by
Beyond the Arafat-Sharon Blood Feud
by Lawrence Pintak and John E. Mack, M.D.
Cambridge, MA -- In 1982, Israeli tanks laid siege to the headquarters of Yasir Arafat, just as they are doing today. Then, as now, the commander of those tanks was Ariel Sharon. Then, as now, Sharon had used an act of violence by Palestinian extremists outside Arafat's direct control as a pretext to strike. Then, as now, Arafat sought to portray himself as a modern-day David facing the Israeli Goliath, even as he skillfully avoided truly committing himself to the search for peace.

Twenty years later, Sharon and Arafat remain locked in their archetypal struggle as countless innocents die and the world seeks rational solutions to a confrontation long-since stripped of rationality. It is time to give greater responsibility for resolving the interminable standoff to those with less emotional stake in the outcome.

Like opposite poles of a magnet, Sharon and Arafat strengthen each other's power. In Arafat, Sharon is given an enemy with a face. In standing up to the hated former general, Arafat is elevated to almost mythological status at a time when he faces marginalization by young radicals.

Anwar Sadat once declared that the Arab-Israeli conflict was "70 percent psychological." In those heady days after Camp David, American, Israeli and Egyptian psychologists and psychiatrists joined together with the region's leaders to address the emotional underpinnings of a conflict that has since become as much a battle of personalities as it is an epic confrontation between two peoples. Yet policy-makers, reporters and pundits today continue to foster the illusion that the road to peace can be built on a foundation of conventional geopolitics.

President Bush's call on the combatants to "break free of old patterns and habits of hatred" is a major step forward, but that cannot be done without understanding the psychological impact a half-century of conflict has had on participants and bystanders alike.

What is it about the Palestinians, we must ask, that has brought one of the Arab world's most sophisticated ethnic groups to a place where they celebrate the martyrdom of teen-age girls?

What is it about Israelis that the 72 percent would express support for a military campaign that is inflicting widespread suffering among women and children and incurring worldwide condemnation?

What is it about the media, and ourselves, that we have all-but-forgotten Sharon's own cynical role in triggering this latest conflagration through a provocative visit last year to the sacred Temple Mount, an act that destroyed the peace process and catapulted him to the prime minister's office.

What is it about Arab leaders that they consistently squander opportunities like the recent Beirut summit, which held the potential to lay the groundwork for peace, reverting instead to displays of internecine bickering while the Middle East burns?

And what is it about President Bush that has made it possible for Sharon to manipulate him into moving the White House from last autumn's pragmatic arms-length policy to an embrace that is suicidal for America's larger terror war - an embrace from which he is only now trying to extricate himself?

"The infrastructure of terror," former Mossad chief Danny Yatom recently said of the suicide bombers, "runs in the minds of those youngsters." The same is true of the infrastructure of war on both sides.

It is time to ask whether the symbiotic hatred between two seriously flawed individuals can be allowed to fuel the destruction of entire nations. And if the answer is no, it is time to construct models that remove personality from the equation.

In 1982, the combined cunning and intransigence of Arafat and Sharon dragged the U.S. into the fatal morass of Beirut, where the brand of Islamic terrorism that now plagues us was spawned. We cannot afford to let them undermine America's security once more by blurring the distinction between our global struggle against Islamic extremists and Sharon's fight against the Palestinians.

The interests of the international community demand that a solution be found that rises above the raw personal animus of Arafat and Sharon. Leaders from the West and the Arab world must join with statesmen such as Nelson Mandela and Malaysia's Mahatir Mohammed and, supported by experts who understand the psychological and emotional dimensions of political conflict, together craft a compromise that transcends personalities; a rational alternative that can then be presented directly to the Israeli and Palestinian people.

A resolution of the current crisis lies not in bringing Sharon and Arafat to the bargaining table, but in helping Israelis and Palestinians as a whole see how their own psychological wounds have been exploited to make them pawns in what we have allowed to become a very deadly, very personal feud.

Lawrence Pintak is a veteran foreign correspondent and author of Beirut Outtakes: Portrait of America's Encounter with Terror. John E. Mack, M.D. is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Lawrence of Arabia. They are based at the Center for Psychology & Social Change.


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