Arafat Should Cut His Losses

(March 12) - As the Palestinian attacks that began last September continued, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was among the first Labor leaders who said it was time for Israelis to "change the cassette" - to realize that the Palestinians had chosen shooting over talking. The recent election was perhaps the most decisive cassette change imaginable on the Israeli side.

The Palestinian leadership, it is often argued, is quite knowledgeable regarding the intricacies of Israeli politics. Judging from Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's speech on Friday, however, he seems to have missed something fairly obvious: Israel's recent election. Arafat's cassette has not changed. Arafat said he is ready to renew the negotiations from where they left off just days before the election. What he did not do is call for ending the deadly Palestinian attacks against Israelis.

Arafat's attempt to play the old cassette - final-status negotiations under fire - is a complete non-starter. According to a Dahaf (Yediot Aharonot) poll last week, 75 percent of Israelis were against renewing negotiations before the Palestinian attacks end.

Even in the United States and Europe, virtually no one expects Israel to engage in final-status talks at all in the near future, let alone under fire. Everyone seems to understand that Arafat has overplayed his hand.

The Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, pretends that nothing has happened.

"The Israelis have to understand that we won't make a deal based on security for bread," Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti was quoted as saying in The New York Times. "Security for independence - that is what we are looking for." The Palestinians, it seems, are attempting to replay Israel's total unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.

Ignoring the recent election, however, will not change reality. There is simply no interest in Israel now, nor will there be in the future, in capitulating to the Palestinian demands for total Israeli withdrawal plus "the right of return" to Israel itself. Nor is there any interest here in easing the economic pressure on the Palestinians before Arafat even begins to end the Palestinian attacks on Israel.

Like it or not, the immediate trade-off available to the Palestinians is indeed "security for bread," leading perhaps to an interim agreement that paves the way for future final-status talks. The Palestinians' choice of violence over negotiations has cost them dearly, not only in human lives and economic hardship, but in time. As former US president Bill Clinton and former prime minister Ehud Barak tried to convince Arafat, the deal offered him then will not improve in the future. Some day, Israel and the Palestinians may well sign a final-status agreement, but the delay will not have worked in the Palestinians' favor.

Time has not served the Palestinians well - they could have had the most territory had the Arab world accepted the UN's 1947 Partition Plan; somewhat less if the Arab states had accepted Israel's land-for-peace offer just after the 1967 war; and they missed the boat again in late 2000. The trend, for the Palestinians, is not in the right direction. In each case, the Palestinians or the Arab states that spoke on their behalf overestimated their political or military strength and underestimated Israel's sticking power.

The international community and the divisions within Israel have, over the years, reinforced these miscalculations in the Arab world, to the detriment of the prospects for peace. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's landslide victory and - no less important - his success in forming a unity government, should send an unmistakable message that once again the Palestinians have overreached and should cut their losses.

For the Palestinians to fully get the message, the international community must take away any illusions the Palestinians might have that continuing or escalating their shooting war will improve their position. The key piece missing in the puzzle is for the United States to state that it backs Israel's right to self-defense, and therefore has no intention of protecting the Palestinians now, or from the results of any escalation they might initiate. Arafat's speech indicates that, if the US has sent messages along these lines, those messages were too subtle, and must be made more explicit to guide the Palestinians away from escalation and back toward the negotiating table.

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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