By Evelyn Gordon - September 11, 2001
Minister without Portfolio Dan Naveh had a point when he said that the initial widespread support for vicious anti-Israel resolutions at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban last week resulted less from poor preparation for the conference than from the general mishandling of Israeli public relations over the past year. During this period, Naveh noted, Israel "has refrained from running a campaign against [Yasser] Arafat, while Arafat has energetically pursued a campaign of demonization against Israel."
Naveh actually understates the case. Most Israeli officials have not only restrained their criticism of Arafat, they continue to term him our "partner for peace," with whom Israel yearns to resume negotiations. Our foreign minister has begged repeatedly to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, and will probably do so this week or next.
Arafat, by contrast, has hurled the basest, and most baseless, accusations imaginable against Israel - that it uses depleted uranium weapons against the Palestinians, that it distributes poisoned candies to Palestinian children. Is it so surprising that the average WCAR delegate - neither knowing nor caring much about the Middle East - preferred the man whom even his enemies deem a statesman to the putative distributor of poisoned candies?
Obviously, this is not the whole story. Many factors were at play in Durban, ranging from traditional anti-Israel bias to opposition to Israel's actual policies in the territories (as distinct from Arafat's fantasies). But it is part of the story, and an important one: By continuing to treat Arafat as a statesman rather than a terrorist, Israel has seriously undermined its own version of events and bolstered the credibility of Arafat's version.
Arafat's version is that Israel declared war on the innocent Palestinians in order to perpetuate an unjust occupation that deprives them of basic human rights. Individual Palestinians, traumatized by the horrors of occupation, do occasionally murder Israelis, but the PA is incapable of stopping these (understandable) attacks.
The Israeli version is that Arafat could easily have ended the "occupation" by accepting Israel's offer at Camp David last summer: an independent state on over 90 percent of the territories, with Jewish settlements to be evacuated. Instead, he chose to launch a terrorist war that deliberately targets women and children. This war is not only encouraged and financed by the PA, but is frequently waged by official PA forces. All the countermeasures Israel has taken have been necessary to protect its own citizens - the first duty of any state.
The inherent problem in Israel's version is that even defensive wars hurt the innocent. Battles in populated areas do sometimes cause civilian casualties, and Israeli troops have accidentally killed Palestinian women and children. Security roadblocks impede the movement of noncombatants as well as terrorists. And many Palestinians have lost their jobs because, as enemy nationals, they are no longer allowed in Israel. It is possible to justify these ugly side effects of war only if the war itself is justified. But if, as Arafat claims, this is an unprovoked war against an innocent population, then Israel's behavior is indeed unjustifiable.
Israel's case thus stands or falls on its claim that it is engaging in justified self-defense against a vicious terrorist war perpetrated by Arafat. Yet it is precisely this claim that is undercut by the insistence that Arafat remains a partner for peace. How can a man who deliberately launched a terrorist war rather than accept an offer of statehood be a partner for peace?
The United States does not consider Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden a "partner for peace;" Spain does not deem its Basque terrorists "partners for peace;" the Turks do not call the Kurds "partners for peace." To most of the world, in fact, the idea that someone responsible for a terrorist war could be deemed a partner for peace by his victims is simply incomprehensible. Thus when Israel calls Arafat its partner for peace, what the rest of the world hears is that Israel does not really believe Arafat has declared war on it; this claim is mere rhetorical exaggeration. And if the PA is not waging war, then Israel's warlike countermeasures are unjustified.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon initially seemed to understand this. When he first took office, he pointedly labeled Arafat the terrorist he is. But Labor, and particularly Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, insisted that calling Arafat a terrorist rather than a statesman would harm Israel's peace-seeking image. And Sharon, fearing for his coalition, gave in.
The Herculean efforts needed to remove the anti-Israel resolutions in Durban last week, however, were the ultimate proof that Peres's policy has failed: Israel's ambivalent message on Arafat has merely made the Palestinian leader's charges more credible to the uninformed.
Sharon must therefore immediately reinstate his policy of telling the unvarnished truth about Arafat - because only if the world grasps this truth will it ever understand Israel's actions.
©2001 - Jerusalem Post