Arafat is not the only game in town
June 27, 2001
by Meyrav Wurmser
The destruction of the current PLO regime will encourage other, more moderate forces, which exist but were suppressed by Arafat, to emerge in Palestinian society. The writer is a senior fellow and director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Middle East Studies.
While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flies to Washington, US Secretary of State Colin Powell will fly to the Middle East region to salvage a faltering cease-fire dubbed the "Tenet plan." In doing so, he reaffirms continuity with the Clinton administration. This is problematic, but not entirely surprising. The problem is that the Sharon administration has continued some of its predecessors' misguided assumptions, leading the Americans to do the same.
Sharon's policy continues the misconception that restraint and accommodation, including adoption of the Mitchell Report as the benchmark for resuming talks, purchases diplomatic capital. This assumption - which informed the Oslo process all along - has consistently proven wrong. Israel is now in a weaker diplomatic position to assert itself militarily than it was the morning after the June 1 Dolphinarium disco club bomb blast. Moreover, Israel is even more entangled in an effort to resume talks with the Palestinian Authority, on terms more favorable to the PLO, than any time in the last few months.
Rather than buy Israel diplomatic capital, its restraint and acceptance of the Mitchell Report confused the Americans. Instead of asserting that the PLO's empowerment was a mistake, the continuation of which further intensifies the conflict and sabotages the possibility of a solution, Israel sent mixed signals. While Israel blasts Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, it also lays out a road map to reengage 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 signaled a refreshing change with its policy of non-involvement. Realizing it could contribute little to solving the crisis, the administration gave Arafat the cold shoulder. But in the absence of a new basis for policy laid out by Israel, the administration was finally seduced into engagement after Palestinian violence reached unprecedented levels. As a result, the deformity which is the Oslo process was resurrected. Engagement and evenhandedness again superseded the United States' support for Israel.
As long as Jerusalem and Washington remain wedded to direct talks with the PLO as the only strategy, then no amount of Israeli concessions or accommodation will co-opt US policy and guide it toward primarily supporting Israel in defending itself. The focus, thus, will remain: Arafat is asked to cease the use of terror while Israel is asked to concede, starting with a settlement freeze. It's all just a question of offering incentives to Arafat, of administering the right dose of carrots and sticks to make him fulfill the obligations he broke in the past.
Both the United States and Israel speak more harshly now about the PLO's behavior. But instead of seeing Arafat and the PLO for what they are - terrorists bent on perpetuating the conflict and leading the Palestinians to another Nakba - both Jerusalem and Washington continue to adhere to Oslo's axiom which views them as partners for peace. This, despite the fact that Arafat reserved his most brutal use of violence exactly for those periods when Shimon Peres or Ehud Barak, the most compromising premiers Israel ever had, were in power.
Arafat chose to strike exactly at the moment when the Palestinians could have gotten the most from Israel because the organization he heads cannot give up its ideological soul: permanent revolutionary struggle against the Jewish state. Arafat, in other words, cannot make peace. Therefore, his agenda is perpetual destabilization, as it was twice before in Jordan and in Lebanon.
Regardless of Israel's concessions, he always invents new demands as excuses. Just as the Israeli settlements - that were never even mentioned after the Camp David negotiations - serve as his current pretext for violence, Arafat always attaches new conditions to stopping incitement and terror against Israel.
If there is continuity of policy, then the results will be repeated. Washington's new involvement is tied to battered ideas. The Oslo process took Israel from its most internally secure circumstance a decade ago to the most violent in its history. Similarly, America's policy collapsed when Arafat launched war last fall. The Clinton administration made Arab-Israeli negotiations the cornerstone of America's regional policy. While president Clinton tried to the end to salvage the unsalvageable, he left office with a mess, not a crowning victory.
Only a policy that abandons Oslo's failing framework and adopts a fresh look toward the PLO might avoid another heartbreak. Israel and America must now 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. This must not be a half-hearted policy meant to threaten Arafat and modify his behavior, but an all-out effort to replace the PLO's rule. Half-hearted efforts only get people killed. A new policy must differentiate between the PLO and the Palestinian people, the bulk of whom suffer under the PLO's yoke.
The destruction of the current PLO regime will encourage other, more moderate forces, which exist but were suppressed by Arafat, to emerge in Palestinian society.
Most Palestinians seek peace. A clear American and Israeli endorsement - in terms of recognition, money and support - of an alternative Palestinian leadership might bring the people of this troubled region much needed tranquility.
This article appeared in The Jerusalem Post on June 25, 2001.
Meyrav Wurmser was formerly a Senior Fellow with Hudson Institute.