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Think again: Yasir Arafat

Donderdag, Augustus 15, 2002 / Last Modified: Zaterdag, December 31, 2011

Think again: Yasir Arafat

Ambassador Dennis B. Ross is director of the Washington Institute for Near
East Policy. He was the lead negotiator on the Middle East peace process in the
first Bush and both Clinton administrations.

Foreign Policy, July-August 2002

In 1974, Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO),
declared before the United Nations that he came “bearing an olive branch and a
freedom-fighter’s gun.” Nearly 20 years later, the world still does not know if
Arafat is a statesman dedicated to peaceful coexistence with Israel or a
resistance leader dedicated to armed struggle. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
enters a tenuous new phase of peace negotiations, understanding Arafat’s true
motives will be essential to fostering a lasting agreement.

“Arafat’s Goal Is a Lasting Peace With the State of Israel”

I doubt it. Throughout the Oslo peace process, everyone involved – Palestinians,
Israelis, Americans, Egyptians, Saudis, and other Arab leaders – shared the
belief that Arafat wanted peace with Israel. It seemed logical. After all, Arafat
had crossed the threshold and recognized Israel, incurring the wrath of secular
and religious rejectionists. And he had authorized five limited or interim
agreements with the Israelis. Although Arafat held out until the last possible
minute and strived for the best deal, he eventually made the compromises
necessary to reach those interim agreements.

Unfortunately, such short-term progress masked some disquieting signals about
the Palestinian leader’s intentions. Every agreement he made was limited and
contained nothing he regarded as irrevocable. He was not, in his eyes, required
to surrender any claims.

Worse, notwithstanding his commitment to renounce violence, he has
never relinquished the terror card.

Moreover, he is always quick to exaggerate his achievements, even
while maintaining an ongoing sense of grievance. During the Oslo peace
process, he never prepared his public for compromise. Instead, he led the
Palestinians to believe the peace process would produce everything they ever
wanted – and he implicitly suggested a return to armed struggle if negotiations
fell short of those unattainable goals.

Even in good times, Arafat spoke to Palestinian groups about how the
struggle, the jihad, would lead them to Jerusalem. Too often his partners in the
peace process dismissed this behavior as Arafat being caught up in rhetorical
flourishes in front of his ‘party’ faithful. I myself pressed him when his language
went too far or provoked an angry Israeli response, but his stock answer was
that he was just talking about the importance of struggling for rights through
the negotiation process.

But from the start of the Oslo negotiations in 1993, Arafat focused only on
what he was going to receive, not what he had to give. He found it difficult to
live without a cause, a struggle, a grievance, and a conflict to define him.
Arafat never faced up to what he would have to do – even though we tried
repeatedly to condition him. As a result, when he was finally put to the test
with former President Bill Clinton’s proposal in December 2000, Arafat failed

Is there any sign that Arafat has changed and is ready to make historic
decisions for peace? I see no indication of it. Even his sudden readiness to seize
the mantle of reform is the result of intense pressure from Palestinians and the
international community. He is maneuvering now to avoid real reform, not to
implement it. And on peace, he does not appear ready to acknowledge the
opportunity that existed with Clinton’s plan, nor does he seem willing to
confront the myths of the Palestinian movement.

“Arafat Missed a Historic Opportunity When He Turned Down the Clinton

Yes. It is true that Arafat did not ‘reject’ the ideas the Clinton administration
offered in December 2000. Instead, he pulled a classic Arafat: He did not say
yes or no. He wanted it both ways. He wanted to keep talking as if the Clinton
proposal was the opening gambit in a negotiation, but he knew otherwise.
Arafat knew Clinton’s plan represented the culmination of the American effort.
He also knew these ideas were offered as the best judgment of what each side
could live with and that the proposal would be withdrawn if not accepted.

To this day, Arafat has never honestly admitted what was offered to the
Palestinians – a deal that would have resulted in a Palestinian state, with
territory in over 97 percent of the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem; with Arab
East Jerusalem as the capital of that state (including the holy place of the
Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary); with an international presence in place
of the Israeli Defense Force in the Jordan Valley; and with the unlimited right of
return for Palestinian refugees to their state but not to Israel.

