Why has Arafat stopped threatening to declare a state?

In the short term, nothing has changed in Israel’s approach to the Palestinian issue. And the short term is where nearly all politicians live nearly all of the time.

Last week the Likud Central Committee voted for former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s proposal negating a Palestinian state solution, while the Labor Central Committee debated between party leader Fuad Ben Eliezer’s liberal Clinton Plan solution and challenger Haim Ramon’s demand for immediate unilateral redeployment. Neither party’s actions changed the way Prime Minister Ariel Sharon maneuvers vis-é-vis the main players: the Palestinians, the moderate Arabs and the United States.

Labor is still in the government, and Sharon gets high marks from the US administration and the Israeli public-at-large for his principled stand in favor of a Palestinian state solution. Everyone knows that the state Sharon is offering (more or less the territorial status quo) is a non-starter for the main players. But the issue in any case is not on the short-term agenda.

On the other hand, the longer-term ramifications could be significant.

First of all, all four more-or-less declared candidates–Sharon, Netanyahu, Ben Eliezer and Ramon–indicated last week that they did not envision negotiating with Arafat. Netanyahu favors a unilateral solution–conquering and dismantling the Palestinian Authority. So does Ramon: withdrawing unilaterally. Sharon for his part dismisses Arafat’s leadership, and Ben Eliezer relegates the Palestinian leader to the dust bin of history. This is ostensibly a victory for Sharon’s approach of marginalizing Arafat. But it also castes in doubt any negotiated solution in the near future, insofar as Arafat appears to remain firmly in power.

Secondly, the two leading Labor figures are now clearly on record favoring solutions that differ radically from Likud positions. While Ben Eliezer does not appear disposed to lead Labor out of the coalition tomorrow, he is nevertheless staking out his future platform as opposition leader. In this regard, last week we witnessed the beginning of the countdown toward the dissolution of the unity government and new elections.

Thirdly, by pandering to an extremist and anachronistic position negating a Palestinian state solution, Netanyahu painted himself into a corner and actually lost ground politically– witness the polling results that show that even 61 percent of Likud voters back Sharon’s position, while the nation at large firmly mistrusts Netanyahu. This strengthens Sharon’s chances to be the Likud candidate for prime minister in the next elections, and even permits him to adopt more moderate positions regarding the Palestinian issue, in the unlikely case that he is disposed to do so.

Finally, if Netanyahu’s triumph was a pyrrhic victory at the Israeli domestic political level, it nevertheless appeared to symbolize a dangerous erosion of the two-state solution at the broad strategic level. After all, Netanyahu was emboldened to push his anti-Palestinian state solution in the aftermath of Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, which during April 2002, under Sharon’s direction, systematically decimated the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority because it had become a terrorist entity. Sharon, who has long argued that “a Palestinian state already exists” in the West Bank and Gaza, cannot easily continue to maintain this thesis when Israel has taken over all security functions in areas A and B.

Here, too, we encounter the growing school of Palestinian thought that argues that it is increasingly useless for Palestinians to campaign for a state, because Israel is exploiting the interim period to build more settlements and control more and more of the land, the economy and the movement of peoples in Palestine. Since Israel won’t withdraw, argues this camp, Palestinians should abandon their quest for a state and instead hunker down to win the demographic war in the long term. Within eight years there will be an Arab (Palestinians + Israeli Arabs) majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Within a generation or two, as Israeli settlements spread and entrench themselves while the Arab majority grows, Israel will confront a hopeless South African situation. Separation through a two-state solution will become politically and physically impossible. Ultimately, under international pressure, the Palestinian majority will take control of a binational state.

According to this logic, Netanyahu’s campaign against a Palestinian state plays right into the hands of those Palestinians who in any case despair of attaining a genuine two state solution. It gives pause to consider why Yasir Arafat no longer sets deadlines for declaring a Palestinian state unilaterally. And why his conditions for a two-state solution are so obviously designed to “Palestinize” Israel over the long run through the return of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

Israelis, including members of the Likud Central Committee who treasure a Jewish, democratic Zionist state, would do well to look carefully at Haim Ramon’s proposal for unilateral withdrawal. If negotiations with Arafat are either impossible or non-productive, then unilaterally-imposed separation–which is in effect a two-state solution by default–may offer the only means for Israel to ensure its demographic and democratic survival.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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