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Commentary

A Different Light Gives Arafat's Acts New Meaning

October 22, 2000|SHIBLEY TELHAMI | Shibley Telhami, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

Many on the Israeli left and in the U.S. peace movement have turned sharply right. Two assumptions are driving the mood. First, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave all he could, but Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat didn't want peace since he didn't budge on the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount. Second, Arafat is employing violence either to end the negotiations or to extract unreasonable concessions from Barak. Heart-wrenching scenes of Israeli soldiers being lynched and a Palestinian boy shot in the arms of his father have accelerated the turn to the right.

The conclusion: Publicly blame Arafat, as if blame provides vindication and enables Arafat to give more. This is a grave mistake.

Consider the frustration with Arafat. The expectation at the outset of the negotiations was that Arafat could compromise on the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount, but he chose not to. This proves, to some, that he didn't want peace. The fact that Arafat made bold concessions on difficult issues like Jewish settlements is a minor inconvenience in the way of this logic.

Yet there is a much simpler explanation that is uncomfortable for the peace camp: Arafat knew that Haram al Sharif was the "reddest line" for Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims and could transform the conflict from a manageable nationalist into a militant-religious conflict that threatens him, Barak and the prospects of peace.

Yet to admit this now would lead some in the peace camp into one of two uncomfortable conclusions: Either the conflict was unripe for the comprehensive resolution they advocated because Barak could not give what Arafat needed, or the peace camp should have reexamined the insistence that Israel have equal sovereign control over the site. In either case, the blame for failure would be spread much more widely than just Arafat, who argued at the outset that the time was not ripe for a deal.

Every proposal put on the table for the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount provided at least symmetrical sovereign control for Israel: Israeli sovereignty, "dual sovereignty," "divine sovereignty" and "U.N. sovereignty." Postponement of the issue would have, in effect, left Israel as the de facto sovereign power. Barak's insistence on at least symmetry was reasonable given that he believed his constituency could accept nothing less.

But in reality, the situation on the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount has not been symmetrical, either legally or functionally. While the site is holy to Jews and Muslims, it has housed the two most important and frequented Palestinian mosques and has been controlled by the Waqf, or Islamic trust. Legally, Haram al Sharif was part of the territories that Israel seized in the 1967 war. For Jews, the Western Wall has been, in effect, an open synagogue, where Jews prayed and remembered the Second Temple. Although the Western Wall was under Jordanian control until 1967, Arafat agreed that it would remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Making matters difficult for Barak's case was the Israeli opening position on Jerusalem, which called for separating political from religious aspects. The Palestinians were able to turn this around: If religion is taken out of it, what are the legal claims for Israeli sovereignty over the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount? But these were taboo issues for much of the peace camp, in the same way that the contemplation of anything less than Palestinian sovereignty seemed taboo to Arafat. Blame is always easier than looking deep inside.

Blame is made easier by another frustration with Arafat: How could he allow the violence to escalate as it did? This frustration is bolstered by unfortunate statements made by Arafat's aides about the utility of violence for negotiations. This is made worse if one assumes, as some in the peace camp did, that Arafat could have given more on Jerusalem but was supporting violence to extract unreasonable concessions.

Suppose, however, that Arafat believed he could not give more? Suppose he felt that the U.S. and Israel were maneuvering to demonstrate that he is weak and had no option but to accept what he knew he couldn't. In that case, his condoning the escalation may have been in part to "signal" what might come against him and against Israel if negotiations fail, including unleashing religious passions that are harder to control than nationalist passions.

This scenario would put his moves in a different light, not too different from Barak's moves. Barak, for example, also used force strategically. Certainly he used it to defend his soldiers. But the attacks on Arafat's quarters and the overwhelming force used against stone throwers was in part intended to address an Israeli fear that Arabs now think that Israel is weak. Barak was thus sending a message that Israel was powerful and had military options if things fell apart. As he put it, no one will respect you if you are too weak, not even your own people.

In the same way, Arafat himself appeared weak to his people on the eve of Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon's visit, a mocking target for Hamas. Every funeral that followed made him appear more impotent. Once one accepts that Arafat could not compromise on Haram al Sharif, then his behavior takes on a different meaning.

There remains an alternative to moving into devastating ethnic and religious conflict no one can win--but not through negotiations as usual. If a peace option is to be put on the table, it has to be in the form of a detailed American proposal, with European backing, that builds on Camp David and on what has been learned since.

It could fail. Yet it also could give moderates a chance to make one last stand to stave off a ruinous outcome.

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