Arafat’s final opportunity

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The past two weeks have been the most violent since early 1996, and marked what may be the final phase in the disintegration of the Oslo process. The suicide bombings and other terror attacks in Israeli cities came a few days after the new American peace initiative that that been demanded by the Palestinians and their supporters in the region. The wave of terror attacks coincided with the beginning of United States envoy Anthony Zinni’s mission to implement earlier ceasefire agreements, and posed a direct challenge to the Sharon government and to the Bush administration.

These attacks triggered a fundamental change in the balance of political forces. Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat’s strategy since September 2000 has been to use violence to press Israeli leaders into responding with “excessive force,” in order to justify international intervention and change the dynamics of the situation in favor of the Palestinians. In contrast, Ariel Sharon has sought to avoid this trap, while also leading a policy designed to prevent Arafat from claiming any political gains through the use of violence and terror.

The carnage in Jerusalem and Haifa fully exposed the mythology of a “popular uprising,” and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority was seen as responsible for allowing and encouraging terrorism. In response, Israel launched the broadest military operation to date. The goal is to force the Palestinian Authority (PA) to implement its commitments, or, if necessary, to prepare the way for Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) intervention to destroy the terrorist infrastructure. The Sharon government’s policies are supported by a wide Israeli consensus, and have the explicit endorsement of the US, as well as broader international acceptance.

It would be a mistake to view this confrontation simplistically as a final shoot-out between Sharon and Arafat as individuals, like the climax of a classic gunslinger movie. The IDF has not sought to kill Arafat or force his exile–if this was the objective, it could be readily achieved. Instead, Arafat’s escape routes were closed in order to prevent him from fleeing the scene, for a change. Arafat is being forced to choose between directing the PA’s security forces to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, or demonstrating once and for all that he has no interest in, or capability to fulfill his end of the agreements.

The Oslo process created and granted legitimacy to the Palestinian Authority, as a nascent state to be developed through interim agreements and the permanent status negotiations. Israel accepted Arafat’s return from Tunis to lead this process, and the large security forces under his command were equipped with thousands of automatic weapons. This force was explicitly designed to provide stability in the territories under PA control, and to prevent terrorist attacks against Israel.

Instead, from the Israeli perspective, this experiment is now widely viewed as a disaster. The failure of the Camp David talks in July 2000 showed that Arafat’s demands, particularly on the refugee issue, were tantamount to demanding the end of the Jewish state, and had not changed since 1947. The incitement and rejection of Israeli legitimacy–as seen in textbooks, official media, and speeches before international frameworks such as the United Nations–still fuel violence and terrorism.

At the same time, repeated pledges to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure have lost credibility. On the contrary, Arafat and the PA have allowed and encouraged periodic waves of bombings over the past eight years, as well as other forms of violence. Working with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other groups, the PA itself is viewed as a main source of terrorism, and warnings of anarchy or the dangers of extremism after the Arafat era are viewed as no worse than the intolerable status quo.

Nevertheless, Sharon’s decision to use ambiguous terms in defining the PA as “an entity that supports terrorism” gives Arafat one final opportunity, and also limits the strain within the Israeli coalition government. The option still exists for an immediate and fully transparent change in policy. This time, Israelis, Americans, and even many European leaders expect far more than the empty words, revolving doors, and house-arrests of top Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders.

However, in the absence of a drastic change, Arafat’s status will revert completely to that of terrorist leader, stripped of political standing and the benefits of international recognition. Similarly, until the terrorist infrastructure is visibly dismantled, Israel will treat the Palestinian Authority as a hostile and dangerous enemy. And if this stage is reached, the chances for stability and management of this conflict, and for the establishment of a Palestinian state, will be held in abeyance for many years, or perhaps generations. This is Arafat’s final opportunity to fulfill his end of the Oslo agreements, and belatedly begin the long and difficult process of transformation from zero-sum conflict to stable coexistence and cooperation.

Professor Gerald Steinberg is the Director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation at Bar Ilan University.

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