In an underwhelming speech on Sunday night, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat once again demonstrated that he remains stuck, not only in a pre-September 11 world, but somewhere back in his revolutionary heyday in the 1970s. The gist of his message was: "Keep attacking Israel, just don't embarrass me." Arafat called for an end to suicide bombings and mortar attacks against Israel, but there is nothing new in this, and the mortar attacks continued just hours after his speech. Rather than disproving Israel's declaration that he is "irrelevant," his speech reinforced Israel's point that Arafat will not use his bloated military forces to prevent terrorism.
If anything, Arafat's speech would seem to be an attempt to substitute words for effective actions, rather than a prelude to such actions. His pledge to "punish all planners and executors of terrorism" begs the question why his 12 security forces, numbering over 40,000 troops, have not arrested the 33 terrorist kingpins who are well known both to him and to Israel. Two of the terrorists on this list carried out the latest atrocity near Emmanuel, in which 10 Israelis were murdered.
Arafat did not speak of the intifada, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad by name. He did, however, repeatedly extol the merits of national unity. The Hamas spokesman in Ramallah even praised the speech and its calls for national unity and dialogue.
The speech was therefore a continuation of Arafat's attempt to reconcile the unreconcilable: terrorism with legitimacy, war with peace, and confrontation with unity. For years now, since the beginning of Oslo, Arafat has played "red light, green light" with Hamas and Islamic Jihad - trying to keep them at bay or unleashing them at his own convenience. This is the game that the international community has demanded that he stop. Yet his appeal to Hamas and Islamic Jihad to end suicide bombings was not on principle and forever, but tactical - not to play into the hands of the Israeli government.
Not surprisingly, in addition to praising the speech in Ramallah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad spokesmen stated yesterday on Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi television that they would continue suicide-murders of Israelis. And a Fatah official told Israel Radio that Arafat's speech did not prohibit continued terrorism against Israelis in the territories or attacks against Israeli soldiers.
All of this indicates that Arafat does not yet believe he is facing the sort of ultimatum that faced the Taliban. Even though Arafat clearly realizes he is in a bind, he has reason to believe that colluding with terror is not an existential threat. The Israeli claim that Arafat is "irrelevant" is a two-edged sword - on the one hand it says he is to be isolated, on the other that Israel will not remove him. As importantly, the Israeli decision was not echoed by the United States and Europe, which hastened to declare that they would keep talking to Arafat.
When asked about what happens if Arafat refuses to crack down on terror, US Secretary of State Colin Powell hinted at the other shoe that is left to fall: "I think the consequence for him is that he will slowly lose authority within the region. The United States will be examining all of our options for how we deal with him." It is, of course, possible that, like the Taliban, Arafat would rather go down fighting than give in to even the most unequivocal ultimatum from Israel, the United States, or both. But why should he start fighting Hamas and Islamic Jihad when even some Israeli leaders have not given up on Arafat's indispensability, not to mention the international community?
Pronouncements that Arafat was facing his moment of truth were evidently premature. The reason that Arafat would not even mention the intifada, let alone call it off, was that the Palestinian offensive has been built up to mythical proportions - to nothing less than Palestine's "war of independence." Arafat will not end it unless the imminent prospect of loss of power is staring him in the face.
On Sunday, US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said, "We're asking no more of Chairman Arafat than we've asked of every responsible leader, and that is not to allow terrorism to continue in areas that you control." This implies that Arafat will be held to the standard that the Taliban was held to. But implications are evidently not enough to drive Arafat beyond the usual bobbing and weaving.
We must remember that the Taliban did not believe that the US could carry out its threat, and the Taliban was one of the most isolated regimes in the world even before September 11. It is far from clear that Saddam Hussein believes his days in power are numbered. Though the global post-September 11 standard is beginning to be applied to Arafat, he has little reason to believe that his time has come. Arafat will not act, if he ever does, unless Israel and the United States create a true moment of truth, a moment that still lies ahead.
©2001 - Jerusalem Post