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Jerusalem Housing Project, Tel Aviv Bombing Backs Arafat into a Corner

March 30, 1997|Shibley Telhami | Shibley Telhami, an associate professor of government, is director of Cornell University's Near Eastern Studies Program

WASHINGTON — Palestinian opponents of the Oslo accords have long accused Yasser Arafat of being Israel's policeman in the West Bank and Gaza. This charge has gained new resonance now that the Israeli government has sanctioned new housing on disputed Jerusalem land: Will Arafat protect the Israeli bulldozers? To Israelis, on the other hand, the latest round of terrorism was let loose by Arafat's "green light." As a result, the Palestinian leader faces one of his most serious crises since Oslo.

The terrorist attacks, especially the one in Tel Aviv, serve only to undermine Arafat. The international--especially American--sympathy he enjoyed following Israel's move to build houses in East Jerusalem has been replaced by questions about his commitment to fight terrorism. In addition, the violence has strengthened the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And in the Palestinian territories, those who regard such attacks as necessary "credit" Hamas, not Arafat. How, then, could Arafat be seen as "green-lighting" this latest round of terrorism?

One explanation can be found in the public-relations war going on between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government. Just as Israel's security services reportedly cautioned Netanyahu that violence would greet his Jerusalem project, King Hussein of Jordan warned, in a letter to the Israeli prime minister, of dire consequences if he ordered the bulldozers to break ground for the housing units. Netanyahu quickly declared that he had "hard evidence" that Arafat had given the green light to violence. Whatever the evidence, Netanyahu had every incentive to shift the blame in case attacks materialized, as they tragically did.

The net result is a deeper crisis of confidence. Israelis ask how they can continue to negotiate peace with a man accused of instigating murderous attacks against them. Palestinians wonder how a man committed to making a deal with their leader can so willfully tarnish that leader's image in Israel and the United States--unless his purpose is to scuttle the peace agreements altogether.

For Netanyahu, Jerusalem is the one issue he can safely use at home to burnish his credibility in the eyes of his right-wing coalition partners and to sharply define his differences with Labor. But in a relationship never characterized by mutual trust, his housing project in East Jerusalem only reinforces the darkest fears among Palestinians concerning his true convictions.

For Arafat, Jerusalem is a two-headed sword. On the one hand, the city remains emotionally and spiritually central to Palestinians. More important, Arafat has always viewed Jerusalem as one of the few cards he holds in his negotiations with Israel--both because Israel covets the city and because it is the most effective issue around which to mobilize broad Arab and Islamic support. The Israeli bulldozers promise to change all that by establishing a fait accompli in East Jerusalem before Arafat has acquired any guarantees on the shape of a final settlement with Israel.

On the other hand, the housing project, with its location in Jerusalem, reminds many Palestinians of what they most fear about the interim agreement with Israel: They are helpless in the face of unilateral Israeli acts and interpretations of what has been agreed upon, because no arbitration mechanism exists to resolve conflict. Although the United States has played an important role in resolving past disagreements, U.S. opposition to the Israel's housing plans did not stop the bulldozers. Finally, Jerusalem is the single best issue for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to showcase Arafat's weakness and highlight his lack of options.

In his own attempt to blame Netanyahu for the violence and to acknowledge deepening Palestinian anger, Arafat forgot that two of his primary audiences are the Israeli and American publics. As usual, he seemed incapable of clearly communicating his opposition to terrorism, even though he had been actively working with Israeli security forces to thwart terrorist attacks. In the end, as one Israeli analyst put it, "it wasn't Arafat who gave the Hamas a green light, but the broad public in the West Bank and Gaza which urged Hamas to take action."

Following the Hebron accord last January, Arafat secured a pledge from factions within Hamas to disavow terrorism and enter into the political dialogue on final-status negotiations with Israel. Many of Arafat's Hamas prisoner releases, which have rekindled Israeli doubts about his intentions, are best understood in this light. But the Jerusalem housing project and the Tel Aviv bombing have thrown the relationship into limbo. Hamas, Islamic Jihad or other opposition groups may now decide to exploit public perceptions that talking with Israel is a waste of time and that Arafat is impotent. More attacks, which would harden Israeli resolve and lead to tough reprisals, could only further undercut Arafat--and reward their cause.

Short of Israeli concessions on settlement building, Arafat's ability to maneuver will remain limited. But it is not clear that Netanyahu's government is politically capable of making any such concessions without some significant face-saving measures--if at all. Given the deep mistrust between the Palestinian and Israeli leadership, and the political consequences of backing off from confrontation without mutual compromise, U.S. diplomacy faces its toughest challenge since the Oslo accords were signed in September 1993. American arbitration may now be necessary.

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