- For the past two years, Yassir Arafat has been a virtual
prisoner in his compound in Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine. Since founding
Fatah in the 1950s and building it up to being the principal militant wing
of the Palestinian movement, Arafat, Fatah and its offshoots have been
the dominant thorn in the side of Israeli leadership. In more recent times,
however, Arafat has struggled unsuccessfully with the fact that whatever
current Israeli leaders might say they just want the Palestinians to go
away. Arafat is one of the reasons the Palestinians have not given up
and left, but the strongest and, among Israelis, least appreciated reasons
the Palestinians are still there is they believe fervently that Palestine
is their home.
The Peace Process, which is political and media quick-speak for an effort
that looks more like a Mexican standoff, has swirled around Arafat from
the beginning. Starting with the creation of Fatah, an acronym for the
Arabic words meaning national liberation movement, he moved upward from
terrorist to spearheading the declaration of a Palestinian State, winning
the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to achieve a Middle East peace and ultimately
to dominating the Palestinian Authority. There he sits in the posture
often achieved by revolutionaries, a successful warrior unable to solidify
He has been unsuccessful for several reasons. First, he is able to exercise
only partial control over Palestinian extremists, including Hamas and the
Al Aksa Brigades, because the Palestinian extremists have a well-earned
distrust of the Israelis, and they expect little from negotiation. Second,
the Israelis provoke the extremists by such actions as targeted assassinations
and arrests and confinement without trial. The Israelis then argue that
since he cannot control the extremists, Arafat ought to be ousted. To
diminish his power, the Israelis placed him under house arrest in Ramallah,
a scheme that enjoys only limited success since the recent resignation
of Prime Minister Abbas and selection of a successor shows that Arafat
basically still calls the shots. If asked, especially in light of Israeli
threats of the past few days, the Palestinians probably would re-elect
Arafat with a landslide vote to continue running the Palestinian Authority.
This situation is frustrating to the Israelis and to the Bush administration.
Both want to see their own chosen counterpart across the negotiating table.
The only reason the Israeli and US preferences count at all is that the
Palestinians are too weak to fight back. How would Yalta have gone if Roosevelt
and Churchill had insisted that the Russians send someone other than Stalin,
whom neither liked nor trusted. Even as vilified as Saddam Hussein was
by the US, Britain and Israel, nobody proposed that negotiations before
the war should be pursued with someone other than him. Constituted governments
often have genuine scoundrels in charge, but the selection of their chief
negotiators is, by widely practiced tradition, their call.
In truth there is little to choose between Sharon and Arafat. Sharon is
an old school terrorist out of the Stern, Irgun and Haganah tradition.
He was forced to resign as Defense Minister when in 1982 he allowed the
deliberate massacre of over 6,000 Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila In
Lebanon. In those attacks Sharon had responsibility for twice the death
toll of 9-11 for which we have chased Bin Laden over much of Afghanistan.
As head of the Likud party and the Government of Israel, Sharon has aggressively
pursued a program of targeted assassinations of Palestinians that if pursued
by any other government would be called state terrorism. His harsh applications
of the Israeli Defense Force in the West Bank and Gaza, including the killing
of innocent bystanders, and his wholesale destruction of homes and businesses
look strikingly like terrorist acts. In a moral-ethical frame, his appropriateness
as chief negotiator for Israel stems solely from the fact that he is head
Arafat began his violent career as a soldier fighting against the Israelis
in 1948. He graduated to terrorism with the founding of Fatah in the 1950s.
Hamas was promoted at times by the Israelis to oppose Fatah, and Arafat,
who has no army, no doubt has used Hamas and other extremists since Fatah
was elevated to political status in the movement. In situations such as
those following the Israeli attack on Jenin, or the destruction of a seven-story
apartment building to get one suspected militant, Arafat may not have wanted
to restrain the extremists even if he thought he could.
By weakening Arafat Israeli leaders have made it more difficult for him
to control the extremists. They have also made the task of any successor
enormously difficult. The continuing IDF attacks and targeted assassinations
after he was selected to succeed Arafat cut the ground out from under Abbas
and drove the Palestinian political center more toward Arafat than before
Abbas took the job. So Arafat will have a seat either at the negotiating
table or immediately behind it. Israeli actions, perversely, have assured
The selection of a representative in any negotiation is the call of the
Palestinian people. Anyone the US or the Israelis might choose will have
difficulty demonstrating acceptability to the Palestinians. That alone
could delay negotiations longer than good sense dictates. The more sensible
approach is to recognize that Arafat remains a player to be reckoned with.
One aspect of the situation that is easily missed in the fury of political
squabble is that both Sharon and Arafat are unique products of the Palestine
wars. Sharon was born of Russian, Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant parents on
a collective farm in Palestine. Arafat was born of Palestinian parents
in Cairo. Sharon is a member of the European immigrant Jewish line that
brought Zionism to Palestine. Arafat's family line traces back to the
Mufti of Jerusalem, and he is a practicing Muslim. Both were very young
when they fought in the 1948 war, Sharon for the newly formed Haganah and
Arafat for the Egyptian army. Neither has been far from the conflict in
the past fifty years. In fact Sharon once commented, 'My whole life has
passed in this conflict.' Arafat has been the dominant personality in
the Palestinian movement since the late 1960s.
