The government of Israel decided several weeks ago that Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat “is no longer relevant” from its standpoint. This statement had largely declarative value: on the one hand it expressed the Israeli public’s deep disappointment with Arafat; on the other, it served as an additional instrument of pressure to persuade Arafat to recognize that he will not profit from the violence and terrorism that he initiated in late September 2000.
During the years 1994-2000 the Israeli public pinned its hopes on a peace process that would “end the conflict” and usher in security and economic prosperity. While it was disappointed with the ongoing Palestinian violence that accompanied the process, it generally accepted Arafat’s explanation that he was not responsible for the terrorist attacks, and that he would do all in his power to prevent them. It acknowledged the distinction Arafat presented to the world between “good Palestinians”–supporters of the peace process led by the chairman himself–and “bad Palestinians,” the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Throughout the Oslo process this division enabled Arafat repeatedly to plead his innocence concerning terrorist attacks. He demanded that Israel make concessions that would ostensibly strengthen his standing among the Palestinian public vis-é-vis his violent, refusalist opposition.
Following Arafat’s rejection of Israel’s far- reaching proposals at Camp David in July 2000 (which included the establishment of a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the territory and the division of Jerusalem into two capital cities), even the most moderate Israelis understood that he was not moving toward a political solution to the conflict. Their disappointment grew yet further when it emerged that he had not only elected to abandon the negotiating table, but that upon his return to the Palestinian Authority he directed the terrorist organizations and his own units to launch a wave of terrorism against Israel.
In fact, this directive constituted a direct continuation of Arafat’s policy since establishment of the PA. Arafat believes terrorism serves his objectives. Accordingly, upon signing the Oslo accords he adopted a strategy of maintaining a terrorist potential for the achievement of political goals. At times, when he assessed that terrorism would genuinely damage immediate Palestinian interests, Arafat invoked a policy of “threats and persuasion” to prevent attacks against Israel. On these occasions he informed the Islamic fundamentalist organizations that the costs attached to such attacks outweighed the benefits; hence he directed them to avoid such attacks for the time being. To ensure he was understood, Arafat used the code phrase “damage to the Palestinian national interest.” When these efforts proved unsuccessful, he relied on arrests and local violent clashes to enforce his message.
But even at its height, Arafat’s counterterrorism campaign focused only on restraining the terrorist organizations’ motivation to attack Israel. He never acted to eliminate their violent capabilities. He never destroyed their explosives laboratories, never arrested, tried and jailed terrorists for extended periods, never destroyed illegal weaponry and never began educating his people to seek peace and to accept the existence of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state. Instead, he elected to ignore the terrorist organizations’ military expansion and to violate his contractual commitments to Israel to prevent terrorism. He continued to incite his people against Israel through the PA media, school texts and any other available means. From Israel’s standpoint this meant that even during periods of relative quiet, it was sitting on a powder keg.
Arafat’s policy since 1994 testifies like a thousand witnesses that he has opted for a strategy of non-acceptance of Israel’s existence. One expression of this strategy is his repeated declarations that, while ostensibly he does not seek Israel’s destruction, he can’t be prevented from dreaming about such a goal.
Thus it is perfectly legitimate for Israel to query Arafat’s relevancy. Not only did Arafat not fulfill his promise to provide peace and security to Israel in return for its painful concessions– he himself has emerged as the prime terrorist.
Today the Israeli public discussion centers on the question whether Arafat is at all capable of stopping the terrorism.
A negative response to this question means that Arafat has indeed ceased to be relevant from Israel’s standpoint. Israel must wait until, sooner or later, there emerges an alternative Palestinian leader or coalition capable of leading the Palestinian people to a resolution of the conflict by stopping the violence and destroying the military infrastructure of the terrorist organizations.
A positive response to the question of Arafat’s capacity to stop terrorism leads to the conclusion that he has deliberately elected not to exercise this capability. Here, anyone who still believes that additional Israeli concessions, territorial or otherwise, made under the pressure of terrorist attacks, will cause Arafat to adopt a policy of peace and to strike at the terrorist infrastructure, is mistaken and misleading. Further concessions will merely reinforce Arafat’s belief that violence pays.
The only way to try to force Arafat to make a strategic choice for peace, is to apply ongoing pressure: Israeli, American, European and Arab. Pressure that will force him to abandon his strategy of terrorism and opt for non-violent means to resolve the conflict. The enlightened world must raise the cost for Arafat of Palestinian terrorism to a point where it no longer pays him to initiate and tolerate it.
In conclusion, Israel must bide its time until one of two developments takes place: either Arafat’s strategy changes, or the Palestinian leadership changes.
Boaz Ganor is Director of the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzlia.