Think crime doesn't pay? Don't tell it to Yasser Arafat. The former (which is not to say "ex-") terrorist continues to inspire those who would build their careers on violence. This week Arafat showed that he could still capture the limelight, still set the agenda, and further his cause for an independent Palestine with himself as its leader. Using the Beirut Arab summit as his arena Arafat reclaimed his title of "most talked about Muslim radical" from heavyweight challenger Osama bin Laden.
The Arab "summit" hardly lived up to its billing — almost half the Arab leaders were not present, including key leaders from Egypt, Jordan, Libya, and Iraq. (Muammar Qaddafi absented himself, miffed that the Saudi peace plan had taken precedence over the one he had proposed last year — the creation of a combined state of "Isratine," which, he insisted, is "not a joke.") No-show Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak advised Arafat not to attend, fearing in particular that Israel would only give Arafat a one-way ticket and leave him stranded. Arafat's decision to stay put must have come as a relief to most other regional leaders, few of whom (except perhaps Saddam Hussein) would be willing to allow the Palestinian Authority to set up its government in exile within their borders. Instead, Arafat scored martyr points by staying in Ramallah, and probably could have done no better for himself had he been in Beirut.
But while the Palestinian issue dominated the summit, the summiteers were not going out of their way to place Arafat at center stage. The Palestinian "walkout" on Wednesday was essentially over billing. They had wanted Arafat's speech to have maximum visibility and impact, to be delivered live via video hookup directly following the speech by Saudi Prince Abdullah. When the Palestinians were told instead that they would be given a spot far down the program, Arafat delivered his speech anyway over al Jazeera with the expectation it would be piped into the hall, which it was not. The Lebanese blamed unspecified "technical difficulties caused by Israel" but the Palestinians rejected this explanation.
In his speech Arafat endorsed the Saudi peace plan, and stated — indeed, repeated thrice — that Holy Jerusalem would be the capital of the independent Palestinian state. One was reminded of the failed Camp David negotiations, in which President Clinton told Arafat in no uncertain terms that he "could not have everything he wanted," particularly Jerusalem as his capital. Arafat must have found it amusing. He had survived for 35 years on the run, evading assassination from enemies both outside and inside his movement, had built his status from international criminal to world leader, and was being told by a lame-duck dilettante from Arkansas that he could not have everything he wanted? His response was to bring down the Israeli government.
It is hard to blame Arafat for pursuing his cause so doggedly, since he keeps meeting with success. The most important leverage he has is the U.S. desire for an amorphous goal known as "regional stability." He can always count on the Americans to tell the Israelis to back off eventually, which greatly enhances the utility of violence as a tool of Palestinian policy. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had been engaging in an excruciatingly slow escalation over the last few months, but the disturbances had only grown worse, and Palestinian firepower had increased dramatically. Gone were the days of teenagers in the streets with slings — now one saw footage of young men with machine guns and rocket launchers. It was inevitable that the Americans would intervene — in addition to the quest for stability, the U.S. needed to establish the political conditions for the strike on Iraq. So General (USMC ret) Anthony Zinni was again dispatched to broker an as-yet elusive cease-fire, and Vice President Cheney became involved during his regional tour.
The Arab Summit itself was a distraction from the Iraq issue, and that was one of its purposes. It is worth remembering that Saddam Hussein had called for an emergency Arab session to discuss the Palestinian issue last fall. Iraq has consistently attempted to create a united front on this issue, to fuse the Arab world together under Iraqi leadership to support the Palestinians and combat the Israelis and the U.S. Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, who represented Iraq at the summit, stated that Iraq was not being altruistic in supporting the Palestinians, since the two peoples are fighting the same battle. A few other countries have picked up this theme. Syria, which perhaps sees itself as a likely target after Iraq, sponsored a massive "pro-Palestinian/anti-U.S. attack on Iraq" demonstration in Damascus. However, the draft final communiqué released Wednesday must have been a disappointment to the Iraqis. The section dealing with a possible attack on Iraq is tame and abstract compared to some of the sections on Palestine. It is also brief — the section dealing with the UAE's sovereignty over three small islands currently occupied by Iran got more column inches. The Arab states are not going to rally behind Iraq in support of the Palestinians and risk a general conflagration, any more than they approved of the SCUD attacks on Israel in 1991. Far better to work behind the scenes, to continue to fund and arm the intifada, to support a peace proposal that will be tough enough on Israel to placate their domestic constituencies, and still cooperate in the war on terror when necessary.
Arafat has signed on to the Saudi peace plan, and why not? An independent Palestine with Israel inside its 1967 borders is a better deal than anything previously on the table. It is a decent intermediate objective, and sets up the argument for pushing Israel back to its 1948 borders, and afterwards pressing the struggle to its logical conclusion. The point seems to be lost on the diplomats that so long as violence is rewarded, it will persist. Keeping the war in Israel hot serves too many interests. Most importantly it keeps the U.S. off balance, and for this reason the bloodshed can be expected to worsen as our attention shifts more pointedly towards Iraq.
It is odd that the war on terror extends to the southern Philippines, to the Yemeni outback, to Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, but does not extend to Israel. It is strange that the issue of possible Iraqi complicity with 9/11 is a topic of concern but Iraqi involvement with anti-Israeli terror is not. It is puzzling that the United States is pursuing a strategy of eliminating safe havens for terrorists worldwide yet supports the formation of a terror state on the border of the only multiparty democracy in the Middle East. Why this great concern for Arafat's well being? What sway does he hold on our decision-makers? Is it that he is perceived as a moderate? Surely, he cultivates that image, while allowing radicals to pursue violence and making token arrests when the U.S. complains. Do our people feel that if Arafat was displaced whoever came next would be worse? Or that a general war would break out in the region?
Whatever the reason, the fact is that Yasser Arafat is kept in power by the influence of the United States — and because he knows this, he is free to press the Israelis to their breaking point, and to turn a blind eye to radicals carrying out terror operations against Israeli civilians, and continue to pursue his vision of an Israel-free world. Prime Minister Sharon recently said he had been asked repeatedly by the United States not to harm Arafat, and had given assurances he would not. "My consent may have been correct at first," he said. "But from a certain stage in the conflict it was a mistake. I should have told [the Americans] 'I can't keep that commitment.' " Let's face it, Yasser Arafat is a terrorist. He should be treated as such. The United States is not limiting itself in its antiterror war — why should it limit Israel?By James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor
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