If ever there was a photo-opportunity demonstrating what is behind the hand that Yasser Arafat sometimes stretches out in peace, the wharf full of captured weaponry displayed last night was it. The captured ship, the Karine-A, was reportedly purchased in October 2000 - just months after the end of the Camp David summit and at the same time Arafat was pledging his first cease-fire to Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton, Hosni Mubarak, and Kofi Annan at the Sharm e-Sheikh summit. Every time one thinks that Arafat's duplicity cannot be more apparent, he manages to reach new heights.
Arafat, as a diplomat might delicately point out, has a credibility problem.
His fingerprints are all over the ship, in the form of its Palestinian Authority ownership, the high-ranking PA commander who was the ship's captain, the large cost which could not be hidden, and the involvement of Arafat's right-hand man when it comes to smuggling operations. The idea suggested by an unnamed US official - that the ship was smuggling weapons to Hizbullah in Lebanon - is bizarre and shows how deeply denial can run.
The most obvious significance of this enormous weapons cache is that Arafat's real intention is not only to escalate terrorist attacks (over two tons of explosives were found on the ship) but to move beyond terrorism. As military leaders and analysts have pointed out, the only purpose of the relatively long-range weaponry captured is to threaten Israeli population centers. Throughout the Oslo period until today, Arafat has been building a sizable army, in complete disregard for the personnel and weaponry limits imposed by the Oslo agreement.
The idea Arafat might be building his illegal army for defensive purposes does not wash. Arafat's simplest defense is not to attack Israel in the first place, in which case none of the closures and incursions into PA-controlled territory would be necessary. A much more plausible explanation - which Israel has no choice but to assume - is bucking for a pivotal role in general Arab war for Israel's destruction.
Even dovish proponents of a Palestinian state agree it must be demilitarized and may not form alliances with Israel's enemies, such as Iran and Iraq. Now we see that Arafat is not bothering to wait until he has a state to violate both conditions.
There are a number of strategic lessons Israel and the international community should draw from the hand Arafat has revealed.
The first is it is irresponsible to rely on any commitments Arafat might make that a Palestinian state would be demilitarized, even commitments made in the context of a future peace agreement. It is naive to believe any future agreement will constrain Arafat's determination to arm himself to the teeth any more than Oslo did.
In this arena, the experience with Saddam Hussein is instructive. For years, the international community operated under the assumption draconian international sanctions and inspections could keep Saddam from rearming. In the end Saddam - despite having much less international sympathy than Arafat - managed to free himself of most of his international shackles. The US and many other countries have accordingly come to the conclusion the only way to prevent Saddam from becoming a further menace to his neighbors is his removal from office.
In the Palestinian case as well, Arafat has proven legal and diplomatic constraints are impotent in the face of a regime determined to militarize as much as possible. The Santorini and the Karine-A were intercepted, but Arafat has been smuggling arms through underground tunnels, in his own helicopter, and by any other means possible. Given the experience with Arafat, it is not surprising the possibility of a Palestinian state that does not threaten Israel is being called into question. Yet even if one does not go so far as to reject the idea of a Palestinian state in principle, it should be clear agreements alone are not sufficient to guarantee its demilitarization.
As with Iraq, the only guarantee of real peace is not agreements but the nature of the regime that signs them. Saying Arafat is irrelevant may be a somewhat useful description of how he should be treated, but it is not really true. Arafat has demonstrated he will never lead a state at peace with Israel. For anyone who supports the idea of a Palestinian state, whether it is led by Arafat or another dictator like him should not only be relevant, but critical. The primary message of Arafat's ship of death is it is not possible to trust any agreement with the Palestinian people so long as it is led by the current regime.
©2001 - Jerusalem Post