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Arafat and after

By W. James Antle III
web posted April 1, 2002

As these words are being written, tensions in the Middle East continue to mount. Israel is still detaining Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and ignoring a United Nations resolution to withdraw from Palestinian cities. Another suicide bombing has wounded at least 29 more Israelis. U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni's peace mission seems to be in tatters. It is still far from clear what the end result of this incursion will be.

A poster of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is seen behind an Israeli soldier on top of an army tank in central Ramallah on March 31
A poster of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is seen behind an Israeli soldier on top of an army tank in central Ramallah on March 31

Both Israeli and U.S. leaders continue to press Arafat to rein in the escalating terrorist violence, but many question what control he has over the situation. Even his defenders question his ability to contain terrorists while trapped inside his office.

President Bush pointedly called on Arafat to condemn the recent suicide bombings and terrorist attacks against Israel "in Arabic." This is in recognition of the fact that Arafat has a tendency to speak in terms of negotiations and peace when speaking to the West in English, but his talk turns to martyrdom and incitement when he speaks to his own people in Arabic.

Yet this observation may be just one symptom of Arafat's ineffectiveness as a peace partner. Long before Israeli tanks surrounded his office building, there were serious questions about his ability to deliver on his promises in the Oslo peace process. Too great a percentage of the Palestinian people still see continued violence as being in their best interests. This in turn makes Arafat overly dependent on the very extremists his leadership is supposed to restrain.

Jonathan Rauch described the situation quite well in a National Journal piece earlier this year: "It serves everybody's interest to pretend that Arafat is in control. Palestinian and Arab extremists need Arafat because the last thing they want is the responsibility of governing or negotiating, as opposed to bombing and shooting. Palestinian and Arab moderates need Arafat because no one else has the stature to hold off the extremists. Israeli doves and American diplomats need Arafat because they need someone to negotiate with. Israeli hard-liners need Arafat because they need someone to blame. Arafat himself needs Arafat because he is Arafat, whoever that is. Arafat, in short, is held up by more external props than Strom Thurmond."

Recent polls have shown that suicide bombings and other militant activities have the support of 70 percent of the Palestinian people. In large numbers, Palestinians and other Arabs have indicated that they believe such violence will be more effective at achieving their goals than negotiating. There are many young people in the Palestinian Authority who have never known anything but conflict with Israel and who have been taught that the Jewish state is the cause of all their problems. Consequently, they are not predisposed toward olive branches.

Daniel Pipes recently made another point worth considering in this dispute. Israel is a democracy, but its enemies are not. With no political participation, Palestinians and Arabs have no real say in or opportunity to assent to any of the peace proposals offered by those who speak in their name. Under this situation, any peace plan concluded with their leaders amounts to little more than "one man's whim."

Many, including this writer, were critical of Arafat for rejecting a breathtakingly generous - and from an Israeli national security perspective, potentially foolhardy - proposal from then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak without even making a counter-offer. But it isn't clear that Arafat would have had the political capital to make that Camp David proposal work even if he had been disposed to accept it. The Palestinian people would not have trusted Israeli guarantees and would have strenuously opposed making any concessions. Groups like Hamas would have continued their operations on the perfectly rational grounds that still more concessions might be wrung from weary Israelis and their Labor government.

The Israeli mood has also since hardened. Not long ago, the Israeli public wanted so badly to become a normal country without all this conflict that they were prepared to give Arafat a Palestinian state and tolerate a UN presence in Jerusalem. After 18 months of unremitting violence, they are less trusting that territorial and other concessions offer any meaningful security guarantee. Current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been reluctant to permanently sever ties to Arafat and has vacillated between a preference for negotiations and unilateral military action; recent events make clear he is willing to wash his hands of the Palestinian Authority president and embark on a military solution if he deems it necessary.

Yet it has been painfully obvious that Sharon shares the U.S. government's fear of what might come next if Arafat is to be replaced. This is a legitimate concern. There appear to be no moderates on the horizon and extremists enjoy popular support. Things may be bad now, but they can always get worse.

Nevertheless, the debate over whether Arafat is a peacemaker or a terrorist is becoming increasingly irrelevant. There is little evidence that he can control an increasingly radicalized Palestinian population that is convinced that it stands to gain from continued violence. Nor has his record of leadership through self-preservation ever demonstrated the capacity or moral authority to persuade Palestinians to accept coexistence with Israel as more worthy than Jewish destruction.

Palestinians face vexing questions about what a post-Arafat era would look like, even if their leader comes out of the current standoff unscathed. Israelis for their part face tough choices on how to confront an enemy unresponsive to negotiations or concessions without deepening the plight of ordinary Palestinians - and thereby continuing to sow seeds of resentment that will ultimately fuel more terrorism - or increasing their isolation. The United States faces dilemmas no less complex and, in light of September 11 and the inextricable link between the war on terrorism and Middle Eastern affairs, no less urgent.

And of course there are no easy answers. Only time will tell whether new leadership can be found to create the conditions for lasting peace.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Kiss Arafat goodbye! by Alan Caruba (December 17, 2001)
    Alan Caruba reacts to the news that PLO chairman Yasser Arafat is now considered "irrelevant" by the state of Israel
  • The Arab legacy of hate by Samuel L. Blumenfeld (December 17, 2001)
    Samuel L. Blumenfeld surveys the history of relations between Israel and her Arab neighbours to illustrate why Israel should be defending herself using everything possible
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