Arafat, Sharon popularity ratings soar

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s popularity at home has soared. So too has Yasser Arafat’s, both among Palestinians and throughout the Arab world. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah is winning acclaim for his peace efforts, as is President George Bush.

How can leaders be reaping political dividends from a crisis that seems so intractable and has caused such widespread suffering?

The surges for Sharon and Arafat are both a consequence of the violence and may be helping to prolong it, Mideast scholars and analysts suggest.

“You’ve got two brilliant tacticians who are absolute failures at strategy and vision,” said Youssef Ibrahim, an analyst with the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

To the international community, there are no winners in the

struggle, only losers - beleaguered Palestinian and Israeli

citizens.

“Any vision understands that there are people in Israel who long for security and peace, people in the Palestinian world who long for security, peace and economic hope,” Bush said after a White House meeting with Sharon last week that was interrupted by news of a suicide bombing that killed 15 Israelis.
That sent Sharon home early and prolonged the cycle of violence.

Conviction is widespread among Israelis that Arafat is not a reliable leader of the Palestinians. Likewise, there is broad sentiment among Arabs that the main stumbling block to peace is Sharon, a long-time hawk and advocate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

“You cannot choose the leader of another people,” said Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi crown prince’s foreign policy adviser,

pointing out the obvious as he criticized Sharon’s refusal to deal with Arafat.

Judith Kipper, a Mideast analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says US officials make matters worse by lavishing attention on Arafat and Sharon, which helps to personalise the struggle.

“Nobody should talk about the leaders, everybody should talk about the problem,” she said.

In their outrage over Palestinian terror attacks, Israelis have overwhelmingly backed Sharon. Polls show his approval ratings, which had languished around 20%, more than tripled after he launched his West Bank military operation in March.

An end to the 20-month Palestinian uprising could spell the end of Sharon’s “unity government” with the moderate Labour Party.

Arafat’s approval had been as low as 30 percent and he was being seriously challenged by the Islamic militant group Hamas. He saw his popularity skyrocket after Sharon’s tanks encircled his Ramallah headquarters.

“Nobody would dare challenge him now within the Palestinian polity,” said Martin S. Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel.

Furthermore, Arafat thinks he is winning, having gained Bush’s commitment to a Palestinian state and rallying international sympathy, Indyk said. “He doesn’t measure success by the degree of suffering of his people. That’s just a means to an end. Success starts with his survival,” he said.

James Zogby, who heads the Arab-American Institute, said

Sharon’s humiliation of Arafat at Ramallah - damaging his compound, turning off the electricity and water - helped cement support for the Palestinian leader.

“No leader can be treated that way without repercussions,” Zogby said.

Bush and Abdullah will draw increased praise if their peace

efforts succeed.

Abdullah’s land-for-peace plan, overwhelmingly endorsed by the Arab League, offers Israel recognition and peace in exchange for the return of Arab lands seized in 1967 and a Palestinian state.

Abdullah also joined leaders of Egypt and Jordan in leaning on Arafat to do more to discourage terror attacks. Arafat’s

condemnation - in Arabic - of last week’s bombing near Tel Aviv was welcomed by Bush as “an incredibly positive sign”.

Abandoning a hands-off policy, Bush has embarked on an active effort to secure peace and lay the basis for a Palestinian state, including measures to revamp the Palestinian Authority and improve its security apparatus.

Recent polls show seven in 10 Americans approve of his Mideast peace efforts. They also suggest Americans do not expect much and will not blame Bush if he fails. Still, Bush must tread carefully - given the strong support for Israel in Congress. -Sapa-AP

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The

Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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