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You Can't Set the Peace Table Without Arafat

April 12, 2002|FAWAZ A. GERGES

While President Bush finally has laid out clear markers for all parties in the Middle East crisis, his pronounced disregard for Yasser Arafat could cripple the efforts of Secretary of State Colin Powell to reach a cease-fire and start a substantive political dialogue.

The combination of the president's ambiguous signals about Arafat's eligibility to represent the Palestinians, his open distrust of Arafat and his hope that other Palestinian leaders will step up and negotiate with the U.S. is a recipe for failure.

Pro-U.S. Arab leaders have impressed on Powell the need not to discredit Arafat before his people and have urged Powell to not seek other political figures with whom to build ties.

The pulse of the Palestinian street and the internal balance of power indicate that no credible Palestinian would dare to step forward and offer an alternative vision to that of Arafat's, let alone deal directly with the Israelis and Americans.

Time is running out for constructive engagement and decisive action.

The most urgent task is to stop the bloodshed and break the current deadlock.

Despite his shortcomings, Arafat remains the most equipped Palestinian leader to enforce a cease-fire, negotiate a viable settlement with Israel and sell that agreement to skeptics and critics. Far from rendering him irrelevant, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's attack on him and his people has resurrected Arafat's sagging leadership at home and in the Arab world and made him the indisputable symbol of Palestinian national resistance.

Notwithstanding the poor quality of his leadership at home, Arafat is seen by most Palestinians as their legitimate representative and the symbol of their national aspirations.

By design and default, Arafat embodies the Palestinians' ceaseless quest for nationhood, a homeland and freedom.

While many Israelis view Arafat as the enemy and want him expelled or killed, such a move would deepen the Palestinians' sense of victimization and humiliation, thus undermining the prospects for reconciliation and coexistence between the two peoples.

Even if Sharon ultimately succeeds in getting rid of Arafat, it is doubtful that new Palestinian leadership would be more tractable or inclined to stop the armed intifada or make further concessions for peace.

Moreover, there is no potential leader waiting in the wings. Under Arafat's rule, the security apparatus--particularly the intelligence-gathering unit--is deeply entrenched; any future succession will revolve around three or four senior security chiefs and a few civilian members of Arafat's inner circle. None has an independent power base with which to challenge Arafat.

Discrediting or ousting Arafat likely would unleash political upheaval among the Palestinians and lead to an intensification of suicide bombings on an even wider scale.

Given the absence of entrenched and effective institutions, Arafat's dismissal, coupled with the destruction of his governing Palestinian Authority, would further weaken the only centralized power that possesses the means to maintain law and order.

Neutralizing Arafat would intensify, not arrest, the armed struggle. Far from advancing the cause of peace, the Bush administration's effort to sideline and bypass Arafat will backfire and undermine Powell's current mission and the administration's promising new initiative.

Throughout the Muslim lands, die-hard, sworn enemies of Arafat have heaped praise on him for refusing to buckle under pressure.

More than ever, he is indispensable to reaching a peace agreement with the Jewish state and making it stick.

No one else has the political weight to do so.

Unlike previous junctures, it is in Arafat's and the Palestinians' interests to respond positively to the new U.S. political initiative. Palestinian militants would think twice before challenging a comprehensive, legitimate settlement signed by Arafat, lest they antagonize public opinion.

Now is the time for the United States to actively engage the Palestinian leadership.

*

Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor in Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, is the author of the forthcoming book, "The Islamists and the West."

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