How Arafat is strong

In spite of the many indicators of the deteriorating strength of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the danger that he may be in – both physically and politically é all of these indicators could be completely false. The focus of first the Israeli and now the American approach to the conflict has been Yasser Arafat as an individual. This focus is backfiring and actually strengthening Arafat in more than one way.

Although many Palestinians might share some of the oft-heard criticisms against Arafat concerning his style of governance, it is very rare that one find Palestinians who differ with his political position, especially over the central political issues that were and maybe still are under negotiation. For example, it is not disputed between Arafat and any other significant Palestinian leaders or the public that while the Palestinians should not demand anything more than an end to the occupation, they also should not accept anything less. With the exception of Hamas, there is no political alternative to what Arafat stands for in Palestinian politics.

The main obstacle to the reaching of an interim agreement in bilateral Washington talks in 1991 and 1992 was the fact that the Palestinian delegation insisted that any agreement should include an Israeli commitment to stopping all land confiscations and settlement growth. It was only because the Palestinian leadership conducting secret talks in Oslo did not insist on that requirement, that the Oslo negotiations succeeded. Avoiding the settlement issue, as it turned out, was like leaving a land mine on the road to peace.

Considering that the essence of the current crisis and confrontations are the political differences that appeared in final negotiations at Camp David, removing Arafat will not then change the chances for peace and consequently stop or reduce the violence. Getting rid of Arafat politically or physically will only remove any control or restraint that exists on the Palestinian resistance, shifting the internal balance of power inside Palestinian society and politics further in favor of the anti-peace process camp. Arafat will be replaced with a leadership who must be more rigid because it is weaker.

At the same time, keeping Arafat functioning politically and safe physically, but under the current pressure and siege will only give Arafat further internal strength and credibility.

It seems that Arafat has worked out how to maintain limited options on how Israel treats him. He has given orders to his guards inside the presidential compound to fight until all are dead if Israel attacks the compound. This is equal to telling the Israelis that either he remains where he is and in the way he is or they will have to kill him in a battle – which will bring about the obvious consequences of a dramatic and unlimited level of violence and make it impossible to control Palestinians in the direction sought by the Israelis and Americans.

The approach of trying to solve things by deciding on the correct dose of force to be used against Palestinians, while taking advantage of the imbalance of power in Israel’s favor will never be successful. Israel’s military superiority ensures it military victory in any war, but it will never have peace if that remains Israel’s objective.

It is equally correct that the problem is not Yasser Arafat personally, because even if he followed American or Israeli demands to the letter, on the “violence” or the ship or any other issue, we will not be any closer to bridging the political gap that separates the current Israeli government’s position and both the Palestinian position and international law. The main problem is that the ideological and political positions of this Israeli government fundamentally contradict the notion on which the peace process was built, which is the compromise of dividing historic Palestine into Israel and Palestine according to the borders of Security Council Resolution 242.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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