Nonetheless, Arafat continues to hide behind the canard that he was
offered Bantustans – a reference to the geographically isolated black homelands
created by the apartheid-era South African government. Yet with 97 percent of
the territory in Palestinian hands, there would have been no cantons. Palestinian
areas would not have been isolated or surrounded. There would have been
territorial integrity and contiguity in both the West Bank and Gaza, and there
would have been independent borders with Egypt and Jordan.

“The offer was never written” is a refrain uttered time and again by apologists
for Chairman Arafat as a way of suggesting that no real offer existed and that
therefore Arafat did not miss a historic opportunity. Nothing could be more
ridiculous or misleading. President Clinton himself presented both sides with his
proposal word by word. I stayed behind to be certain both sides had recorded
each word accurately. Given Arafat’s negotiating style, Clinton was not about
to formalize the proposal, making it easier for Arafat to use the final offer as
just a jumping-off point for more ceaseless bargaining in the future.

However, it is worth pondering how Palestinians would have reacted to a public
presentation of Clinton’s plan. Had Palestinians honestly known what Arafat
was unwilling to accept, would they have supported violence against the
Israelis, particularly given the suffering imposed on them? Would Arafat have
remained the ‘only Palestinian’ capable of making peace? Perhaps such
domestic pressure would have convinced Arafat, the quintessential survivor,
that the political costs of intransigence would be higher than the costs of
making difficult concessions to Israel.

“Arab Leaders Stand Behind Arafat”

Reluctantly. I have never met an Arab leader who trusts Arafat or has anything
good to say about him in private. Almost all Arab leaders have stories about
how he has misled or betrayed them. Most simply wave their hands
dismissively when examples of his betrayal of commitments are cited – almost
as if they are saying, “We know, we know.” The Saudis, in particular, saw his
alignment with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1991 as proof of his perfidy.

But no Arab leader is prepared to challenge him. All acknowledge him as the
symbol of the Palestinian movement, and no one sees an alternative to him. But
no one is prepared to go out on a limb for him, either.

Many suggest that in the absence of broad Arab support, Clinton’s proposal
was too hard for Arafat to accept. Furthermore, some argue, since the United
States failed to secure the support Arafat needed, it bears some responsibility
for his inability to say yes. That argument is more myth than reality.

First, if Clinton’s offer was so hard to accept, why has Arafat never
honestly portrayed it? Why not say he was offered 97 percent, instead of
Bantustans or cantons? Why not admit he would have had Arab East Jerusalem
as the capital of the state, instead of denying that?

Second, we did line up the support of five key Arab leaders for Clinton’s
plan. On December 23, 2000, the same day that President Clinton presented
his ideas to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, he called Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, and Jordanian King Abdullah ii to
convey the comprehensive proposal he had just presented to the parties.
Shortly thereafter, he also transmitted the ideas to King Mohammed IV of
Morocco and President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia.

All these Arab leaders made clear they thought Clinton’s ideas were historic,
and they pledged to press Arafat to accept the plan. However, when Arafat told
Arab leaders he had questions, they backed off and assumed the position they
had adopted throughout the Oslo peace process. They would support whatever
Chairman Arafat accepted. They were not about to put themselves in a position
in which Arafat might claim that President Mubarak or Crown Prince Abdullah
or King Abdullah was trying to pressure him to surrender Palestinian rights.

There is a lesson here for today: Getting Arab leaders to fulfill their
responsibilities – to be participants and not just observers – is essential. On
existential questions in which concessions on the Palestinian side are required,
Arab leaders will likely restrict their pressure to private entreaties. But that is
not where real leverage is to be found. Pressure in public would be pressure as
Arafat defines it. Arafat’s great achievement for the Palestinians has been
putting them on the map, producing recognition, giving them standing on the
world stage. He embodies the cause, and that is why Arab leaders find it so
hard to criticize him in public. Yet he cannot afford the imagery that he and the
Palestinian cause are separate. If Arab leaders would say that his being only a
symbol and not a leader threatens Palestinian interests, then Arafat’s very
identity would be called into question. That would move him.

