A Dangerous Game

If it is the Karine A affair that disappointed and angered President Bush, he was rather expeditious in his judgment concerning Arafat: ” Ordering up weapons that were intercepted on a boat headed for that part of the world is not part of fighting terror; that’s enhancing terror”, he said last Friday. Such a hasty condemnation does not make the American efforts for peace sound more serious. Were Arafat to be judged by a law-court, he would not have been so quickly and harshly sentenced without even according him a chance to defend himself.

As Arafat himself has been maintaining all along the past years, against winds and tides, the political process in the Middle East does neither depend on him nor on the Israelis for surviving. It is rather an international entente based on the broadest agreement between the nations of this world, with the 5 permanent members of the Security Council on the top of them. Arafat has thus always asserted that if some party é no matter its origin: Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, etc- is not agreeing with that view, and wants the peace process down, it would have to face that international entente that made it possible. Let’s omit the fact that Ariel Sharon has never agreed on the Oslo process. Just on the same day President Bush was making the aforementioned declaration, the PA Cabinet gathering in Ramallah, at some yards away from the Israeli tanks, reiterated that same position in an official statement. It said:

“If the USA, Russia, Europe and the United Nations have a serious attitude to end the crisis, it would be possible to implement a cease-fire and end current confrontations within 24 hours”.

We have to recall, by the way, that Arafat has asked for an international investigation about the Karine A affair. So, logically, the U.S. administration should not declare any position that may worsen the situation and condone the Israeli military strikes. But in siding with Israel, “the US comments regarding the Palestinian Authority would give Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon the green light é” That was not just the opinion Nabil Abu Rudeineh (Arafat’s aide) expressed, but rather an idea shared on a broad level in the Arab world.

It is not a secret that several Arab foreign ministries contacted the State Department to press the United States not to sever ties with Arafat completely. Furthermore, the Arabs are to hold a summit in Beirut soon, and though Arafat is officially invited to attend it, nobody can say so far how would he manage to set out for Lebanon while the Israeli tanks are still pointing their cannons towards his office in Ramallah!

At the same time, it is said the Bush administration is considering the following options: shutting the PLO’s office in Washington; listing a wing of Fatah é al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades- on the U.S. list of international terrorist organizations; cutting off funds to Palestinians for infrastructure development, etcé

If these measures come to be taken, some people would inevitably think that the Israeli hardliners have at last prevailed on the U.S. administration to topple Arafat and to replace him by someone more “responding” to the Israeli security views. A kind of Saad Haddad (the former Lebanese officer working as an Israeli agent in Southern Lebanon) in Gaza and the West Bank.

But is there really an attraction in Washington to that scenario? The answer is not easy. And though it is said that the American administration is split over these issues, it is not unlikely that those among the President’s men who feel the closer to the current Israeli views, would push for moves in line with it. Probably for different reasons, it seems for example that the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney, are more keen on further isolating Arafat than others. And if the viewpoint of the Pentagon is based on the traditional idea of tight strategic cooperation and partnership with Israel, no matter the kind of government it has, Mr. Cheney é like almost all the American Vice Presidents- proceeds out of more a political reckoning. The point is that a Vice President likely needs to be quite careful to his own future in case he decides to run for the top post. Now, who among the great American companies traditionally controlled by the Jewish Diaspora would fund and support a candidate who would turn his back to the Israeli Raison d’Etat? After all, Ariel Sharon was perhaps not just making a quip when he told his foreign Minister Peres:” every time we do something you tell me Americans will do this and will do that. I want to tell you something very clear, don’t worry about American pressure on Israel, we, the Jewish people control America, and the Americans know it.” The story was even reported by the Israeli radio, which said that Peres and other cabinet ministers warned Sharon against saying what he said in public because ” it would cause us a public relations disaster”! (Washington Report: Oct 11, 2001).

However, beyond the polemic about who is controlling whom, there may be also a different analysis of the situation than the one prevailing so far in the American administration.

It is not even necessary that the new analysis be provided mainly by the Israelis, or be based on the fast reckoning of the Sharon government. The fact that there is a deaf struggle about power among the Palestinians themselves is not a secret. The fact that Arafat is now an old and sick man does perhaps not mean a lot, since older and sicker leaders have succeeded to stay in power in that region and in others, with or without the consent of the Americans. Yet, the problem of succession is thus inevitable. True, Sharon is urging it and making of replacing Arafat a personal affair. But, he could be hardly alone to hope for reaching that goal, although the means he uses are different from those used by the candidates to the post of Chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

Thus, whether for the responsibility regarding suicide-bombings, the respect of the dead-born cease-fire, or the continuation of the violence on both sides, it seems that the easiest issue is to throw it on the back of Arafat, regardless of what is going on in the “underground” of the PA, not to say anything about Sharon’s own responsibility. The mysterious Karine A affair, in the absence of any sound evidence against Arafat, may be also a part of that game, which means ultimately that the first victim of the plotters (no matter who they really are, Israelis or Palestinians) is perhaps Arafat himself!

A Palestinian scholar has expounded an interesting view recently. In his article published in Foreign Affairs Magazine (January/February 2002), Khalil Shikaki asserts that one of the most important effects of Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 consisted in shifting the center of gravity in Palestinian politics from the outside to the inside. ” It was the newly emerging leadership in the occupied territories, for example, that initiated and sustained the first intifada from 1987 to 1993″.

Let’s notice by the way that the Oslo process, which ended the first uprising, could have appeared for some Palestinian leaders of the interior more as “snatching” the control from their hands than as the legitimate return of the “old guard”. But though the confrontation between them and the “young guard” was almost inevitable, it has been delayed for good reasons. In 1994, the implementation of the Declaration of principles negotiated at Oslo gave an appearance of harmony to the relations between the two parties. But as the Palestinian hopes began to fade away, that semblance of entente could not hold out anymore.

Shikaki depicts the “young guard” as ” composed of newly emerging local leaders as well as the leaders of the first intifada. Most are no older than 40. A few serve in the PA cabinet and the PLC, and as heads or senior members of different security services.”

The dissatisfaction with the PA’s management of the public affairs (the financial resources) made of them potential allies with the Islamist opposition. Thus, when the second intifada burst out, they strongly opposed any cease-fire agreement that would entail a crackdown on Palestinian nationalists or Islamist militants.

The Mitchell report and the Tenet plan do not satisfy those “newly comers”. In their view, Arafat should publicly embrace and endorse the intifada’s goals and methods, for negotiations are not a purpose in itself. If the Palestinians can somehow force Israelis to a unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories, such as the Hizbullah’s achievement in southern Lebanon, that was it.

Yet, the ongoing struggle does not concern only those young leaders eager to influence.

The political destiny of their people, but also those among the established leadership who, despite their loyalty to Arafat, may be impatient to see the dawn of another era and another leadership.

Thus, for quite different reasons, Americans, Israelis and Palestinians may allow the current game to go on, while each party hopes to control it, if not to take advantage from it on the opponents and the rivals.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.