There is wide international agreement that Yasser Arafat, to use the well-known jargon, is not “a partner in the peace process.” This is probably a correct assessment, but not because Arafat harbors the intention of destroying the Jewish state, as so many Israelis believe. Despite his many failures of leadership, Arafat has a realistic grasp of the strengths and vitality of Israeli society and of the overwhelming power of its military.
Paradoxically, Arafat’s failings are the consequence of his inability to live up to his public image as an autocrat who does as he pleases. (Even the late Yitzhak Rabin justified the Oslo accords to critics by arguing that under their terms a dictatorial Arafat, unrestrained by a judiciary or public opinion, could deal arbitrarily with Palestinian terrorists in ways that Israel could not.) Not that Arafat harbors democratic impulses. But when presented with opportunities to take initiatives that might have dramatically improved prospects for an end to Israel’s occupation and for progress toward Palestinian statehood, opportunities that required decisions on his part that would have estranged some segments of his various Palestinian constituencies, Arafat invariably chose to do nothing rather than risk a loss of support. He rarely strikes out in new directions without first confirming a wide consensus in support of such change.
For the same reason, Arafat has rarely dared to change the status quo by resorting to violence. Arafat did not initiate the first Palestinian intifada in 1987. It was started—spontaneously—by young Palestinians without any PLO involvement. Arafat asserted his leadership of this intifada only after it was well underway and had attracted international attention.
The first major outbreak of terrorism following the Oslo accords was set off by Baruch Goldstein’s killing of twenty- nine Palestinian worshipers at prayer in Hebron in 1994, and was carried out by Hamas, not Arafat. And Arafat did not initiate the current al-Aqsa intifada, contrary to the widely held Israeli belief that he planned it even before the failed Camp David summit. The head of Israel’s Shin Bet at the time, Admiral (ret.) Ami Ayalon, has stated categorically, and repeatedly, that neither Arafat nor anyone within his Fatah organization met to consider or plan a violent intifada until after Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) in September of 2000 and the killing by Israeli security forces of large numbers of Palestinians in a demonstration on the Haram al-Sharif that followed his visit. Even then, it was not Arafat but elements within the Tanzim, a group associated with Arafat’s Fatah, who launched the new intifada. Arafat acquiesced in the violence, for he is as incapable of stopping violence that has wide Palestinian support as he is incapable of initiating it when he fears that it may lead to internal dissension and challenges to his authority.
More recently, leading Palestinians (Abu Mazen, Hanan Ashrawi, Mohamed Dahlan, etc.) have spoken out against terror bombings of Israeli civilians and in support of a Palestinian cease-fire. It was only after this view became acceptable within Palestinian leadership circles and among the younger generation of Fatah activists that Arafat openly endorsed it. (Arafat has condemned terrorism all along, but in a way that made the disingenuousness of those condemnations clear to Palestinian Authority insiders.)
That Arafat has shown a fatal inability to make tough, unpopular decisions is not contradicted by a Ha’aretz report on November 28 that the Palestinian Authority is seriously considering the use of force against Hamas and Islamic Jihad to end their suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. I doubt very much that Arafat will do so, primarily because Palestinian security forces have been so weakened by IDF actions that they can no longer prevail in any confrontation with Hamas. But if such a confrontation is even under consideration, it is primarily because of the appearance of a new poll that found that Palestinians now oppose continued violence by overwhelming margins. A majority also approves of the use of force by the Palestinian Authority against Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If Arafat were actually to take such unprecedented action, then, as in the past, he again would have followed the Palestinian consensus rather than taken the lead in shaping it.
The most egregious failure of leadership by Arafat—in my view, far surpassing any of his previous political blunders in the damage it caused to the Palestinians—occurred at the time of the September 11, 2001, assault on the US. In August of 2001, I sent Chairman Arafat a private memorandum which concluded that the Palestinian national struggle risks defeat unless Palestinians were finally to take a number of initiatives that could bring about positive change in the dynamics of the Israeli–Palestinian relationship and in the US role in the peace process. Among the points made in the memorandum were the following:
(1) The peace process in the Middle East is in a state of deadlock. Prime Minister Sharon and his government will not address any political issues before Palestinians put a halt to the violence and Palestinians will not take the measures necessary to end Palestinian violence and terrorism—measures that may trigger a Palestinian civil war—without credible assurances of significant political gains that would justify ending an intifada that has cost hundreds of Palestinian lives and thousands of wounded. Expectations that such assurances will be forthcoming, either from Israel or from the US, will continue to be disappointed.
