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Think Again: Yasir Arafat

By Dennis B. Ross

July/August 2002 Foreign Policy, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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”

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 miserably.

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 Proposal”

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 corruption.

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 violence.

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.

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.