Climbing Down from Arafat
June 1, 2001
by Meyrav Wurmser
While terrorist attacks continue in Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell have been building up frequent flyer miles traveling between Washington and the Middle East to salvage a faltering cease-fire dubbed the “Tenet plan.” In doing so, both men are reaffirming continuity with their previous administrations. Although this is not entirely surprising, it is highly worrisome. The problem is that Sharon’s current policy perpetuates the misconception that restraint and accommodation—including adoption of the Mitchell Report as the benchmark for resuming peace talks—purchase diplomatic capital in the Middle East. This assumption, which also informed the 1993 Oslo Accord, has consistently proven to be false. Israel is now in a weaker diplomatic position from which to assert itself militarily than it was the morning after the June 1 Dolphinarium disco club bomb blast. Moreover, Israel is even more deeply entangled in its effort to resume talks with the Palestinian Authority on terms favorable to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) than it has been at any time in the last few months.
Rather than buying diplomatic capital, Israel’s restraint, coupled with its acceptance of the Mitchell Report, is confusing the Americans. Instead of asserting that empowering the PLO was a mistake, Israel has sent mixed signals. While blasting Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, Israel has been laying out a road map for reengagement with him. It is thus only natural for Washington to “help” Israel achieve its goals by establishing a strict structure of incentives and disincentives to end the violence and prod Arafat back to the table.
Initially, the Bush administration had signaled a refreshing change in U.S. Middle East policy by giving Arafat the cold shoulder, but in the absence of a new Israeli policy, the administration was finally seduced into engagement after Palestinian violence reached unprecedented levels. And as long as Jerusalem and Washington rely solely on direct talks with the PLO as their main strategy, the present cycle will continue: Arafat increases terrorist attacks and is then asked to cease the use of terror while Israel is asked to concede, starting currently with a settlement freeze. Recent history, however, has shown the utter ineffectuality of this approach: Arafat reserved his most brutal use of violence for when Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, the most compromising prime ministers Israel ever had, were in power. In fact, Arafat cannot make peace, because the organization he heads refuses to give up its ideological soul: permanent revolutionary struggle against the Jewish state. Therefore, his agenda can only be perpetual destabilization, always demanding new conditions as payment for controlling PLO incitement and terror against Israel.
Only a policy that abandons Oslo’s failing framework and adopts a fresh look toward the PLO has any chance of averting further heartbreak. Israel and America must move from maintaining a dying negotiation process to undoing that process. Any solution to the Palestinian problem will require a robust American-Israeli political effort, and not a halfhearted policy meant to threaten Arafat and modify his behavior but an all-out effort to replace the PLO as representative of the Palestinian people. Such a policy must differentiate between the PLO and the Palestinian people, the bulk of whom suffer under the PLO’s yoke.
The recent terrorist attack in the Binyamina train station and the two rockets that landed in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo incited an Israeli decision to amass forces around Palestinian-controlled cities. Although Israel may choose to use this measure only as a warning signal to the Palestinians at this point, the decision sends a strong message to Arafat that the Palestinian Authority must get its act together or face severe consequences. Washington, for its part, can no longer declare that Arafat is a problematic leader while continuing to act as if he is the only game in town. The displacement of the current PLO regime would encourage the rise of other, more moderate traditional and local forces, which do exist but are suppressed under Arafat. A new Palestinian leadership might, with time, bring some much-needed tranquillity to this much-troubled region.
Meyrav Wurmser was formerly a Senior Fellow with Hudson Institute.