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Should He Go?

Violence is all Arafat knows. Without a change in leadership, the Mideast will never see peace.

September 21, 2003|Efraim Karsh | Efraim Karsh is head of Mediterranean studies at King's College, University of London, and currently a visiting professor at Harvard. His latest book, "Arafat's War," comes out next month.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The recent decision of the Israeli government to deport Yasser Arafat from the disputed territories has unleashed a flood of international indignation, with a collection of the most unlikely bedfellows rallying to the Palestinian leader's defense. Even the U.S., although vetoing an Arab-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli decision, has pressured Israel not to harm Arafat or send him into exile. The U.S. stance is particularly puzzling given President Bush's statement June 24, 2002, that "peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership" and that "a Palestinian state will never be created by terror."

As long as Arafat continues to dominate Palestinian politics, there will be no end to terror. From the beginning of his political career in the early 1950s, violence has occupied a prominent position in Arafat's world. The more he resorted to violence, the more enamored with it he became, until violence was an inextricable part of his identity. In 1970, he provoked a civil war that nearly brought about the destruction of Jordan, and in the process caused thousands of civilian deaths. Five years later, he helped trigger the horrendous Lebanese civil war that raged on for more than a decade and claimed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. In 1990-91 he supported the brutalization of Kuwait by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's occupation, a stance for which Palestinians living in the emirate paid dearly, with thousands murdered in revenge attacks and hundreds of thousands expelled after Kuwait's liberation.

Arafat has never, ever shown any remorse for the suffering and destruction he has brought upon his own people and other Arabs. Instead, he has viewed the atrocities as necessary consequences of his revolutionary exploits. According to the Israeli newspaper Al Hamishmar, he gloated to fellow members of the Fatah leadership, shortly before the signing of the Oslo accords in September 1993, "Just as I ruled Lebanon from [the Beirut suburb of] Fakhani, so I will rule the territories from [the West Bank city of] Jericho."

Arafat was right. After the 1993 Oslo agreement, he achieved a firm foothold in the West Bank and Gaza. But rather than use it to lay the groundwork for Palestinian statehood, as envisaged by the accords, Arafat set out to build up an extensive terrorist infrastructure.

He consistently failed to disarm the terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad as required by the Oslo accords, and thereby tacitly approved the murder of hundreds of Israelis by these groups. He created a far larger Palestinian army (the so-called police force) than was permitted by the accords. He reconstructed the PLO's old terrorist apparatus, mainly under the auspices of Tanzim, Fatah's military arm. He regularly diverted international funds donated to the Palestinian Authority to the purchase of prohibited weapons. He indoctrinated his people with a hatred of Jews and Israelis rivaling that of the Nazis. In September 1996, he resorted to mass violence in order to publicly discredit newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In September 2000, shortly after rejecting an offer by Netanyahu's successor, Ehud Barak, to create an independent Palestinian state in 92% of the West Bank and 100% of the Gaza Strip, he went even further, launching a war of terror -- euphemistically called Al Aqsa intifada, after the mosque in Jerusalem -- that continues today.

Had Arafat chosen to accept the Israeli concessions offered by Barak, a Palestinian state might exist now. It is clear that, for all his rhetoric about Palestinian independence, Arafat has never been as interested in the actual attainment of statehood as in the violence attending its pursuit. As far back as 1978, according to a former Romanian intelligence chief, he told his friend, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, that Palestinians lacked the tradition, unity and discipline to achieve a formal state and that a Palestinian state would be a failure from the first day. The last decade has seen this bleak prognosis turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy as Israelis and Palestinians find themselves locked in their bloodiest confrontation since the Arab attempt to abort the creation of a Jewish state in 1948.

What makes Arafat's war all the more tragic is that its initiation was an unwelcome development for ordinary Palestinians, who were at the time in the midst of an economic recovery after several years of deep crisis. So lacking was the appetite for confrontation that, upon Arafat's return from Camp David in July 2000, his Tanzim militia barely managed to muster some 200 youths in Ramallah for what was supposed to be a "mass welcome for the returning Saladin." Likewise, the attempt to organize a commercial strike in East Jerusalem to protest Barak's government ended in embarrassing failure.

Arafat has failed his people, sacrificing them to a bloody, devastating and unnecessary war. Now Bush has presented an alternative vision. But it cannot be implemented with Arafat in place. Just as the creation of democratic societies in Germany and Japan after World War II necessitated a purge of the existing political elites and re-education of the entire populace, so the Palestinians deserve a profound structural reform that will sweep Arafat and his corrupt Palestinian Authority from power, free West Bankers and Gazans from the stifling PLO grip, eradicate the endemic violence from Palestinian life and teach the virtues of peaceful coexistence with Israel. This is certain to be a difficult and protracted process, one requiring sustained international guidance and support. But if history tells us anything, it is that any other alternative is an assured recipe for disaster.

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