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Time Is Running Out for Arafat

May 21, 2000|Shibley Telhami | Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and is senior fellow at the Brookings institution

CITY PARK, MD. — Instead of celebrating an agreement on a framework to resolve final-status issues, Palestinians and Israelis faced off last week in their most violent confrontation in more than two years. While these are tense times in the Palestinian territories, there is more to the violence, in which six Palestinians were killed, than the anniversary of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. It offers a hint of what may come if the next important deadline, Sept. 13, passes without a final-status agreement.

Palestinian frustrations are running high for several reasons. First, there was the 52nd anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, which Palestinians mourn as "nakba" (the catastrophe).

Second, the May 13 deadline for reaching agreement was missed. There have been so many missed deadlines that Palestinians have grown cynical. Even Yasser Arafat's promise that he will unilaterally declare a Palestinian state if the framework agreement is not reached by Sept. 13 does not inspire much confidence among Palestinians. For one thing, the Palestinian leader has made similar threats in the past but has always found a way to change his mind. Moreover, Palestinians realize that a state constructed out of the territories now controlled by the Palestinian Authority would not be viable.

Finally, Israel continues to hold hundreds of Palestinian prisoners whose release Palestinians expected after the Oslo accords. The highly publicized hunger strikes of many of these prisoners have aggravated an already emotional issue.

While these frustrations provide fertile ground for confrontation, they do not in themselves explain why violence broke out in Gaza and on the West Bank last week. The most striking feature of the fighting on the West Bank was that neither Arafat nor Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak were able to stop the violence from quickly escalating. This is all the more telling since the shooting involved their own men. The Israelis accused members of Arafat's group, Fatah, of provoking the violence, while Palestinians charged that the Israeli army threatened to bomb Arafat's headquarters.

Arafat's weakness at home may be a source of strength in his negotiations with Israel. There is little doubt that the gap between Arafat and his public has widened, even as Palestinian support for a peaceful settlement remains high. The Palestinian leader is asking for patience and support at a time when he will have to make difficult compromises on emotional issues like the future of refugees. But he worries about appearing to be Israel's agent, doing the work of its army and compromising on core Palestinian issues. So when his men champion the Palestinian cause and take on Israeli soldiers, he and his supporters benefit. But Arafat knows that an escalation of violence can unleash forces within the Palestinian territories beyond his control. The resulting Israeli reactions could further erode confidence in his leadership among Palestinians.

Violence of this sort highlights just how abnormal and difficult life remains in the Palestinian territories. The status quo simply cannot be sustained. Yet, the continuing peace talks and the successful completion of agreements so far create a misleading sense of normalcy and comfort. A sense of urgency is lost. Last week's fighting on the West Bank certainly adds a note of urgency to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. But the very fact that the Palestinian Authority needs to assert its national credentials with its public is a measure of the real and growing gap between the two.

As in Israel, the passions of the Palestinian public limit the scope of compromise at the negotiating table. For example, no Israeli government would allow the return of Palestinians to Israel to jeopardize its Jewish majority. No Israeli government would agree to transferring full sovereignty over the walled city of Jerusalem to a Palestinian state. Similarly, the Palestinian public prevents Arafat from agreeing to Israeli sovereignty over all East Jerusalem.

Yet, there was some good news in the otherwise tragic events of last week. Most of the violence occurred in areas on the West Bank where Israelis and Palestinians remain entangled and where the Palestinian Authority does not yet have full control. In Gaza, where the Authority has more control, the fighting was less severe. When fighting broke out Friday, it occurred near a Jewish settlement. As Barak noted, this bodes well for advocates of separating the two sides, one of the central arguments in Israel favoring the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state.

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