What Role for America in Arafat’s Kitchen?

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If the suicide bombing that killed 14 people and injured more than a hundred in downtown Jerusalem, and other similar operations, would not force Israel to withdrawing from the occupied territories, it is unlikely that the Israeli retaliation whatever its intensity would compel the Palestinians to accept the occupation as a ” fait accompli”. About half a hundred years of this tragic struggle shows that if both parties are reluctant to put down their weapons and come back to negotiations, nothing can then stop the bloodshed, and the same dangerous and vain game may protract for another half a century or more. Indeed, if the concerned parties take in consideration the whole history of this conflict from its very beginning up to the present day, they would not miss to state that what they are living right now is not unprecedented. Many examples drawn from the past may persuade them that this is actually a non winning situation, where both of them are struggling with their own demons without even being aware of it. Of course, neither of them has the time to make an analytical retrospective that may show them their own mistakes so that they could thereby break the vicious circle. But those who are outside the struggle can certainly do that, and most of all those who have the moral and political responsibility vis-a-vis the regional order – or rather: the regional disorder!-, not to say the defunct peace process. Unfortunately, those who are willing to do something are either unable or unacceptable (: mainly the Arabs and the Europeans); and those who are able and acceptable for everybody, are either unwilling or recalcitrant (i.e. The USA).

For the Palestinians, the fact that their national leader Yasser Arafat has not been able to meet President Bush so far, whereas the Israeli Prime Minister is always welcome in the White House whatever his deeds and misdeeds, and despite he has been condemned several times by the American officials for his political assassinations as by the media, could not seem anything else but humiliating. How come, some of them ask, that Washington treat us Monday as equal to the Israelis, and Tuesday as unequal? Between the time when Mr. Arafat could land in Washington to have a talk with the American President, and the time when such an eventuality does not dawn on Mr. Bush, there are only the few days that separate a mandate from another. It is true that Mr. Bush announced since the start that he was not to pursue the Clinton policy, which he deems as failing, yet, may Washington afford to have such an inconstant endeavor as concerns the delicate matters of peace and war without expecting bad consequences? Does America need to be reminded that the whole peace process meant for the Palestinian people mainly one thing: Dignity? Was it not the first time that the American officials ceased to label Arafat as a terrorist and accepted him as a representative of a political cause that aims at liberating his people from the Zionist yoke? Was he not received in the White House with the honors the protocol used to reserve to the heads of State? Was he not then considered as equal to Prime Minister Rabin? What were the Oslo accords if they were not to lead the Palestinian people – with the full agreement of the international community- to independence ?

So, why when the change occurred in Israel and in the United States, those who took over – i.e. MM Sharon and Bush- behaved as if nothing ever happened, wonder the Palestinians? It is true that the negotiations failed at Camp David, and true that in Taba they had to be stopped because of Israeli internal pressure over the elections stakes. Yet, was that enough to consider that Mr. Arafat is no longer a partner in peace? For this is what actually occurred. When the White House ignored Arafat’s ” appels du pied” to be honored by an American invitation to meet the new President, the Israeli Prime Minister could afford the luxury of labeling publicly the President of the P.A. as ” a murderer” and a leader of a ” terrorist gang” and a ” pathological liar”, etc!.. And as there was more and more talk in the media about a possible American withdrawal from the ailing peace process, these rumors – though denied by the officials- added to the Palestinian distress a new strain and widened their anxiety about being forsaken by the “international community”!

The International community has been actually the preferred expression in Arafat’s lexicon, since the very day he signed up the Oslo Agreements. Anytime he felt he was being attacked by his opponents or by those who criticized his haste to making peace with Israel ( what was depicted in the Arab press by the word: harwala, meaning marathon!)-among them the ex-President of Syria, Hafiz Assad, and he was not the less powerful-, he resorted to that expression as if it was a magic wand!  He would say proudly and confidently: ” This is an agreement brokered by the International Community, not a local accord”! In his mind, that expression means that he was confident he would not be let down by those who encouraged him to break the psychological wall between him and the Israelis, in order to make what he used to call- following the example of his French friends- la paix des braves. Of course, the International Community includes the Arabs, the Europeans, the Russians, the Asians and everybody who cares about peace in the Mideast. But on the top of it, there is no doubt that Arafat puts the Americans, even if he does not acknowledge it. Thus, when he called for International Monitors, it was with that perception. Hence, his utmost disappointment when, after a little hope that the new American President would perhaps act more firmly than Bill Clinton, he stated that not only Mr. Bush did not intend to be involved as deeply as the former President had been in the Middle East, but that he – as head of the P.A.- has ceased to be attractive to the new tenant of the White House!

It may be retorted that all this is nothing but the Palestinian own paranoia, since the Bush administration has sent many envoys to the region, among them the Secretary of State and the Director of the C.I.A., and that it is still pursuing the same efforts towards implementing the truce and the Mitchell Committee’s recommendations upon which both parties have sensibly agreed. Moreover, even during his month long stay at his ranch, Mr. Bush remains in touch with the Arab leaders, we are told! He announced that he had replied to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who sent him an urgent letter last week warning about the possible consequences of violence, and that he told him that ” peace in the Middle East is a top foreign policy priority”… A july 31 communication with Abdullah of Jordan is also mentioned: ” I spoke to the king the other day, king of Jordan… I told him that we’re very much involved”, said Bush.

Fine! Nobody doubts the President’s word, but this is not the point.

