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Should He Go?

The Palestinian leader has blood on his hands, but so does Sharon. His ouster would destroy hope.

September 21, 2003|David Grossman | David Grossman's most recent book is "Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years After Oslo."

JERUSALEM — If Yasser Arafat were expelled from the West Bank, if he were exiled to Gaza or somewhere else -- or taken out with a bullet, as has been proposed by senior Israeli Cabinet ministers -- would the chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians be improved? Would terror suddenly cease? Would a new leader emerge who could unite the Palestinians and lead them toward peace, with all the painful concessions that peace would require?

Of course not. Arafat is certainly a problematic leader, inconstant and unreliable. He brought disaster on his people by missing, in July 2000, the opportunity to turn then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's proposals into a country for the Palestinians. Arafat, the security experts remind us again and again, is an obstacle on the road to a peace agreement. But even with all the problems inherent in Arafat's character and actions, it would be a mistake for Israel to remove him -- and it would be a crime to assassinate him.

Yes, there is blood on Arafat's hands. There is also blood on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hands. Today there are very few untainted leaders on either side. But in the end, to make peace, each side will have to shake the other's bloody hand.

Israeli leaders have now stepped back a bit from saying they might assassinate Arafat. Let's hope they have thought better of such an action. Assassinating a rival leader is something that befits a terrorist organization, not a country ruled by law. Such an act would humiliate the Palestinian people. It would set relations between the two peoples back decades, to a time before the contacts and attempts at compromise. It would destroy any hope of negotiation in the near term, as any leader to emerge after Arafat would first have to prove to his public that he was faithful to Arafat's legacy. Any leader "appointed" indirectly by Israel and the U.S. -- as the recently resigned Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas essentially was -- would be doomed to failure in the Arab street.

In this struggle, only a Palestinian leader who has actively participated in the battle against the occupation -- and made his reputation doing so -- can unite the Palestinian public around him. Israelis should understand this: After all, when the intifada broke out, the Israeli public chose Sharon, and not the compromiser Barak, for much the same reason.

Today, only Sharon, the resolute warrior known for his tough treatment of the Palestinians, could convince a majority of Israelis to support the difficult but necessary concessions that Israel will have to make if he decides to move toward peace. The same is true of Arafat. Only he -- not Abbas and not Abbas' successor, Ahmed Korei -- can, at this point, obtain the support of a majority of the Palestinian public if he decides to make painful concessions in pursuit of an agreement.

One of the proposals being floated, exiling Arafat to the Gaza Strip, is particularly absurd, a reflection of the Israeli government's confused approach to the entire negotiations. In Gaza, he would still be Arafat -- that is, the lionized symbol of his people, and, in Israel's view, a dangerous inspiration to terrorists. His exile would only enhance his influence.

If exile to Gaza would make Arafat even more of a symbol to his people, so too would it spotlight Gaza as a symbol. There, Palestinians have been forced into ever denser quarters, into deeper poverty and, as their frustration and humiliation have deepened, into religious fanaticism, extremism and militancy. The plight of Gazans stands in contrast to that of a significant part of the urban, middle-class Palestinians of the West Bank, who have been more moderate, liberal and democratic.

Sharon knows that attacking Arafat would weaken the moderate Palestinians and greatly strengthen the extremist forces. He knows that assassinating Arafat -- although it might unite the Palestinians for a short time -- would ultimately cause an already weak society to crumble into a bloody internal free-for-all. Then Israel really would not have a partner for any kind of negotiation.

Perhaps that is what Sharon wants. What better way to prove definitively that his view is correct? In the past, this strategy has worked well for him. Time and again, the violence he has perpetrated has, after the fact, proved his claims that the Palestinians are unsuitable partners for peace. He has succeeded in putting out every ember of hope. And every time that peace is pushed a little further off, so is the need to make the hard concessions that Israel would have to make for peace.

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