September/October 2000

Arafat's War


Maybe the most revealing feature of this latest explosion in Israeli- Palestinian violence is the fact that this war has no name. The "intifada," the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980's, got its name almost immediately. Intifada loosely means "shaking off," and Palestinians were said to be trying to shake off the Israeli occupation. The name made so much sense that even Israelis used it. But the violence of the last two weeks still has no name. And that is not an accident. It's because even the participants can't explain what it's about, or, deep down, they're embarrassed to do so.

Here's why: The roots of this latest violent outburst can be traced directly back to President Clinton's press conference after the breakdown of the Camp David summit. At that time, Mr. Clinton pointedly, deliberately — and rightly — stated that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered unprecedented compromises at the summit — more than 90 percent of the West Bank for a Palestinian state, a partial resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem and Palestinian sovereignty over the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem — and that Yasir Arafat had not responded in kind, or at all.

Palestinians were shocked by Mr. Clinton's assessment. For the first time in a long time, Mr. Arafat no longer had the moral high ground. He, and the Arab leaders, had grown so comfortable with Bibi Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel — a man the world always blamed for any peace breakdown — that they were stunned and unprepared for the seriousness of Mr. Barak's offer and the bluntness of Mr. Clinton's assessment. Other world leaders told Mr. Arafat the same thing: Barak deserves a serious counteroffer.

Mr. Arafat had a dilemma: make some compromises, build on Mr. Barak's opening bid and try to get it closer to 100 percent — and regain the moral high ground that way — or provoke the Israelis into brutalizing Palestinians again, and regain the moral high ground that way. Mr. Arafat chose the latter. So instead of responding to Mr. Barak's peacemaking overture, he and his boys responded to Ariel Sharon's peace- destroying provocation. In short, the Palestinians could not deal with Barak, so they had to turn him into Sharon. And they did.

Of course, the Palestinians couldn't explain it in those terms, so instead they unfurled all the old complaints about the brutality of the continued Israeli occupation and settlement- building. Frankly, the Israeli checkpoints and continued settlement- building are oppressive. But what the Palestinians and Arabs refuse to acknowledge is that today's Israeli prime minister was offering them a dignified exit. It was far from perfect for Palestinians, but it was a proposal that, with the right approach, could have been built upon and widened. Imagine if when Mr. Sharon visited the Temple Mount, Mr. Arafat had ordered his people to welcome him with open arms and say, "When this area is under Palestinian sovereignty, every Jew will be welcome, even you, Mr. Sharon." Imagine the impact that would have had on Israelis.

But that would have been an act of statesmanship and real peaceful intentions, and Mr. Arafat, it's now clear, possesses neither. He prefers to play the victim rather than the statesman. This explosion of violence would be totally understandable if the Palestinians had no alternative. But that was not the case. What's new here is not the violence, but the context. It came in the context of a serious Israeli peace overture, which Mr. Arafat has chosen to spurn. That's why this is Arafat's war. That's its real name.

If you want to know how confused the Palestinians are, consider this quotation from their senior negotiator, Hasan Asfour: "There can be no [resumption of] peace talks without an international investigation [into the latest violence]. Our people did not die for nothing."

I see. These Palestinians died so there can be an international investigation into why they were killed. Sad. What a totally messed up set of priorities.

"Basically," said Stephen P. Cohen, a Middle East expert at the Israel Policy Forum, "the Arabs and Palestinians have spent so many years, and used up so much energy, from 1967 to 2000, just getting to the point where they would make peace with Israel if they got 100 percent of what they wanted, that they have no energy now to fight the real battle, which is getting their people to accept 90 percent. The danger — if we don't, despite everything, still find a way to erect a peace — is that the only energy left will be with those who want to undermine everything."

With the gleeful, savage mob murder of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, on top of a week of Israeli-Palestinian killings and now a suicide attack on a U.S. ship in Yemen, the whole region is coming unglued. What's scary is that no one knows what to do next. Moderates cannot continue to argue that if Israel went far enough, it would have a Palestinian partner. But the hard-liners, now saying, "I told you so — the iron fist is the only way to deal with the Palestinians," are peddling a fantasy as well. The iron fist is not a sustainable solution for a state of six million Jews living in a sea of one billion angry Muslims.

So what do you do when there is no partner for peace and there is no alternative to peace? Mourn the dead. Mourn the dead and pray that after this explosion of hatred is over, the parties will find a way to live apart. Otherwise the future is just endless killing and dying, killing and dying, killing and dying, killing and dying, killing and dying, killing and dying. . . .

© 2000 The New York Times

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