PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
Israel Destroys Chances for Peace By Destroying Palestinian Leadership
Let’s review the recent events in the Middle East. The first Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, quit. Ahmed Qureia said he would take the job, warning that he would not be the kind of puppet that Israel and the U.S. had hoped Abbas would be. The next day, top Israeli government officials starting dropping public hints that it might be a good idea to kill Yasir Arafat. A few days later, the Sharon government made it official policy that Arafat must go. "By any means necessary," some Israeli officials added privately, keeping alive the possibility of a targeted assassination.
This week, President Bush virtually endorsed the Israeli decision to oust Arafat. At the same time, Arafat said that he will offer a truce agreement. Before he could announce the terms of the offer, Israel responded that it would be rejected outright, no matter how generous it might be, simply because it came from Arafat.
Is this sequence just coincidence? Not likely. The Sharon government’s greatest fear is a strong Palestinian leadership that can unite the Palestinian factions in effective resistance to Israeli occupation. The Israelis know that only Arafat can provide that leadership. Their policies all aim to keep him weak and all Palestinian leaders divided, hoping that this will keep the Palestinian people divided and therefore weak.
The strategy worked quite well during Abbas’ short tenure. He quit because he could not do the impossible task assigned to him—to satisfy the desires of both the Palestinian public and the Israeli government. To satisfy the Palestinians, he had to get along with and show respect for Arafat, the only Palestinian leader with broad and genuine public support. To satisfy the Israelis, he had to oppose Arafat on a number of crucial issues. More generally, he had to act as if the Israeli image of Arafat were accurate: chief sponsor of terror; irrelevant to the peace process; the main stumbling block on the roadmap to peace.
The Israelis started creating this image of Arafat nearly two years ago. It is the linchpin of Sharon’s strategy. He hopes to delegitimize Arafat and undermine his power, unleashing a power struggle among other top Palestinians. As long as they are fighting among themselves, they can’t lead a unified struggle against Israel.
The long public humiliation of Abbas showed how well the strategy can work. No doubt the Israelis would like to play the same game with Qureia. Apparently, they were not so confident they could pull it off. Sterner measures were called for. Hence the clear message to the new prime minister: there is no advantage in teaming up with Arafat, since he is on the way out. With the shadow of expulsion or worse looming over Arafat, the Palestinian political process will be filled with uncertainty and thus paralyzed. At least that’s what the Israelis hope.
The Israelis were surely prepared for the backlash of criticism stirred by their announced plan to oust Arafat. They were willing to take that risk, figuring that as long as there is no effective Palestinian leader, the backlash can not translate into effective action. It’s a calculated gamble, whose outcome is yet to be seen.
Of course, Israeli officials take the high moral ground, claiming that Arafat is the number one villain in the piece, because he refuses to dismantle the Islamist groups that attack Israelis. These officials know full well what would happen if Arafat mounted a full-scale assault on those Islamist groups. He would divide his own community against itself—which is just what the Israelis want.
In fact, years ago the Israeli government funded and supported the fledgling Hamas movement, to achieve that same goal. Back then, Arafat could have and very possibly would have destroyed the Islamists. But Israel made sure it didn’t happen. They intended to create a political alternative strong enough to challenge Arafat’s grip on power.
Some observers think Israel has continued to play the same game. Israeli leaders must know that their own policies largely determine the fortunes of the Islamists who use violence. Whenever support for the Islamists has waned, the Israelis have done something that outraged Palestinian opinion and made moderate Palestinian doubt that peaceful steps can end the occupation. That builds up the Islamist groups and prevents Arafat from unifying all his people under his leadership.
Rejecting a truce offer, in advance, is just the latest example of this strategy. Then, of course, the Israelis turn around and blame Arafat for everything. They long ago declared him "irrelevant" and demanded new Palestinian leadership. Now they announce that they will get rid of Arafat once and for all.
It all makes sense—as long as you assume that the Israeli government is not seeking peace, but only seeking to keep the Palestinians politically divided and weak. That policy, in turn, makes sense—as long as you assume that Arafat, the Palestinian Authority, and most Palestinian people are out to destroy Israel, not because of anything the Israelis have done, but simply because they have a blind, irrational, ineradicable hatred of the Jewish state. If that were true, then the Israelis would bear no blame for helping create the conflict. Nothing they could do could bring peace. Keeping the Palestinians weak and divided would be the only logical strategy to pursue.
In fact, an endless stream of opinion polls, writings, and statements from Palestinian leaders and masses alike shows that the Israeli assumption is mistaken. Most Palestinians are quite willing to accept the existence of Israel and leave it in peace, if they get their own state on all the land captured in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem.
As long as Israeli leaders refuse to recognize the Palestinian desire for compromise, they will continue to undermine any Palestinian leader with whom they might make peace. That means every roadmap for peace will lead to a dead end. More Israelis and Palestinians alike will find their lives cut short in a tragically dead end.
No roadmap can lead to peace unless it includes strong effective leadership on both sides. Weak leaders cannot negotiate peace. The best contribution anyone can make to Middle East peace is to work for a strong Palestinian leader who has a chance to unite all the factions in his community. It is not our place to tell the Palestinians who their leader should be. They have been telling us, for many years now, who their leader should be. Whether we like it or not, his name is Yasir Arafat.
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