Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon
Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon; drawing by David Levine

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.

In response, President Bush issued a statement welcoming Arafat into the anti-terror coalition. After Bush did so, no one understood better the implications of Arafat’s uncharacteristic decisiveness—and its likely consequences for Sharon’s efforts to isolate Arafat—than Sharon himself. He abandoned the newly acquired moderation and restraint that had marked his premiership until that point, and wildly accused President Bush of a sellout of Israel that was reminiscent of Chamberlain’s sellout of Czechoslovakia in Munich in 1938. It was an accusation that shocked the White House and drew an uncharacteristically angry reproach from the President’s office, only underscoring the potential for change in the American position created by Arafat’s initiative.

Sadly for the Palestinians, it did not take long for the Americans to realize that there had been no change in Arafat. US intelligence confirmed that America’s new ally in the global war against terror continued to acquiesce in or approve of terrorist assaults on Israeli civilians, despite his public condemnation of these acts. Not only did Arafat’s deception destroy the potential benefits for the Palestinian cause held out by his initial response to the President, but it deepened President Bush’s hostility to Arafat and reinforced the forces in the White House that never had much sympathy for Arafat and the Palestinian cause to begin with. The devastation of every aspect of Palestinian life that has occurred over this past year is the measure of the price paid by the Palestinian people for Arafat’s chronic inability to grasp opportunities that come his way.

None of this is to suggest that Prime Minister Sharon’s credentials as a partner in a peace process are any better than Arafat’s. It is true that since assuming the premiership a year and a half ago, Sharon has cultivated, with considerable success, an image of moderation, in sharp contrast to his previous lifelong image as impulsive and reckless, a reputation that earned him the nickname “bulldozer.” But it is only image, not reality.

Sharon has declared a war on Palestinian terror in which he is determined to resort to any means that may help him win that war—except one. He has ruled out measures of a political nature, despite the fact that Israel’s intelligence agencies have told him for some time now that the war on terror cannot be won if it does not hold out the prospect of new political arrangements. His own national security adviser, Uzi Dayan, told him the same thing, at which point he became Sharon’s former national security adviser. (Ironically, the national security adviser who replaced Dayan, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, believes the day will come when it will be necessary for Israel to negotiate with Hamas.)

Sharon has ignored this universally accepted truth about the indispensability of a political process as part of the war against terror, because the war to which he assigns far greater priority than the war against terror is his war to prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. Behind the cover provided by his war on terrorism (which remains a failure), Sharon has been highly successful in destroying virtually all of the essential supporting institutions of Palestinian national life. Brutally administered military curfews, border closings, and other restrictions have turned Palestinian cities and towns into huge detention centers. Much of the infrastructure built with international donor support since the 1993 Oslo accords has been reduced to rubble, along with the Palestinian economy and most of the Palestinian Authority’s civil institutions. Sharon has been able to do this without much international criticism by making it appear that the devastation of Palestinian national life caused by the Israeli Defense Forces was forced on him by Palestinian terrorism.

Those who see Sharon as a moderate point to his support for the Mitchell Report; for “painful compromises” in an eventual peace process; for the “eventual” establishment of a Palestinian state; and for the “road map” for an Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement put forward by the United States, which called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in three phases by 2005. (They also argue that, following the departure of the Labor Party from his coalition on October 30, Sharon chose a risky course by calling for new Israeli elections. He chose not to continue a narrow right-wing government by rejecting the demands of the National Union Party, whose condition for joining the government was that Sharon reject Washington’s road map and oppose a Palestinian state.)

But that Sharon is not the moderate he pretends to be is attested to by his evasion of every opening for resuming diplomatic activity toward a peace agreement during the year and a half that his government was in power; by the targeted assassinations of Palestinians that to many in Israel seem timed to undermine Palestinian initiatives to end the violence; and by his demand for a total Palestinian surrender before he permits a political process to begin.

True, Sharon no longer seems to many Israelis the “bulldozer” and reckless adventurist that he was during his military and political career before assuming the premiership. But what has changed is not his lifelong commitment to preventing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state—at least one that is not under total Israeli control—a goal to be achieved by widening and deepening Jewish settlements and the extensive infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza that supports them. What has changed is the new sophistication and subtlety that he now brings to this task. Shimon Peres helped persuade Sharon shortly after joining his government as foreign minister to adopt a new tactic. He convinced him that he would do better to agree to such proposals “in principle,” and rely on Israeli conditions, Arafat’s ineptness, and Hamas’s terrorism to derail and prevent the implementation of these proposals.