“The World Must Deal With Arafat Since He Is the Palestinians’ Elected Leader”

Not necessarily. The United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United
Nations have adopted this position. An election in the territories in 1996 made
Arafat the chairman of the Palestinian Authority. But the international
community does the Palestinians no favor when it emphasizes Arafat’s popular
election as justification for dealing with him. It is important to remember that
anger on Palestinian streets before the eruption of the Al-Aqsa Intifada was
directed against Israel and also against the corruption and ineptitude of the
Palestinian Authority. Now that the dust is settling after Israeli military
operations and massive reconstruction is needed in the West Bank,

Palestinians are demanding reform. They are demanding elections, rule of law,
an independent judiciary, transparency, accountability, streamlined security
services governed by standards (not by Arafat’s whims), and an end to

Palestinians are not looking to oust Chairman Arafat. They simply want to limit
his arbitrary use of power. Given the pressure he is under (from within, from
among Arabs to stop manipulating violence and to assume responsibility, and
from the international community), it is not hard to see why Arafat is trying to
seize the mantle of reform. Yet he cannot be permitted to speak of reform and
at the same time avoid its consequences. Otherwise, the momentum will be
lost. True reform is an essential part of any political process designed to
promote peace. The more serious the reform, the more the Israeli public will see
that Palestinian behavior is changing – and the more likely Israel will accept the
possibility of partnership again. If Arafat is allowed to escape pressure for
genuine reform, the Israeli government will be under no pressure to resume
political negotiations.

One could argue that the world must deal with Arafat because he is the symbol
of the Palestinian movement, because he is the only address available, and
because he is the only one who can be held responsible for Palestinian
behavior. That would be a more honest explanation than saying he is the
popularly elected leader of the Palestinians.

However, Arafat’s role as a symbol is not the reason the U.S.
government recognized him in the first place. The United States made the
decision to deal directly with Arafat in September 1993 when, as part of the
Oslo documents, he formally agreed to renounce terror, to discipline and punish
any Palestinian violators of that pledge, and to settle all disputes peacefully.
Suffice to say, Arafat has not abided by those commitments.

No one but the Palestinians can choose the Palestinian leader. But the rest of
the world can choose not to deal with a leader who fails to fulfill obligations.
Governments can tell the Palestinian public they recognize it has legitimate
aspirations that must be addressed and that those aspirations can only be
addressed politically, not militarily. But those aspirations will not be satisfied
until Palestinians have a leadership – whether it is Arafat, a successor, or a
collective body that limits the chairman’s power – that will fulfill its
responsibilities on security and declare that suicide bombers are enemies of the
Palestinian cause.

When a Palestinian leadership lives up to those commitments, the
Palestinians and the Arab world will have an American partner determined to
help ensure that Palestinian needs are met.

“Arafat Can’t Control the Militants in the Palestinian Authority”

He can, but he won’t. Arafat has demonstrated in the past that he can prevent
violence – most notably in the spring of 1996 when he cracked down on Hamas
and also in the first year of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s administration,
when Israel, for the only time in its history, had a year in which it did not suffer
a single fatality from terror.

Yet from the beginning of the peace process, Arafat made clear he prefers to
co-opt, not confront, extremist groups. This approach reflects his leadership
style: He never closes doors. He never forecloses options. He never knows
when he might want to have a particular group, no matter what its ideology or
purpose, on his side.

This strategy has certainly been true of his dealings with Hamas and
Islamic Jihad. In 1996, he suppressed extremists because they were
threatening his power, not because they carried out four suicide bombings in
Israel in nine days. Even then, the crackdown, while real, was limited. Arafat
did not completely shut the door on either group.

In the past, whenever Arafat cracked down or threatened to do so, the militants
backed down. But that stopped in September 2000 with the eruption of the
Al-Aqsa Intifada. Those who say Arafat cannot carry out his security
responsibilities because Israeli military incursions have devastated his
capabilities fail to recognize that Arafat didn’t act even before Israelis destroyed
his infrastructure. In the 20 months leading up to May 2002, he never gave
unequivocal orders to arrest, much less stop, those who were planning,
organizing, recruiting, financing, or implementing terror attacks against Israelis.

