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The End of Oslo

May 9, 2009 | by

Yasser Arafat is an obstacle to peace.

Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard.

Jerusalem, June 18, 2001

The long-running argument in Washington over Yasser Arafat's responsibility for the terror campaign against Israeli civilians should have been settled on June 2, the day after a Palestinian suicide bomber murdered 20 Israelis, mostly teenage girls, outside a Tel Aviv disco. That day, the Palestinian dictator publicly called for a cease-fire—for the first time ever—and by and large the violence ceased, laying bare before the world Arafat's heavy responsibility for creating it. By June 8, as this was being written, the Israeli army was reporting a "significant" reduction in Palestinian terror incidents, justifying the relaxation of some security restrictions imposed on the movement of Palestinians.

With Arafat thus exposed as a deliberate orchestrator of the region's conflict, there is no longer any denying the error at the heart of the Oslo process. In 1993, Israel and the United States consciously chose to resurrect Arafat, discredited by his Gulf War alliance with Saddam Hussein, and make him their interlocutor for peace. Ever since, Washington has operated as if there were only two alternatives in the Middle East, Arafat and war. But for Israelis, the Arafat option is war, and as such is untenable. Even Israelis on the left now see this. Defense minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer, a member of the pro-Oslo Labor party, made history of sorts when he said on June 6 of Arafat, "His time is past. For Israel it is time to seek new partners and a new path to peace."

Washington may be slower to recognize this. Indeed, it still clings to a ruinous approach, urging Israel to "exercise restraint" in response to the murderous attack on innocent teenagers, and dispatching yet another high-ranking official, this time CIA director George Tenet, to the region to "talk" to the parties. In so doing, the United States is extending Arafat's life and granting him another chance to plunge the Middle East into war.

It is time to withdraw the mantle of legitimacy from Arafat.

For both Israel and its principal ally, it is time to withdraw the mantle of legitimacy from Arafat, to stop funding his police state, and to start thinking beyond Oslo.

Consider: For the past eight months, Arafat has used the tightly controlled media of the Palestinian Authority to unleash a flood of blood-curdling anti-Semitic incitement, urging Palestinians to support ever more brazen acts of terror against Israeli civilians. One spot that aired on Palestinian Authority TV for weeks featured the image of Muhammad al-Durra, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy whose televised death in a firefight between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen last October shocked the world. In the ad, al-Durra implores other Palestinian children to join him in paradise by becoming child martyrs. The spot was pulled only on June 2, the day after the disco bombing.

Another typical illustration of state-sponsored anti-Semitic incitement was Arafat's personally blaming Israel for the death of Faisal Husseini, a Palestinian Authority official. Husseini, 60, died of a heart attack on May 30 in his Kuwait City hotel room. He had long suffered from asthma and high blood pressure. This could hardly have surprised Palestinians, who have been served a steady diet of anti-Semitic vitriol ever since the United States and Israel gave Arafat his own media empire in 1994. As recently as May, the Palestinian Authority reported that the Israeli Air Force was air-dropping poisoned candy into Palestinian schoolyards and conspiring to destroy Jerusalem's Al-Aksa mosque, for which Arafat's latest war, the "Aksa Intifada," is named.

Violent words are the prelude to violent actions.

As history has shown again and again, violent words are the prelude to violent actions. In the last eight months, Arafat's lieutenants and allies have recruited and deployed dozens of suicide bombers, planted hundreds of roadside bombs, and engaged in thousands of shooting attacks. These were all part of a carefully planned, publicly stated strategy—seldom reported outside the Arabic-language press—to kill enough Jews to provoke an Israeli response that would goad Arab states into fighting yet another war against the Jewish state. This war would either succeed in destroying Israel or would serve Palestinian interests by provoking the intervention of an international force that would give legitimacy, aid, and protection to the Palestinians. Thus would the Palestinians secure their goals without having to make the one concession Israel demanded at the negotiating table: a formal end to the conflict with Israel and a renunciation of all future claims against her.

That Arafat is fighting not to establish a Palestinian state but to destroy the Jewish state became apparent at Camp David last July. He was offered nearly everything he was said to be demanding: At the stroke of a pen, Arafat could have had over 95 percent of the West Bank, 100 percent of Gaza, the re-division of Jerusalem, the end of the "occupation," and the dismantling of dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But by insisting that all the descendants of the Palestinian refugees who fled as a result of the Arab invasion of Israel the day after its birth in 1948 be allowed to return, Arafat made clear that for him and his cause, nothing short of the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state will suffice.

If the last year has confirmed Arafat's utter lack of credibility as a partner for peace, where do we go from here? Washington's immediate task is to try to prevent a regional war, now closer than it has been in 30 years. Such a war would not only threaten American allies in the region, but could inflict devastating damage on the United States itself, already grappling with its worst energy crisis since the last Middle East war. Thanks to advances in the war-making capacity of likely participants and the willingness of some of Israel's enemies to use weapons of mass destruction, such a war could have catastrophic human consequences.

Even more ominous for Israel—and advantageous for Arafat and his radical Arab allies—is that Israel faces a rabidly hostile and heavily armed Palestinian population in its own backyard, both in areas that Arafat's Palestinian Authority controls and in Israel proper. Radical Arab states like Syria and Iraq see this vulnerability clearly: For the first time in the history of the conflict, Israel faces the prospect of fighting a multi-front war while also combating an armed fifth column in its midst that would, among other things, besiege the roads its largely civilian army depends upon to mobilize. Israel's vaunted defense force isn't worth much if its citizen soldiers can't get to their bases. With little margin for error, a delay of even hours could seriously impair Israel's ability to repel an armored invasion.

