In his latest book, DEATH TANGO: Ariel Sharon, Yasser
Arafat, and Three Fateful Days in March, Yossi Alpher,
a former Mossad official and one of Israel’s foremost analysts of Israeli strategic issues, traces the current fraught relationship between Israel and Palestine to three dramatic events that occurred in March 2002. First, there was a bloody suicide bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel on March 27th at a Passover celebration. Then, the Arab League met in Beirut on March 28th and approved the Arab Peace Initiative. Finally, on March 29th , Israel reinvaded the West Bank in Operation Defensive Shield. Taken together, Alpher argues, these three events were a catalyst for extensive change in the Middle East.
Based on many interviews and the author’s unique experience and inside knowledge, DEATH TANGO is filled with thorough and thoughtful analysis that has never before been published (Rowman & Littlefield: Hardcover, 978-1538162071, $36; Ebook, 978-1538162088, $34).
Why write this book twenty years after the events took place? “It took time for the significance of these events to sink in, and for me to recognize their strategic impact on Israel and the region,” Alpher explains. “The chronological distance was helpful in understanding what went on in late March 2002 among Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab world and the United States. Taken alone, each of the three major events described in the book is not so exceptional. When viewed as a three-day continuum, however, something exceptional is seen to have happened—even in Middle East terms.”
DEATH TANGO is about the interaction among these three critical events, and the key personalities involved. It moves from Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office where Ariel Sharon rants against Yasser Arafat, to Washington, DC where the US fumbles and misunderstands the dynamics at work, to the Jenin refugee camp, the “suicide capital of Palestine,” where Israeli soldiers win a bloody military battle but lose in the war of public opinion. The book also includes:
An exclusive interview with The New York Time’s reporter Tom Friedman in which he explains how he sold the Saudis a peace plan.
Why Sharon invited himself to the Arab League meeting in Beirut and why the Arabs, who saw him Genghis Khan incarnate, turned him down.
A blow-by-blow account of the worst terrorist attack in Israel’s history.
What Sharon and Arafat had in common and what they did not.
Why the Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002 delivered a measure of stability and co-existence, but not peace.
Why there won’t be a two-state solution anytime soon between Israel and the Palestinians – but there won’t be all-out war either.
Alpher concludes that the new Arab-Israel and Palestinian-Israeli realities forged by these three pivotal events are here to stay. The combination of Palestinian overreach, Israeli security concerns and territorial greed, and Arab state indifference ensures that a two-state solution will not happen. In parallel, the Arabs need Israel as a partner against Iran and militant Islam. When pressured on any of these issues, their leaders fall back on the Arab Peace Initiative as the authoritative legitimizer of the status quo. Palestinians and Israelis, like Arafat and Sharon in their day, are dancing “a kind of death tango.”
A must read for anyone interested in history, Middle East politics, Israel, the United States in the Middle East, and international strategic affairs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Yossi (Joseph) Alpher is a consultant and writer on Israel-related strategic issues. He is the author of the prize-winning Periphery: Israel's Search For Middle East Allies and No End Of Conflict: Rethinking Israel-Palestine (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015 and 2016, respectively). His latest book before Death Tango was Winners and Losers in the ‘Arab Spring’: Profiles in Chaos (Routledge, 2020), which won the Chaikin Prize in 2021.
Born in Washington, DC, Alpher served in the Israel Defense Forces as an intelligence officer in the late 1960s, followed by service in the Mossad in the ‘70s. From 1981 to 1995 he was associated with the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, ultimately serving as director of center. From 1995 to 2000 he served as director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel/Middle East Office in Jerusalem. In July 2000 (during the Camp David talks) he served as Special Adviser to the Prime Minister of Israel. From 2001 to 2012 he was coeditor, with Ghassan Khatib (until recently vice-president of Bir Zeit University) of the bitterlemons.net family of internet publications.
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An Interview with Yossi Alpher
What led you to write a book about three momentous Middle East events in three consecutive days 20 years ago? Why didn’t you write earlier?
It took time for the significance of these events to sink in, and for me to recognize their strategic impact on Israel and the region. The chronological distance was helpful in understanding what went on in late March 2002 between Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab world and the United States. Taken alone, each of the three major events described in the book is not so exceptional. When viewed as a three-day continuum, however, something exceptional is seen to have happened—even in Middle East terms.
You play up both Ariel Sharon’s and Yasser Arafat’s many character flaws. Explain their success.