(2) The only party that has the ability to break this deadlock is the US, but Washington has decided on the highest levels not to do so. It is a determination that is not likely to change, given President Bush’s personal aversion to Yasser Arafat, the overwhelming pro-Israel mood in the US Congress, and the fact that despite the rhetorical support given by Arabs to the Palestinian cause, that support, in the US administration’s view, has had no measurable impact on US security interests (including the willingness of some Arab countries to station US forces on their soil) or economic interests in the region, particularly its concern to secure the flow of oil. This, too, is a situation that is not likely to change.
(3) The current level of violence, while painful to Israel’s civilian population and costly to Israel’s economy, will not change widespread Israeli support for Sharon’s government. There is an unprecedented national cohesion within the country that is based on a conviction that the goal of Palestinians is not a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza but a Palestinian state that incorporates all of pre-1967 Israel. This conviction is based on the Israeli view of what happened at Camp David, i.e., that Arafat refused to accept a “generous” Israeli offer for a settlement. A Palestinian state in the West Bank and in Gaza is therefore seen by many Israelis as only a stage on the way to such wider goals.
(4) Palestinians must finally realize that their decline and suffering will not end through outside intervention. Change can come about only as a consequence of Palestinian initiatives that seek to alter the political climate in Israel, in the US, and in the international community. Palestinians tend to see themselves as victims, which they are. But they are not entirely helpless victims; they have the ability to assume far greater responsibility for their own destiny instead of limiting themselves to reacting to the initiatives that others have taken.
The memorandum therefore urged Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to take the following initiatives:
(1) Present a comprehensive statement of Palestinian terms for a peace agreement, something Palestinians have so far failed to do. Those terms must include an unambiguous affirmation that the Palestinian goal of a sovereign state is now confined entirely to the West Bank and Gaza, and that Palestinians no longer have territorial designs on even a single inch of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. Such a clear and unequivocal Palestinian declaration would give them the moral and political standing to demand a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza.
(2) Make it clear that this territo-rial demand does not preclude consideration of Israel’s proposal at Camp David and afterward that it retain several concentrations of settlements in the West Bank, provided Israel is prepared to transfer to Palestinians Israeli territory that is comparable in quality and quantity to the territory Israel would be receiving on the Palestinian side of the 1967 border.
(3) Recognize that Israel will not accept measures to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem that would risk changing its character as a Jewish state, and that Palestinians are therefore prepared to explore alternative arrangements that would be acceptable to both sides.
The memorandum suggested that such a forthright and detailed declaration by Arafat, formally endorsed by his cabinet and the Palestinian Legislative Council, and accompanied by an unconditional Palestinian cease-fire, would put the ball back in Israel’s court and would make it impossible for Washington to avoid a far more serious involvement in the peace process. More important, it would enable Israel’s Labor Party, which was made impotent by the failure of the Camp David summit and the intifada that followed, to reemerge with a peace platform that offers Israelis a credible political alternative to a right-wing government whose support is based largely on the widespread post–Camp David conviction that Palestinians rejected a two-state solution.
Chairman Arafat informed me that he considered the memorandum an important document, and that he intended to convene a special meeting of his senior advisers for a discussion of its recommendations immediately following his return from the General Assembly of the UN in New York, for which he was about to leave.
Following the September 11 assault on the US, I again spoke with Arafat and told him that the events of September 11 reinforced powerfully the likelihood of disastrous consequences for Palestinians if they continued terrorist violence. They also powerfully reinforced the potential benefits of the measures recommended in the memorandum, for President Bush needed to counter the anger of Arabs over what they believed to be America’s double standard with respect to the Israeli– Palestinian conflict.
I do not know if Arafat ever convened a meeting of his senior advisers to discuss the memorandum. But following President Bush’s speech of September 2001, in which he divided the world into those who are “with us” and those who are “with the terrorists,” Arafat not only offered to join the American anti-terror coalition, but publicly rejected the notion, widely accepted in the Arab world, that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were acting in support of the Palestinian cause. Arafat’s public insistence that al-Qaeda never showed any interest in the Palestinians and never did anything to advance their interests could not have been more timely and valuable to President Bush, for it countered the most important argument Arab countries had for their reluctance to support the US-led assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan.