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Keeping Arafat Occupied

Benjamin Netanyahu displaced Shimon Peres as Israel’s prime minister in an election that turned on a hair and was fought over through no end of differences, all of them oddly founded upon a shared agreement about the character of Yasser Arafat.

Netanyahu and Peres alike judged Arafat as a man whose blunders and whose circumstances had terminally extinguished his honor. Both assumed that no word of Arafat’s could be trusted;but Peres’s assessment of who would suffer most for believing him was the polar opposite of Netanyahu’s, which was to insist that the Israelis would be the prime victims of the PLO chairman’s false promises while Peres thought that the Palestinians would be the victims.

The Labor Party’s approach was the more sophisticated and Likud’s was the cruder; and, as usual, the sophisticated view has turned out to be the shrewd one.

Peres had looked at Arafat with an eye not to what he had been but to what he may have become. The Arab oil states had cut to a pittance the subsidies to the PLO they had already commenced pinching even before Arafat threw in with the loser in the Gulf war. His resources were depleted and his cause was exigent, and with no more hope for power he was ready to accept Peres’s tender of its illusion.

Peres had the wit to recognize that, as secular politicians, he and Arafat were on common ground in each’s lively awareness of religious fundamentalism as the chief peril to his hold over his own constituency. Islamic extremism was a threat no less dangerous to Arafat than to Israel.

Peres would not have installed Arafat as chairman of the Palestine Authority if he had not counted upon him to police the West Bank. Nothing about the Authority was so conspicuous as its surrender of real authority to the Israeli Defense Forces.

Arafat’s writ was so straitened that he had to request an IDF permit whenever he wanted to travel to Gaza, the largest area under his fictive sovereignty. Still, if he could not pretend to be a government, he was free to establish a regime, and he founded it upon the structure of thirteen separate police forces, whose seven thousand members consumed most of a budget sustained in the main by Western contributions to his development fund.

He shut down the Islamic Jihad newspaper and thereby sufficiently cowed the West Bank press to put its editors on an enforced diet of self-censorship. Political arrests without charges and with indefinite detentions remain commonplace, and styles in torture appear to be at least as highly developed as they were before the Israeli occupation’s command was disguised as the Palestine Authority’s.

If Arafat has been a less satisfactory auxiliary cop than Peres had hoped, it is not for want of trying. Last spring Edward Said visited Yasser Abd Rabbo, the Palestine Authority’s minister of culture, and was surprised to hear a tirade of derision about its chairman’s posture when he had met with President Bill Clinton at Sharm el-Sheikh a few weeks before.*

Arafat went off at a tangent,” Rabbo reported, “boasting about how many Hamas members he’s put away, how well he’s doing against terrorism and the like. He had no idea that to the Americans and the Israelis he is an asset.”

In the prior February and March, Hamas-suspected bombs had killed fifty-eight Israelis, and Peres saw no way to salvage his electoral prospects except to return to the old crudities, close the border, and increase the misery of a West Bank where only Arafat’s police and his cronies were sure of nourishment.

But no recourse, however severe, could save Peres from defeat. And Arafat, who had so long endured Labor’s disdain as its creature, could not suffer being hated by Likud as the enemy he used to be. Benjamin Netanyahu was and may still be too obtuse to understand that the only road to peace is the smooth and subtle path toward conceding to your opponent what costs you very little and what his desperation makes him grateful to get.

  1. *

    Edward Said, “Lost Between War and Peace,” London Review of Books, September 5, 1996, p. 10.

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