The point is that apparently, between Bush and his Arab interlocutors there is a deep and serious misunderstanding, which is enough grave to threaten the relationship. It is not a secret that despite the intervention of his father – former President Bush- on his behalf to reassure the Crown Prince of Saudi Kingdom about the good intentions of the new administration, the relations are still suffering from a cold. Last week, White House spokesman Scott McClellan acknowledged that the President had received a letter from Yasser Arafat, but we do not know whether he answered it or not. Anyway, the answer would not be a problem, for there is now a pattern well established upon which the American officials seem to model their speeches. It may be summed up as follows: We are very concerned about the bloodshed, and we call both parties to stop it , so that we can act to implement the Mitchell committee recommendations!Which is very good, undoubtedly, but in the present situation, inoperative.

When it is the Europeans who say that- and they do most of the time-, nobody perceives the message as negative. Quite the contrary. As Israel is still rejecting the European involvement, the E.U. is considered as neutral, because in fact, it seems powerless. Yet, when such a message is conveyed by the Americans themselves, although it seems neutral too, it is not considered as innocuous by the Arabs.

Why?

Because of many reasons, the least of them consists in reminding the forgetful that America spends at least $ 3 to 4 billion yearly in aid to Israel besides a broad range of varied assistance. So, if America who knows that Israel is the the occupier cannot rein in Sharon – or whoever is in charge- and pressure him, who can?

While calling for both parties to share responsibility, the Bush administration seeks to appear neutral, but it fools nobody among the Arabs who do believe that you cannot divide responsibility between an occupying force that detains F-16s, and missiles, and heavy weaponry, not to speak of nuclear power, and a people that has been spoiled of its land and given the” choice” between living crushed and besieged or exiled.

Otherwise, it becomes obvious that if this is going to be the sole policy of Mr. Bush (i.e.” we will wait until they calm down and decide to resume negotiations”!), it would be very counter-productive as regards the prospects of peace in the Middle East. Maybe the Arab leaders with whom the American President is in contact have not been able to convey to him the real worries of the people of that region! For when they ask him to intervene, he answers: that’s just what we are doing! Of course, but doing what ? Sending Mr. Tenet or Mr. Powell to keep in touch with the diplomatic ballet is not enough, as it sounds. To be convincing, Washington needs to show the Israelis that its condemnation of their political assassinations for example, is not meant to be heard only by the State Department’s walls. More to the point, why not asking the Congress to vote for a retention of the aid to Israel if its government does not comply with the former agreements concerning the peace process?

Why should America do so?

Because, this is what the Arabs and the Israelis who want to live in peace expect, since they are all agreeing that there is no military issue to the conflict. No military issue, means to acknowledge -in the least- that all what Ariel Sharon has been doing since his election, is wrong, wrong, wrong. No military issue, means also to acknowledge that Yasser Arafat cannot be held responsible for the suicide bombings, and that he should not be pushed to putting his own people in prison, as Sharon is still expecting.

The non sense of such a demand is quite obvious,though. Even Mr. Martin Indyk – who cannot be suspected of antipathy towards Israel- has noticed in an op-ed recently published in The New York Times (Aug. 8), that ” it is typical of Mr. Arafat” not to confront Hamas and Islamic Jihad: ” He has always preferred consensus building to confrontation with these opposition elements, and this is even more so today because of their popularity with Palestinians angered by Israel’s attacks”. The same Indyk remarked that ” Hamas’s strength is growing and the Palestinian Authority’s institutions are beginning to crumble”, and he was not the single observer who noticed these facts.

Some days ago, it was a mere rumor that crossed the world media like a meteor: the P.A. it was said, is nearly collapsing. And though nobody hinted to the Israeli policy as a possible cause of that singular evolution, it was also because the Israelis themselves could very well be behind it. Today, there is a growing worry as to Arafat’s possible entente with the militants of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, who may be asked to join his government. The “national dialogue”, as it is called by the Palestinian media can actually lead Arafat- possibly the region- towards a turn: What would be the prospects of peace, may some wonder, if the extremists are brought to the government? Of course! But who is in charge in Israel, right now, reply the others?

Arafat seeks control over his troops. In order to gain popular support and to be more influent, does he need really to bring the Islamists to his authority? The answer is mitigated: On the one hand, if this maneuver is well led, it would less bring the Islamists to power than him to full control of the situation. On the other hand, the Islamists are no fools. They know what he is aiming at, and that is why they are not eager to join him. One of their leaders, Mahmud Zahhar, said: “When we receive a proposal we will study it”! That means indeed that they have their own appreciation of the situation and therefore, their conditions. After all, who pretends that if the current P.A. collapses they would not be the winners, as the – de facto -successors? They have acquired popularity and legitimacy in the eyes of a growing part of the Palestinian people. According to a recent opinion poll conducted jointly by Palestinian and Israeli research institutes, 70 percent of the Palestinians surveyed believe that armed confrontations have so far achieved Palestinian rights in ways that negotiations could not.

In the last days of July, clashes between Palestinian gunmen and Palestinian Authority forces over a cease fire order have revealed the Authority’s weakness and the growing influence of the Hamas group, which actually emerges as a parallel authority. That means also that any crackdown against the Islamists in the present situation would put Arafat in a very bad position. Thus, instead of confronting them, he chose the dialogue. If this is to end up in a unity government, as some are already rumoring, Sharon would have no other choice but to lead an all-out offensive, or to retire.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.

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