Israel's Dangerous Approach to Arafat

Khalil Shikaki is an associate professor of political science and the director of The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank city of Ramallah

Earlier this month, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat declared an immediate and unconditional cease-fire. Last week, he agreed, along with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to a more formal cease-fire plan proposed by the United States. Few Palestinians and fewer Israelis believe that it will last. Having declared their own cease-fire 10 days before Arafat did, Israeli officials believed that Arafat would not, or could not, do the same. After all, they reasoned, was it not Arafat's hidden agenda to force Israel to launch a devastating attack on Palestinian areas, thereby causing the international community to intervene in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

If that were truly Arafat's goal, he most certainly would not have declared his cease-fire immediately after the Hamas suicide attack outside a Tel Aviv nightclub that killed 20 Israeli civilians. That was certainly a time Israel could be counted on to retaliate in a way that might well prompt outside intervention in the conflict. But Arafat can do no right in the Israelis' eyes. His success in declaring and imposing a cease-fire was seen by Israelis not as a gesture of good faith, but rather as a demonstration that he was in full control of the situation on the ground. When, after initial success, some attacks continued, those same Israelis quickly concluded that Arafat has no interest in calming the situation.

Even now that he has signed on to the broader agreement proposed by the United States, agreeing to resume security cooperation with Israel and to rearrest Islamic extremists planning to attack Israeli targets, Israel's intelligence community remains divided in its assessment of Arafat's motives, just as they were last September when they failed to predict the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada. The failure of the Israeli intelligence community to reach a common understanding of a man they have been watching and dealing with for more than 35 years is astounding.

As always, Israeli assessment of the prevailing conditions on the ground focuses on Arafat's intentions. Arafat was given no credit for willingly backing off from his ultimatum that he would declare a Palestinian state last Sept. 13 if no permanent status agreement had been reached by then. Indeed, when the intifada erupted two weeks later, after a provocative visit by Sharon to the Temple Mount, or Haram al Sharif, Israelis saw in it a determination by Arafat to establish a Palestinian state "with fire and arms." They seemed unable to grasp that the eruption of the intifada, as well as its continuation, is simply the unintended outcome of the interaction between Israeli and Palestinian policies.

To succeed in making the cease-fire last, Arafat needs Israel's help. Yet, even as Arafat declared his cease-fire, Israeli senior officials railed against him. Sharon called him a murderer, a terrorist and a pathological liar. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer pronounced that Arafat has "completed his role in history," by which, of course, he meant that he no longer considers Arafat a suitable negotiating partner. Israeli propagandists compared Arafat to Adolf Hitler and advised Israeli leaders to "separate" the Palestinians from Arafat's "hallucinations" and "madness." Israel is plainly trying to delegitimize and demonize the Palestinian leader.

Israel has made no attempt to help Arafat stabilize his shaky domestic situation. Instead, it has acted provocatively. In the weeks since Arafat's cease-fire announcement, some 3 million Palestinian civilians have been virtually locked down in dozens of suffocating enclaves, separated from both Israel and the rest of the world. Gasoline supplies and other vital commodities have been cut. Mobs of Jewish settlers, escorted by units from the Israeli army, were allowed to destroy property and commit atrocities against defenseless villagers.

As a result, Arafat faces extreme domestic pressure. Islamists, who oppose the peace process and do not recognize the legitimacy of either Arafat or the Palestinian Authority, have predictably used the situation to their advantage. But Arafat is also under pressure from nationalists, who swear allegiance to him and are the backbone of the peace process. Disturbingly, but not surprisingly, Palestinian public opinion has, in recent months, shifted to hawkish attitudes. An unprecedented 70% of Palestinians support armed attacks against Israelis. Palestinian public opinion, which supported the crackdown on Hamas terrorists in 1996, is highly supportive of the actions of the Islamists today. Arafat's cease-fire calculations must take all this into account.

During the past seven years, Arafat, even as he attempted to negotiate for an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, let the actual process of nation-building founder. This hierarchy of priorities came at the expense of good governance and the maintenance of the rule of law. It also meant the failure of the political system to address a highly sensitive issue in Palestinian politics: succession. If Sharon succeeds in removing Arafat from the scene, the consequences of this and other Palestinian failures could be tremendous. The intifada is exposing the shortcomings of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

Indeed, the intifada poses a challenge to the legitimacy, control and long-term survivability of the Palestinian Authority and its current leadership. The Israeli clampdown and the hardships it imposes are bringing about a gradual disintegration in the Palestinian Authority's control. Its civil institutions, with the notable exception of health and education, are hardly functioning. A return to the kind of Islamist and revolutionary fervor prevalent during the days before the 1993 Oslo accords could soon render the Palestinian Authority illegitimate in the eyes of the public.

Furthermore, the shifting balance of power in the street is threatening the dominance of Arafat's nationalist Fatah movement. The more radical Hamas organization has been the only Palestinian faction gaining in street power, with public opinion polls showing that positive feelings toward Hamas and other Islamist groups now approach 30%, a 50% increase from just a year ago. Arafat's own popularity has dropped sharply in recent years, with approval ratings as low as 30%, compared with more than 60% in the mid-1990s. While most Palestinians do not blame him directly for the failure of the Palestinian Authority to create viable, democratic public institutions, most believe that he could and should have done much more. Between 1996 and 2000, his Fatah faction has lost much of its support, dropping from close to 50% in early 1996 to less than 30% today. Fatah blames its loss on its close association with Arafat and its inability to impress upon him the need to improve the performance of the Palestinian Authority and its security services.

Popular and factional support for the continuation of the intifada gets in the way of Arafat's making a full commitment to the tentative cease-fire. Only the construction of a viable political process can provide a real anchor to make the cease-fire last.

To be viable, the political process not only must insure the stabilization of the security situation, as CIA Director George J. Tenet is striving to accomplish, but also must inject life back into the dormant "interim agreement," and simultaneously revive negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. In such a process, one in which Israel meets its obligations as well, Arafat can be expected to make a full commitment to the cease-fire and extend full cooperation in fighting terrorism. Arafat can also be expected to accept an end to the conflict, with issues of the permanent settlement, including refugees, resolved in a manner not essentially different from that reached at the Taba talks in January 2001, at the end of the Ehud Barak government. The stark reality, however, is that since the election of Sharon, such a process has become unattainable. And so, the march of folly continues.

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