More than any other factor, they had in common unusual tenacity in pursuing their goals. Never letting up. Sharon, who came to Israel’s premiership late in life after a host of both successes and setbacks and radical policy zigzags, at one point declared, “Politics is a giant Ferris wheel: you’re on top, then you’re on the bottom. The main thing is never to abandon the wheel.”
Arafat, for his part, was “married to the [Palestinian] revolution.” He was also, it turned out, unable to cease being a terrorist. This explains both his success and his ultimate failure.
How does your Mossad background find expression in this book?
My Mossad career, followed by a stint of academic strategic research, taught me to think strategically. To recognize and define the strategic significance of Middle East events. My careers in intelligence and strategic studies also brought me into contact with a large number of colleagues in Israel, the Arab world and the United States – people whose wisdom I could draw on in writing a book like this one.
Indeed, some of those I came to know were actively involved in the events I describe. Others, like Sharon and Arafat, had passed from the scene well before I undertook to write Death Tango, but I was able to draw on past conversations with them.
You interviewed many former ‘players’ for the book. But only one interview, with Tom Friedman of The New York Times, is allotted an entire chapter. Why?
Friedman played a key role in the advent and evolution of one of the main themes of the book, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. He is also a superb, no-holds-barred raconteur. No one else gave me an interview quite like that. Ambassador (in Israel and Egypt) Daniel Kurtzer made another major contribution when he adopted the language of Shakespearean tragedy to describe the events of late March 2002 from an American standpoint. I present Kurtzer’s narrative in full too. Then too, General Tony Zinni, former commander of CENTCOM, was very frank in sharing his recollections of his brief and frustrating stint at trying to facilitate a Sharon-Arafat ceasefire.
Aside from the Friedman interview and the grisly details of the March 27, 2002 Park Hotel suicide bombing, where in your book do we find never-before-published material?
Despite Ariel Sharon mentioning it offhand in a Knesset speech, never before this book did anyone describe and assess his amazing (and abortive) initiative to participate in the Beirut Arab League meeting of March 28, 2002 that ratified the Arab Peace Initiative. Former Mossad Head Ephraim Halevy filled in the details for me.
My reconstructions of Israel’s deliberations over Operation Defensive Shield, the Arab League deliberations leading up to and in Beirut, and the diplomatic interplay between the Sharon and Bush 43 governments also shed new light on their dynamics. Here is one example: Sharon held up his government’s okay for Israel’s March 29 invasion of the West Bank because for hours he was obsessing with his ministers and generals over the ultimately-abortive idea of exiling Arafat to somewhere far away from the West Bank and Gaza: “We’ll put him on a helicopter,” Sharon told the meeting.
Your book describes Israeli and Palestinian security leaders negotiating with American help as well as fruitless direct negotiations between the two sides’ political leaderships. What are your thoughts about the broader issue of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, direct and indirect?
Sharon and Arafat never met to negotiate. Sharon did not have faith in the peaceful intentions of any Arab leaders, and they tended to see him as, in the words of one Egyptian scholar, “Genghis Khan.” Arafat was a flawed negotiator because of his penchant for fabrication. Other Israeli leaders, like Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, seem to have been flawed and unprofessional as well, thereby contributing to their failed talks with Palestinian leaders.
Nowadays we witness Israel and Hamas negotiating indirectly via fairly skilled Egyptian facilitators. Nevertheless, the three parties together don’t seem capable of getting beyond limited ceasefires. Hamas of 2021 and Hamas of March 2002 seem equally hardline and violent, while Israel then and now does not have a viable strategy for dealing with the Palestinians beyond periodically “mowing the lawn.”
Yet the May 2021 fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza provoked Palestinian anger and Jewish-Arab violence throughout Israel-Palestine. It even provoked protest demonstrations—some anti-Semitic—in the US and Europe . . .
The events of May 2021 were yet another reminder of two key takeaways from this book. First, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are descending down a slippery slope toward a violent and conflicted bi-national reality. And second, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be restricted geographically or ideologically to the Middle East alone.
The Trump administration managed to negotiate normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab countries. . .
All four are distant from the Israel-Palestinian conflict, are fed-up with hardline Palestinian demands, and had long-term unofficial ties with Israel. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, offered them transactional deals that brought them economic, military and diplomatic gains divorced from the conflict. But Trump’s and Netanyahu’s offers of “economic peace” to the Palestinians failed dismally due to the primacy of Palestinian ideological and historical demands.
Note that the leaders of all four Arab normalizing countries—the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan—couched their readiness to formalize ties with Israel in terms of the March 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. In fact, they were blatantly violating the terms of the API. But their rhetoric attests to the API’s lasting influence as a foundational document of the Israel-Arab dynamic.