Thus, after first rejecting the Mitchell Report, Sharon reversed himself and accepted it “in principle.” (The Mitchell Report calls for a series of reciprocal Israeli and Palestinian measures, including a settlement freeze, that would lead to a resumption of political talks.) But Sharon never presented the Mitchell plan for approval by his cabinet. He reassures his inner circle that he never accepted the Mitchell proposals, even while he tells the United States and the international community that he has accepted them. And he relies on Palestinian violence and political blunders to ensure that he will not be brought to account for this duplicity.

Yes, Sharon opposed the recent decision by the Likud Central Committee to reject Palestinian statehood. But he did so only because he understood that such a formal rejection would compel the US administration (which itself has been largely accommodating of his tactics to avoid a political process as long as possible) to change its position and to publicly oppose his government’s policies.

Only recently, Omri Sharon, the prime minister’s highly influential son, told a meeting of Likud faithful, as reported in Ha’aretz on December 13, that his father’s promise of an eventual Palestinian state is “a long-distance declaration.” He told them that

we have to understand we are not living in a vacuum: there is an international reality. But when you speak softly, you can wield a big stick. Today, after all, we are located in the Palestinian areas, we are violating international agreements, but no one is saying anything. The United States is with us. So we talk Palestinian state, Palestinian state, but in the meantime, not even Area A exists. And there is no Orient House, there is no Palestinian representation in Jerusalem, and the Palestinians are afraid to wander around with weapons even in their own cities. Obviously we all want peace, who doesn’t want peace. But the statement about a Palestinian state is a very remote statement.

Sharon’s support “in principle” of the ideas put forward by President Bush in his speech of June 24, 2002, committing the United States to the creation of a Palestinian state within three years, has not precluded his continued enlargement of the settlements, or a continuation by the IDF of its destruction of the central institutions of Palestinian national life, or his rejection of the possibility of dismantling any of the Jewish settlements that are now implanted throughout the West Bank. (He recently said that it is as unthinkable for him to remove even far-flung Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip as it is to turn over Tel Aviv to the Palestinians.) Instead, he reiterated his insistence on a lengthy transitional period before negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on permanent status can even begin. And in an important policy speech on December 4 in Hertzliya, he withdrew his earlier support of the “road map” for a two-state solution put forward by the “Quartet” of Russia, the US, the UN, and the European Union in favor of the much vaguer “vision” described by President Bush in his speech of June 24.

There is no prospect for a resumption of a peace process if Sharon returns as head of Israel’s next government and Arafat remains as the principal leader of the Palestinian Authority. A breakthrough in the stalemate will come only from a revived Israeli peace camp that succeeds in bringing to power a government committed to an immediate resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians and to the removal of most of the settlements.

Such a development on the Israeli side is likely to help bring to power a Palestinian leadership opposed to violence and prepared to make the compromises (primarily on the issues of the return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem) that are essential for a peace agreement. As several recent polls have shown, a large Palestinian majority now supports an end to Palestinian terror attacks, even if it means taking on Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Both developments would become more likely if there were persuasive evidence of a new US determination to produce a road map for a peace process leading to Palestinian statehood, a map that would be clear about what constitutes a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. President Bush’s vague commitment to a two-state “vision” in his speech of June 24 failed to provide such clarification.

As I write, the road map is to be discussed by members of the Quartet when they meet in Washington on December 20. On the agenda are a number of amendments that would have provided this necessary clarification. Unfortunately, not only has the White House reportedly rejected these proposed amendments, it also has decided to put the entire effort to produce a road map on hold, at least until after January 28, the date of the Israeli elections. The White House also announced the appointment of Eliot Abrams as President Bush’s new National Security Council adviser for the Middle East. A prominent neoconservative, Abrams has long seen Palestinian national aspirations as essentially an anti-Jewish and terrorist enterprise. Such moves by the White House are inevitably seen by both Israel and the Palestinians as accommodations to Sharon’s electoral needs by President Bush, and diminish even further the chances of Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party’s candidate for prime minister, while discouraging Palestinians who seek to change the Palestinian leadership. That is why prospects for an end to Palestinian violence and Israeli counterviolence and for a renewal of a peace process in the foreseeable future remain as dim as they have ever been.

—December 18, 2002

This Issue

January 16, 2003