Yesterday's terrorist attack on a bus lineup in Tel Aviv does not alter the basic choice the new Israeli government must make as soon as it assumes office: Save the Palestinian Authority or let it collapse and face the consequences? Such is its dire economic position that unless Israel releases funds to the PA, it will be bankrupt by summer. On top of this, aid promised from Arab states at the start of the intifada in October, 2000, has not arrived.
There are arguments to support both choices, but let's focus on the previously unthinkable argument: Allow the PA and Yasser Arafat to go under.
Since Camp David, it has been clear Mr. Arafat is not capable -- or willing -- to make the kind of difficult concessions required if there is to be a final status agreement with the Israelis. For Mr. Arafat, the major concessions were made in 1987, with PLO acceptance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians viewed the Oslo Accords of 1993 as the mechanism for reaching statehood, but not an end to the conflict. The winning of statehood is generally perceived in the West as the culmination of nationalist aspirations. This is false.
History has taught us that statehood merely fuels nationalism and leads to an increase in territorial aspirations; hence Mr. Arafat's notion of a piece-by-piece destruction of the state of Israel. Oslo, for Mr. Arafat, has more to do with establishing his legitimacy to rule over the local Palestinian population and creating a PLO-controlled state than reconciling with Israel. In short, why should Israel support a leader whose record shows he is at most a partial partner for peace and who has manifestly failed to make the transformation from revolutionary leader to statesman?
The conventional argument against letting the PA go under is that it will be replaced by a more radical organization that will call for renewed hostilities. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have attempted to position themselves in case the secularists fall. Little evidence, however, suggests they enjoy the support from Palestinians they did during the early 1990s. In truth, the merits of this argument have all but collapsed since October, 2000. Ask Israelis if they are afraid of war and many argue Israel is already in a low-intensity war that has seen Israeli civilians used as legitimate targets by groups controlled by Mr. Arafat.
The international community and Israel should look to the leadership on the ground, which for so many years has been afraid to stand up to the returning PLO members. Among the Palestinian inhabitants of Ramallah and other Arab cities, there is a feeling of disillusionment with the PA. This feeling is so strong it is only a matter of time before the legitimacy Mr. Arafat worked so hard to develop vanishes, with the resulting further damage to Palestinian democracy.
Finally, Israel, in signing the Oslo accords, effectively sub-contracted the task of fighting terrorism to the PA. Mr. Arafat, for his part, has not fulfilled his side of the bargain. Even before the outbreak of violence in October, attacks against Israelis have increased twofold since 1993. Mr. Arafat's active use of violence for political gain has surprised many. Today in Israel, influential security officials argue the Palestinian state will effectively be a terrorist state and Israel has nothing to gain from propping up the PA.
In historical terms, Ariel Sharon faces the same choice the late Yitzhak Rabin had in 1993. However, unlike, Mr. Rabin, the Prime Minister-elect has more evidence of the nature of Mr. Arafat and the problems of satisfying Palestinians' nationalist aspirations. The peace process that started in 1993 in Oslo appears effectively over and Israel should start a long-term search for peace partners. Israelis and Palestinians both deserve something better than the mess it has created.
Dr. Neill Lochery is director of the graduate program in Israel Studies at University College London.
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