The frustrating fact for Sharon must be that Arafat refuses to go away.
Sharon would be comfortable with someone on the other side of the table
who will be dazzled by the prospect of peace, even if there is no substance
in it. Arafat has never fallen for this, even when it was offered with
ruffles and flourishes by Ehud Barak in the Clinton years. Sharon has
made it plain countless times that he does not support any reduction in
settlements in the West Bank or Gaza. He sees Israel extending all the
way to the Jordon, and he signed on to the Bush 'Road Map' without any
attempt to hide his positions on these matters. Arafat knows Sharonâs
position and that of the Likud Party, and probably only the removal of
all the settlements, preferably before any agreement is signed, would be
acceptable to Arafat. Similarly deep-seated differences exist between the
two on Jerusalem.
This leads to the conclusion that neither Arafat nor Sharon is a logical
candidate to lead Palestinian or Israeli negotiations unless the goal is
merely to mark time. Bush, with an eye to the 2004 elections, might welcome
such a temporizing outcome, but the Palestinians will not buy it and neither
will a growing number of Israelis.
Sharon has devoted much of his life to forceful moves against the Palestinians.
If that had worked, the Palestinian people would no longer be a challenge
for Israel. But the Palestinians believe every bit as strongly as any Israeli
that Palestine is their home, and they refuse to give it up. Arafat embodies
that conviction, and any threat to him is a threat to that outcome. Predictably,
with their threats in the past few days to remove him, the Israelis strengthened
Arafatâs hand and made it more likely that any negotiation will include
There is a perverse quality about the Israeli and US desire to remove Arafat
from the scene. As a rule, diplomats want someone on the other side who
fully represents the positions and needs of his or her following, including
any possible room for concessions. Generally that is because fools and
ignoramuses make deals that seldom endure.
Arafat surely knows those things better than any other Palestinian, but
the problem is he has been burned so often that he is not easily swayed.
- The US position on this problem is not so unfeeling as
it is politically driven. Many professionals in the Department of State,
in CIA, the armed forces and elsewhere know full well how destructive Israeli
policies and actions have been of the Palestinians and their interests.
They also know that the Israeli defense, that they are the innocent victims
of terrorism and an Islamic cabal, is a fraud bought by the American public
more than by anyone else. What the public may not know so well is that
many an American politician is well paid through political contributions
to support the Israeli position, and those contributions, more than conviction,
account for a unanimous Congressional resolution in support of Israel last
Bush must contend with this American political reality, but he will be
mistaken if he insists that the chosen leadership of the Palestinian people
be removed from any future negotiations. The US, along with virtually
every other government, has taken the correct public position on Israeli
threats to expel or eliminate (read kill) Arafat by opposing them. Now
the task is to get both parties to the negotiating table in a frame of
mind to make some progress.
The task is not easy for Bush but the requirements are clear. The US must
back away from categorical support of Israeli positions and give full consideration
to Palestinian ones. Bush must be clear in insisting that all Israeli settlements
be removed from the West Bank and Gaza, that the wall come down, and that
the boundary be at least reasonably associated with the Green Line. He
must be equally clear in insisting that such Israeli programs as targeted
assassinations and the willful destruction of Palestinian property be terminated.
At the same time, the Palestinians must make every effort to control their
extremists, a task that will be much easier if the Israelis stop attacking.
Getting rid of Arafat will not change any of those fundamental issues.
Sharon may hope that he÷with US help--will be able to bulldoze some
less determined personality into accepting an outcome more to his liking.
Arafat has every reason not to trust Sharon, because Sharon does not project
a constructive outcome from negotiations. Based on his statements about
the Road Map, he is more likely to make a vague remark or to avoid any
statement that might have negotiating value to the Palestinians. Moreover,
in more or less private remarks that show up outside mainstream media,
Sharon makes it clear that he is tightly wedded to the positions of hard-line
Zionists who have no intention of giving up any part of the West Bank or
Gaza. So long as he feels the United States stands solidly with him, he
is unlikely to budge from this position. These reports tell Arafat that
little can be gained from negotiations with Sharon.
With or without Arafat the Palestinians will not buy Sharon's formula,
and the region will return quickly to terrorism. Palestineâs new
Prime Minister, Ahmed Qorei, will experience evil days. With the help of
graduates of the new Iraq school of low intensity conflict, the picture
will grow grim indeed. In light of Islamic reactions to the Israeli threat
against Arafat, e.g., Saudi Arabian, there will be more regional funding
and other support for Palestinian militants. Israelis will continue to
lose the asymmetric war of terrorism, failing as they have for decades
to make the Palestinian people give up. There will be blood in the streets,
and the Israelis will be at least as guilty as the Palestinians.
There is no room in this situation for continuing American bias or indecision.
It has been said that the political and spiritual will of George W. Bush
to solve the Palestine problem would assuredly lose him the next election
while probably winning him the Nobel Peace Prize. That may indeed be a
choice, but how the outcomes play on anybodyâs fortunes is yet to
come. We wonât know unless and until reality takes charge. But
Arafat is not the problem; the problem is his people have not been offered
a fair or reasonable solution.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department
of State. He will welcome comments at <mailto:email@example.com>firstname.lastname@example.org