Fooling Ourselves About Arafat

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In Israel, every day is September 11. A new terror attack, more dead and wounded, more lives shattered. And then the inevitable statement by the Israeli government blaming Yasser Arafat — usually accompanied by a retaliatory strike on one of his police stations, or an incursion into a West Bank town to arrest or kill some militants. And, of course, a routine statement from the White House demanding that Chairman Arafat do more to stop terrorism, and recusing the U.S. from any role until he does. Then, a new day dawns and, inevitably, a new outrage fills our TV screens.

Arafat, for his part, is under de facto house arrest by the Israelis in Ramallah. He rises each day and rides his exercise cycle. He takes calls from some of his trusties in the more than 200 besieged cantons that constitute the domain of his shrinking Palestinian Authority. He eats lunch, takes a nap, frets about feeling abandoned by the international community and the Arab regimes. And, according to recent visitors, he contemplates his death.

Last December, Ariel Sharon proclaimed Arafat "irrelevant." And nowhere is that more true than in the lives of the 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They wake each day to the harsh reality of an Israeli occupation modified, but never ended, by the Oslo Accords. They endure the roadblocks that turn a 20-minute drive into a six-hour one, the checkpoints that stop women in labor from reaching hospitals, the curfews, the siege, the grinding, ever-deepening poverty, the air raids, the incursions, the demolitions of homes and fields and the incremental loss of their lands. And this produces the despair that spawns the nihilism of the suicide bomber, and the rage that makes him (or, if the latest reports are to be believed, her) a hometown hero — and, increasingly, a role model.

Once Palestinians grumbled that their leader flitted around the world's capitals in a grotesque parody of statesmanship while those he represented continued to suffer the indignities of occupation. Now, like them, he is a virtual prisoner of the Israelis. Either way, they have long-since given up hope in the peace process he promised would end the occupation and bring them statehood. 'Palestinian Authority' is fast becoming a misnomer for a bankrupt administration long despised by its own people for its authoritarianism and corrupt cronyism, the limits of its authority graphically demonstrated on a daily basis by the Israelis. Today it is not only the Islamists and leftists but Arafat's own followers, too, who are openly defying their leader, taking Palestinian fate into their own hands along with Kalashnikovs and belts of explosives. They pour scorn on Arafat's periodic cease-fire calls, asking what Palestinians will get in return except for a continuation of the occupation. Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres has repeatedly warned that the Palestinians have no incentive to stop fighting if they are offered no political process for pursuing an end to the occupation. But nobody listens to Peres anymore.

And so, for Israelis — be they soldiers and settlers enforcing the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, or simply citizens in their capital city looking to get a slice of pizza or dance in a nightclub — that has made every single day a roll of the dice with death. Carnage on the streets has become a daily affair, and an economy that boomed in the 1990s has ground to a halt (a downturn sparked by the global high-tech blowout, but exacerbated by the crisis in confidence). Tourism is down by half, and likely to fall further. Why would the tourists visit when even some of the locals are starting to mutter publicly about wanting to leave?

Israelis still support Ariel Sharon in the polls, but one year after his election on promises to restore Israel's security, that security is even further beyond reach. A steady raising of the ante on air strikes, assassinations and incursions has not stopped the tide of suicide bombers. Systematically degrading Arafat's power has left the Israelis no safer. And, having been there before, Israelis know that reoccupying the West Bank and Gaza towns ceded to Arafat will simply expand their own vulnerability. Those Israelis who continue believe that peace is still possible with the Palestinians on the basis of two states living side by side have become a minority — although they're displaying a newfound assertiveness, fueled by the fear that Sharon is driving headlong down a path of no return that will entomb Israelis and Palestinians in their current deadly embrace.

By any measure, the situation has the makings of an epic human catastrophe. And to reduce this dismal state of affairs to a mantra about Arafat doing more to rein in terrorism is simply deluded.

Few Palestinians would disagree that Arafat is a dismal leader, but it is not his deceit or delusions that are at the root of this conflict. Israelis and Palestinians began talking peace a decade ago, precisely because they recognized the miserable future offered by the dynamic of occupation and resistance in the West Bank and Gaza. It was not about Arafat or Rabin, and certainly not about Bill Clinton. It was about Israelis and Palestinians recognizing the need to find a peaceful means of resolving their mutually exclusive national aspirations, if only because the alternative was to remain locked in a war neither side could win. The collapse of the peace process has left them back where they started, locked into an even deadlier stage of a war neither side can win.

Arafat could die tomorrow. Or be forced to throw in the towel and head back to Tunisia and oblivion. And the basic terms for securing peace between Israel and the Palestinians would remain unchanged. If anything, there are sound reasons to be believe the resulting power struggle among rival Palestinian factions would, if anything, make achieving a peace agreement even more difficult.

Regardless of the depths of their mutual loathing right now, there is an inevitability about both sides returning to the logic that produced Oslo. The alternative is to embrace the present bloody stalemate as their lot for the foreseeable future. And the logic that produced Oslo, which also remains the cornerstone of U.S. policy, is contained in United Nations Resolution 242 — Israeli withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967 on a basis that guarantees Israel's security and recognition by its Arab neighbors.

With or without Arafat, the agenda for peace remains the same. And as unpalatable as that may be to Sharon, it includes all of the issues negotiated at Camp David and after. The Mitchell and Tenet plans were simply short-term programs to bring the parties back to that point. Those plans may have failed, and nobody's expecting any resumption of dialogue in the near term. But nor is anyone expecting to see a peace concluded on anything less than 242.

The current deadlock simply condemns both sides to share Arafat's fate — rising each morning to pedal furiously to nowhere, while contemplating his own death.