Speaking in Tel Aviv at a sorrowful time for the peace he had hoped for, Bill Clinton noted that Yasser Arafat "missed a golden opportunity" when the Palestinian chief refused to settle for a state of his own in Gaza and on the West Bank, plus a share of Jerusalem. The exact borders and other peaceful arrangements could have been worked out in final negotiations, but Chairman Arafat didn't even bother to make a counteroffer. Where there's no will, there's no way.
As has been noted before, those who represent the Arabs of Palestine have a long, even historic, pattern of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. That sad pattern goes all the way back to the Peel Commission of 1937, which envisioned an Arab state next to a small Jewish one on maybe a fifth of what was then Palestine. But any proposal that left a Jewish state in existence at all was a nonstarter then and, alas, now.
The real mystery about Yasser Arafat's self-defeating diplomacy is why he didn't accept his state in 2000, sign some more papers, do another White House handshake to the blare of world acclaim, and only then launch his intifada from a position of strength. He would have had a recognized government behind him. Why did he choose to destroy the Oslo Accords when, if he had exercised a little patience, he could have directed his guerrilla war from a solid base?
Was the Palestinian leader afraid that, if he signed a full-fledged peace treaty recognizing Israel, he would lose his grip on a people taught to hate for so long that any peace with the infidel is anathema? Or was he afraid that the benefits of peace would prove so attractive that he would no longer be able to summon up popular support for his clandestine war? Maybe none of these purely tactical questions arose in Yasser Arafat's slogan-clogged mind. Maybe this peace was war from the first because, in the most familiar phrase about that part of the world, That's the Middle East. It's a region where fantasies long ago replaced reality, fanaticism is the norm, and reason would be the radical innovation. Which means peace was never a real option -- just another tricky stage in the unending war waged against the very idea of a Jewish state in the Mideast.
Fouad Ajami, one of the more perceptive observers of the tangle that is the Middle East, has noted the endemic hatred of Israel throughout the Arab world. By now it's been passed on from generation to generation like Huntington's Chorea, clicking in on schedule every time a chance for peace matures. Only those unfamiliar with the pattern would think the failure of negotiations an opportunity missed -- instead of an inevitable tragedy. To quote Fouad Ajami's diagnosis: "In the play between a maximalist claim on Israel -- a view that sees the very creation of Israel as a historical sin -- the practical always yields in Palestinian thought and practice. It loses out to the wrath, to the persisting idea that the land as a whole, from the river to the sea, ... as the Palestinians say, is still there to be claimed. ... The simple, unadorned truth about Arafat is how true he has remained to this bitter, failed history. This intifada, this war, his handiwork, is thus an old, familiar story. To hunker down, to take the wrath of the crowd, and of the young, and focus it on Israel, to sharpen maximalist dreams, to give the crowd a sense of exemption from political realism. ... This has been Arafat's way."
And it remains his way. He knows no life beyond such fantasies. He says he would gladly become a martyr for a Palestinian state, but would he be willing to live in a peaceful one? If so, he could have had such a state long ago, but has found one excuse after another to reject it. War is the only life he has known; to give it up would be to give himself up. Yasser Arafat is always harking back to the good old days in the ruins of Beirut, when he was cornered and fighting for his life, and he re-creates those conditions wherever he goes.
Can anyone realistically envision Yasser Arafat in anything but that ridiculous uniform with the peaked kaffiyeh, his mouth ever murmuring the same propaganda while under siege in different redoubts? Can you see him as the leader of a small, peaceful state, worrying about the balance of trade, civil service pensions, garbage collection and all the mundane tasks that go with being a head of state instead of a guerrilla chieftain?
Yasser Arafat is a leader forever stuck in chaos. And his talent for survival has kept his people stuck there with him. Desperation has become the norm in his torn little fiefdom, peace unimaginable. Now it's as if both Jews and Arabs had been sentenced to wander another 40 years in search of their over-promised land. If this were a play, it would be called "No Exit."
Those of us who -- like Bill Clinton -- once thought of peace as inevitable in the Middle East, and bemoaned lost opportunities, may not have realized that there may never have been an opportunity to lose. At the end of all these negotiations, it turned out, was not peace but war. It was fated. What we are now witnessing is a tragedy, and the classic trait of tragedy is its inevitability.
It is a very American trait, to think in terms of opportunities taken or lost, rather than fate. But in hindsight it becomes clearer that, from the first, this peace process was a war process. Only slowly, the Israelis themselves have given up on the dream of peace, at least for their generation and well beyond. A few gulls like Shimon Peres, their nominal foreign minister, may still talk of negotiations, but soon the only Israeli doves will be found in zoos.
The Israelis have begun not just hunting down bombers, but moving into territory ceded under the Oslo Accord, which became a dead letter some time ago. Tulkarm, a center for Arab raiders even when Jordan's Arab Legion held it, may prove to be only one of many towns the Israelis will enter in their determination to root out terrorists. For if Yasser Arafat is not going to ensure the peace, the Israelis will certainly try. And it will be no easy or short task.
A real war now takes the place of a false peace. How long will it go on? Indefinitely. What we are seeing now is not so much the death of a dream -- it went up in smoke more than a year ago -- but its interment, and the coming to terms with reality. It is always slow, slogging work, grief.