Whether one thinks – as the Israelis believe recently captured documents
demonstrate – Arafat directs the violence or that he simply acquiesces to it, the
unmistakable fact is that he has made no serious or sustained effort to stop the

If nothing else, it is time for Arafat to use his moral authority to make clear that
armed struggle only threatens the Palestinian cause – that those who persist in
the violence are not martyrs but enemies of Palestinian interests and needs.

Let him make such declarations consistently, rather than repeating the
pattern of the past as when he called for a cease-fire on December 16, 2001,
only to call for a million martyrs to march on Jerusalem shortly thereafter.
Pressing Arafat to speak out consistently does not relieve him of the need to
act. Nor does it relieve the Israelis of finding a way to meet their legitimate
security needs without making the Palestinians suffer. Ultimately, keeping the
territories under siege is self-defeating. This approach only fosters anger and a
desire to make Israelis feel comparable pain. The Israeli military has succeeded
in creating a necessary respite from terrorist attacks. Now Israel should seek a
political path that builds on that respite and gives Palestinians an interest in
making it more enduring.

“The Time Has Come to Impose a Peace Deal on Arafat and Sharon”

Absolutely not. Nearly two years of conflict, the spiraling violence, the
deepening sense of gloom, and the seeming inability of the two sides to do
anything on their own give credence to the argument that now is the time to
impose a solution. If an imposed solution were possible and would hold, I would
be prepared to support it. But an imposed solution is an illusion.

No Israeli government (not Ariel Sharon’s, not Ehud Barak’s, not Benjamin
Netanyahu’s, not Shimon Peres’s) has accepted or will accept an imposed
outcome. It goes against the Israeli ethos that a partner for peace must prove
its commitment by directly negotiating an agreement.

Paradoxically, the very terms Israeli governments might find difficult to
accept if imposed would probably be acceptable if Israelis believed they had a
real partner for peace. Those who argue for an imposed solution claim no Israeli
leader can make the hard decisions, such as giving up settlements, most of the
West Bank and Gaza, and the Arab part of East Jerusalem.

Yet Barak was prepared to do so; and before the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the
Israeli public was ready to support him. In a recent trip to Israel, I found a
far-reaching consensus – encompassing the left and the right in Israel – for
acceptance of a Clinton-like solution, provided the Palestinians are truly
prepared to forsake terror, violence, and the right of return to Israel.

Trying to impose a solution that the Israeli government will not accept – and the
Sharon government will surely not accept Clintonesque ideas in the current
environment – will only result in strong resistance. Even if the United States
could pressure the Israelis to reluctantly accept an imposed outcome, would it
endure? I doubt it.

Arafat would certainly go along with an imposed outcome. He has always
preferred such an option. It would relieve him of the responsibility to make a
decision. He can outwardly acquiesce, saying he has no choice. But inevitably,
Palestinians will oppose at least part of an imposed outcome.

Will new issues – what we might call Palestinian ‘Sheba farms’ – suddenly
emerge? Recall that Israel withdrew from Lebanon in accordance with U.N.
Security Council Resolution 425 and that the U.N. secretary-general certified
this withdrawal. Yet Hezbollah now claims that the Sheba farms area of the
Golan Heights is Lebanese and that lasting “Israeli occupation” justifies
continued armed resistance, including Katyusha rocket attacks.

Will there not be a Palestinian equivalent of this situation after an
imposed solution? And given Arafat’s poor track record, how can anyone
expect he would defend the existing peace agreement against such newly
discovered grievances?

If one overriding lesson from the past persists, it is that the Palestinians must
make decisions and bear the responsibility of those decisions. No enduring
peace can be reached until the Palestinian leadership levels with its public,
resists the temptation to blame every ill on the Israelis or the outside world,
assumes responsibility for controversial decisions, and stands by its decision in
the face of opposition.

An imposed solution will only delay the day when all sides, but especially the
Palestinians, have to assume real responsibilities. Consequently, an imposed
solution would be no solution at all.

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