The Bush administration has fielded a great deal of criticism for its handling of the Middle East crisis. Many have focused on questions of timing and tone: Should White House officials have stepped in sooner? Should they have put pressure on Israel to pull back farther and at an earlier date?
Here’s a better question: Why do they seem to think that talking to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will — somehow, miraculously, after all these years — lead to peace?
There’s no getting around the fact that the ongoing spasm of Israeli-Palestinian violence is the logical conclusion of Arafat’s dual policy of talking about peace while preparing for war. For many years now, Arafat has paid lip service to peace negotiations in English, while calling in Arabic for a jihad, or holy war, to liberate Jerusalem.
Since September 2000, he has stepped up the violence. Official Palestinian media have incited Palestinians to riot, and Arafat’s own group, Fatah, has joined Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad in launching suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.
As long as Arafat believes that terrorism advances his cause, there is little the United States can do to stop the violence, let alone jump-start peace negotiations that were derailed by Palestinian violence. The Bush administration can’t save Palestinians from bad leadership.
As long as Arafat remains the leader of the Palestinians, there is no chance of a genuine peace. He has a long history of terrorism, which he has used to cement his control over the Palestinians, to attack Israel, and to attack other Arabs, particularly in Jordan in the 1970s and Lebanon in the 1980s.
He was, after all, expelled by the Jordanians after he tried to overthrow King Hussein. He was expelled from Lebanon in 1982 after he used Palestinian refugee camps as bases for cross-border terrorist attacks against Israel. Nobody should be surprised that he has returned to terrorism after gaining a foothold in the Palestinian territories.
He has rarely passed up a chance to court violence. Consider what happened in September 1996 when Israel opened a second exit to an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem. Arafat falsely charged that the exit defiled Muslim holy sites located 250 yards away, and official Palestinian television and radio stations dutifully incited his followers and helped orchestrate a new round of political violence.
By negotiating the 1993 Oslo Accord, the Israelis gambled that Arafat was ready to renounce terrorism and seek a genuine peace. That gamble has failed. Arafat is clearly a large part of the problem — not the solution. He already has been given numerous opportunities to end his policy of violence and return to negotiations. But he has spurned repeated American efforts to resolve the crisis: the Mitchell Plan, the Tenet Plan, and three diplomatic missions by U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni.
Along the way, Arafat has compiled a long record of broken promises. Under the Oslo Accord, for example, he agreed to apprehend, prosecute and punish terrorists. But long before the current wave of violence began, he was failing to do so. Indeed, rather than crack down on radical Islamic fundamentalists who oppose peace with Israel, he has worked closely with them.
The few prosecutions that did occur were mainly for show. In early 1996, for example, Islamic radicals perpetrated four terrorist bombings that killed 61 Israelis. This forced Arafat to temporarily clamp down by arresting 1,500 militants, but nearly all were released quietly within months. This “revolving door” imprisonment policy undermined Israeli trust in Arafat long before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office.
It’s time for the United States to abandon the wishful thinking that has allowed Arafat to continue his double game. It should encourage Israel to expel Arafat and shun him in exile. The only hope for peace in the long run is for a new generation of Palestinian leaders to realize that Arafat’s cynical dual policy of negotiating via terrorism will not earn Palestinians a state, but will only assure continued misery. They must realize that their interests are best advanced through negotiating in good faith, not through terrorism.