Title: Message
Middle East

Adieu, Arafat?
Dec 6th 2001
From The Economist print edition

Israel might be even less safe from terrorist outrages without him


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FROM September 11th until last weekend, George Bush's administration sturdily resisted Israel's pressure to squeeze its conflict with the Palestinians into the umbrella-shade of America's war on international terrorism. Instead, the Israeli government was urged, as so often before, to temper its response to Palestinian violence, to show restraint in the interests of an elusive peace and an anti-terrorist coalition. But the vile suicide-attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa, which killed at least 25 people and wounded many more, went too far. Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, who happened to be on Mr Bush's Washington doorstep at the time, seems to have been given the nod to defend his country as he sees fit. And how he sees fit is to respond to terrorism with an anti-terrorist war that the Israelis like to compare to America's own.

Israel's war, perhaps still in its early stages, is pointedly aimed at Yasser Arafat, his Palestinian Authority and its institutions. The Israeli cabinet has determined that the Palestinian Authority is “an entity that supports terrorism” and that Tanzim (Fatah's field organisation) and Mr Arafat's own presidential guard are “terrorist organisations”. If Mr Arafat is to save himself and his regime, he must fulfil his commitment to prevent violence against Israel by arresting and prosecuting those who plot it or carry it out. The onus is squarely and solely on the Palestinian leader, say the Israelis, and the Americans, at least for the moment, are saying the same.

They are right in pointing out that the protection of Israel's security is an obligation that Mr Arafat has accepted. What they do not add is that Mr Sharon's policy of assassinating Palestinian militants, invading Palestinian towns and blowing up police stations has made the obligation unfulfillable. If Mr Arafat now gave orders for the wholesale arrest of the people whom Israel names as culpable, he would not be obeyed. Given Hamas's growing popularity with an embittered Palestinian population, he has difficulty in getting his Fatah security men to arrest Hamas leaders, let alone to arrest their fellows in Fatah. His people, under bombardment, are balking at the occupied being asked to provide security for the occupier.

The show can't go on

Mr Arafat has always run a one-man show, surrounded by cronies, with barely a hint of democracy. Now the show is in deep trouble. Though he takes the decisions, he likes to have a consensus behind him. But by trying to give a little bit of ground to everyone—the Americans, the Israelis, his own people—the Palestinian leader has ended up losing the trust of all three. In the 40 years or so since he founded, inspired and led the Palestinian liberation movement, Mr Arafat has survived many travails. He has been written off, wrongly, before. But he may now have been fatally weakened, partly by Israeli actions and partly by his own vacillations as the region twists in a cruel cycle of eye-for-an-eye vengeance.

His weakening, or so many people believe, may be part of Mr Sharon's longer-term intentions. Israel's prime minister does not have to carry his war on terrorism to the extreme, of “eliminating” Mr Arafat and his fellows. That would still be unacceptable to the Americans, and to the prime minister's Labour colleagues—if they remain in his coalition (see article). Loss of control, and increasing irrelevance, may suffice. Mr Sharon's long practice has been to make ad hoc agreements with local leaders, while preserving Israel's overall control. He may hope to do the same again, while bringing in ever more settlers to make the transfer of land ever more remote.

The absence of a convincing Palestinian central government could absolve Mr Sharon from the land-for-peace obligations that, from deep conviction, he finds so hard to accept. He could not, when he became prime minister, go back on the Oslo peace accords. Although he opposed them, Israel was committed, and most Israelis saw the treaties as paths to the lasting peace that they craved. Now, however, the peace process has dematerialised: in the face of the intifada and Israel's response to it, only a head-in-the-clouds optimist can believe that a genuine land-for-peace agreement has any chance of being put back on the table any time soon. With a mortally wounded Palestinian Authority, the prospect is even bleaker.

The radicals in the wings

If no glimmer of light is to be found in all this gritty darkness, is Mr Arafat's survival essential? In other circumstances, it would be easy to agree that he was well past retirement age. Brilliant as a resistance leader, he has turned out to be rotten at government, leading his people into wretchedness. He has failed to prevent a year of Palestinian violence against Israel, turning a blind eye to terrorism. He is a poor negotiator, tumbling into traps. Above all, he has lost control. His successors, secular or Islamist, would almost certainly present a more cohesive programme and would probably be more democratic. But, reflecting the current Palestinian consensus, they would also be more radical in their policies towards Israel.

The Palestinians' point of view is rather simple: they believe that they are an occupied people fighting a colonial war against their military occupier. They do not accept that they were offered a fair deal last year. Unlike Mr Arafat, they have probably given up on any good coming out of the American connection. And most of them consider their terrorist strikes on Israel, let alone their attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers, to be a just response to the Israeli strikes that, in the past 14 months, have killed nearly 800 of their people, many of them as innocent as the Israeli victims in Jerusalem and Haifa.

Outsiders do not have to accept the Palestinians' vision of themselves to recognise, and try to check, the danger of the course that the Israeli government is now pursuing. A Palestinian leader who has lost control may sound expendable. But his departure is unlikely to open the way for a regime that is both in control and prepared to co-operate with any workable formula for peace. Mr Arafat has plainly failed to please everyone. But if he is harried by the Israelis into oblivion, his successors, at great cost to the region, may have an agenda that has no interest in, and no chance of, pleasing anyone.

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