After Palestinians assassinated Israel’s Minister of Tourism, Rechavam Ze’evi, the cabinet met to equate the PA (Palestinian Authority) with the Taliban, claiming that both groups host terrorists. It then used this analogy to justify an invasion of Area A (putatively under full Palestinian control). In response, the Palestinian Minister of Information, Yasser Abed Rabbo, compared besieged Ramallah with New York, implying an equation between Israeli PM Ariel Sharon and Osama Bin Laden.
The struggle between the PA and Israel currently centers on the question, which side will gain greater favor from the American-led coalition against terrorism. Arafat contributed his own blood for the wounded of New York; he also contributed the blood of three other Palestinians: they defied his orders by going to the streets in support of Bin Laden. By such means he tried to persuade the Americans to erase the mark of Cain from his forehead, embossed since he picked the wrong side in the Gulf War.
The Americans have become impatient with both Israel and the Palestinians. They reject any attempt by an outside party to use the names Bin Laden or Taliban as a rationale. Bin Laden is one and only, and the injured is one and only. (Similarly, Israel insists that the Holocaust is not comparable: the term belongs to none but the Jewish people.) In Washington’s view, Israelis and Palestinians ought to stop their squabbling so it can “smoke Bin Laden out” and exchange this Taliban for a slightly more moderate edition. After that’s accomplished, as far as it’s concerned, the kids can go back to fighting till they wear themselves out.
In Israel, America’s war on terrorism has sharpened internal debate concerning Arafat and the PA. These are part of a lively discussion about who’s to blame for the failure at Camp David and what’s to become of Oslo. Now that the first shock of the Intifada is over, four clear positions have emerged.
First, the settlers aspire to destroy the PA and return to full and direct Occupation. Second comes the position of Sharon, which coincides with that of his rival, Benjamin Netanyahu: they want an interim agreement with the PA é but sans Arafat. Sharon does not believe that the latter can deliver the goods; once he is gone, Israel will find a more amenable Palestinian partner. Third, there is the position of Shimon Peres and his followers: Israel has no choice but to continue with Arafat, because his elimination (physical or political) will bring fundamentalist Hamas into power. Peres also understands, however, that the time isn’t ripe for talking about Jerusalem and the refugees. These issues will have to stay open, but there can be agreement nonetheless over borders and settlements.
A fourth position has been gaining momentum. Senior Labor Party figures such as Haim Ramon and Shlomo Ben Ami are calling for unilateral separation: Israel should pull some of its forces and settlements out of the areas it doesn’t want, establishing an effective border. Ben Ami was with Ehud Barak at Camp David. There he formed a negative opinion of Arafat. He thinks the PA Chief is utterly under the sway of the street and cannot make independent decisions. This view ties in with the populist approach of Ramon: he senses the Israeli longing for security and proposes that the government simply ignore the PA, withdrawing from the Territories according to its own parameters. Ramon’s position, incidentally, might give Labor the distinctive platform it so far lacks for the next elections.
Such a unilateral separation would bear a superficial resemblance to the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Yet the difference is significant. Israel departed from Lebanon after coordinating with the UN; the abandoned area went at once under the jurisdiction of a sovereign state. To withdraw from only a portion of the Territories, however, would leave the basic problem intact. What is more, in Lebanon’s case, Israel withdrew to an internationally recognized border. Here there is none. Finally, the abandoned portion would go into the hands of the PA, which is on the verge of anarchy. Israel would thus gain neither security nor a partner for ending the conflict.
Common to all four positions is the fact that they give up on a permanent agreement. That amounts to conceding the failure of Oslo. In the Palestinian view, the whole point of interim agreements is to help them realize their national aims. Arafat will lose his base of support if he cannot achieve these.
Although each side stridently accuses the other, both are guilty of spilling innocent blood. Israel never intended to make far-reaching concessions. It demanded that Arafat do what it wouldn’t: yield on the major issues at the cost of internal division, perhaps civil war. The PA Chief, for his part, wanted to shore up prestige abroad while building a local fiefdom. He spoke with forked tongue: one way to his people, another to Israel and the West. Given the events of September 11, he no longer has that luxury. If he stays in power, it will be as America’s ally. If he loses power, the Territories will devolve into chaos. Either way you cut it, the loser as ever will be the Palestinian people.
There is no doubt that the Palestinians want to end the Occupation. But for all their courage, it isn’t enough to stand up against the tanks of Israel. They must also develop a new leadership, one that will draw the proper conclusions from the Oslo experience: not for the sake of a reactionary Islamist vision, but rather to advance a program both revolutionary and realistic, one that can lift the Palestinian people out of the morass created by corrupt and shortsighted leaders.
Roni Ben Efrat is the editor of Challenge magazine.