Israel Report

July/August 2003         

Arafat, Again

Jerusalem Post Editorial - August 28, 2003
He's still alive. They hit 'em with five shots, and he's still alive!
- Solozzo in The Godfather

It is time to abandon the fiction of Yasser Arafat's "irrelevance." For two years, the Sharon government has done everything in its power to preserve it. It has confined the Palestinian leader to his Ramallah headquarters and demolished a substantial portion of those quarters. It has penalized foreign diplomats who meet with him. It has persuaded the Bush administration to adopt a similar posture.

What has this accomplished? Arafat remains a figure of uncontested authority in the Palestinian Authority, as his recent assertion of authority over security matters makes clear. Whatever hopes there were that power would gradually devolve from Arafat to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas appear to have been ill-founded.

The US secretary of state makes plaintive and polite appeals to "the chairman" to work with his prime minister and avail him of his "security elements."

This weekend, the European Union's foreign policy representative, Javier Solana, will be in Jerusalem to plead for an easing of Israel's "Arafat or us" policy. We are inclined to concede the point. The effort to isolate Arafat may have been a worthy one, and European diplomats such as Joschka Fischer and Dominique de Villepin, both of whom met with Arafat in recent months, deserve blame for doing nothing to help it.

Yet it's time to recognize that the policy has failed. Abbas and his Security Minister Muhammad Dahlan have failed to acquire the kind of power needed to bring terrorist elements to heel. Waiting for them to do so would be pointless, as they anyway refuse to wield it. So insofar as Solana's business is concerned, there is no point in causing pointless aggravation to visiting dignitaries.

None of this is to suggest that it is now time to reengage with Arafat, much less to accord him his old privileges. What is required is a reassessment of a have-it-two-ways policy that has served neither Israel nor the United States well.

From Israel, we hear that Arafat is both irrelevant and a mastermind of terrorism. From the US, we hear that Israel must take no steps to deport or assassinate Arafat, because this would undermine Abbas. Yet it is the administration's declared view that Arafat is the key obstacle to peace, which is supposed to be Abbas's mission. Maybe there is a convenience to these contradictions.

In keeping Arafat where he is, a cynic might argue that the Sharon government gets the best of both worlds: It can blame the Palestinian side for obstructing the peace process and thereby forestall a peace process it doesn't want to enter in the first place. As for the US, the president can point to his road map as proof that he's engaged in the Middle East and then leave it to the parties to get nowhere. "If we want everything to remain as it is, it will be necessary for everything to change." Perhaps Lampedusa's famous maxim for Sicily is George W. Bush's intuition for Israel.

But we do not take the cynic's view. As senior Western diplomatic sources tell us, the principal reason the US opposes the forcible removal of Arafat is because it is not convinced something better will fall into place. Israel's view is more or less the same, compounded by fear of international reaction.

Underlying this view is the belief that the current situation is tolerable. Yesterday, after Palestinian Kassam rockets reached as far as the southern city of Ashkelon, Israel grimly warned that such attacks crossed "a red line." Funny, that: Such warnings are never issued when Israelis are shot dead in their cars driving through the territories. Nor does it seem that red lines are considered crossed when suicide bombers take fewer than, say, 20 victims with them.

Thus, following last week's bus bombing, we were told by senior Israeli officials that, perhaps with the next large-scale attack, Arafat's future may have to be reassessed. But why even bring up his name if the threat is so plainly hollow?

No less than it is in the nature of man, it is in the nature of governments to prefer known to unknown dangers. We, too, cannot be certain that the removal of Arafat will bring about the peace we all seek. But we also feel that the current situation could hardly be worse. Removing the man chiefly to blame for the loss of so much life, rather than rescuing him, seems to us one risk well worth taking.

©2003 - Jerusalem Post


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