To meet this threat of war, Israel possesses unprecedented military, technological, and economic strength. Its army and air force are among the best in the world. With only six million people, no natural resources, and a country smaller than New Jersey, it has built the largest economy between Europe and India. It has more engineers per capita than any other nation. But of all Israel's strengths, its greatest asset is its relationship with the United States. By publicly reaffirming America's fundamental and unbreakable bond to the Jewish state, by warning would-be aggressors that Israel will never stand alone, Washington could greatly reduce the likelihood of war.

Against the backdrop of a burnished American alliance, Israel must reinforce its own posture of deterrence by resuming the tough policies that worked well just a few years back. Israelis with even the shortest memories can recall the mid 1990s, when their country experienced a rash of terrorism more deadly, if less widespread, than they are seeing now. Despite the early promise of the peace process, Tel Aviv was on fire. Buses were exploding, killing and maiming hundreds of civilians. It was then that the young and untested Benjamin Netanyahu won an upset victory over incumbent prime minister Shimon Peres in the election of 1993. Coming just months after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Netanyahu's unexpected success was bitterly resented by Israel's left-wing establishment, which helped the world cast the new leader as an "obstacle to peace."

Netanyahu insisted that the only way to stop terrorism was to expose and punish those responsible. Arafat would be held personally accountable for terrorist activity originating in territory he controlled. Publicly and privately, Netanyahu began to drive home the message that Arafat would get nothing without giving something. What the world and some in Israel labeled "right-wing obstructionism" the prime minister called "reciprocity." Yet despite the impolite things people said about him in Washington, Netanyahu was right. His strategy virtually stopped terrorism. That Israelis can name every terror attack that occurred during his tenure attests to how few there were: fewer than in any similar period before or since.

Indeed, Netanyahu's "stop Arafat" policy worked so well that Israelis soon forgot why they had elected him. On his watch, the percentage of the public who cited security as their number one concern dropped to an all-time low, from 73 percent in 1996 to 39 percent in 1999. Today that number tops 80 percent. Alas, it was Netanyahu's success at isolating and punishing Arafat that provided Israelis the very security that lulled them into trading their well-worn realism for utopian dreams of a "New Middle East"—and in 1999 trading Netanyahu for Ehud Barak.

There is only one solution: the Arab world's recognition that Israel is permanent, and its decision to live with Israel in peace.

But even if Israel returns to Netanyahu-like firmness and combats terrorism effectively, it is vital that both Israelis and Americans understand that the best they can hope for in the near future is a cold peace. As for a permanent solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the protracted violence spawned by Arafat's rejection of the settlement he claimed he wanted reminds us that there is only one: the Arab world's recognition that Israel is permanent, and its decision to live with Israel in peace.

The decades-old Arab campaign to isolate Israel diplomatically and politically is designed to deny Israel permanence—which is why the United States must diligently counter this campaign at every turn. Simultaneously, Washington should signal its intention to correct the error of Oslo by formally, finally, and completely disassociating itself from Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority.

That the United States is openly vilified in the Palestinian media, that American and Israeli flags are now burned side by side at official Palestine Liberation Organization rallies, should in itself justify ending all financial assistance to Arafat's regime. With Arafat's responsibility for terrorism established, it is time that the Palestinian Authority be put on the State Department's list of terrorist sponsors and banned from the United States, and the PLO put back on that list. The message such moves would send to a jittery Arab world would be profound. By stripping Arafat of his legitimacy and subsidies, the United States would put the radical Arab regimes on notice, while reassuring the moderate ones.

In fact, allowing Arafat to continue using violence to achieve his political objectives threatens Egypt and Jordan—U.S. allies and the only Arab nations formally at peace with the Jewish state—more than it threatens Israel. If, through continued incitement of the Arab masses, Arafat is able to lure the leaders of these two nations into his war against Israel, not only will their armies be defeated and their countries devastated, but they will almost certainly be removed from power. And they know this. President Mubarak, who intersperses his regular repertoire of acerbic attacks on Israel with statements like "I will sacrifice not a single Egyptian life for Palestine," is all but begging the United States to stop Arafat.

The lesson of America's failed dalliance with Arafat is that dictators are inherently unreliable partners because they need external enemies to stay in power. They need enemies to help them justify their repression of their own people and consolidate their own control—as a seasoned democracy like the United States should have known all along.

One who was clear about this is Natan Sharansky, the human rights activist now deputy prime minister of Israel. He warned for years that the Oslo process was doomed to fail, based as it was on the belief that Arafat could be trusted to stop terrorism precisely because he was a former terrorist himself and a dictator unencumbered by the niceties of democracy. The idea was to get the fox to guard the henhouse. As the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin used to say, "Arafat can crack down on Palestinian terror without having to worry about a free press, a supreme court, or any of those annoying human rights groups." But in the end, Arafat was not prepared to fight his own people in order to protect Israel, and the attempt to turn a corrupt, murderous dictator into an ally by indulging him with unimagined power has proved disastrous.

Who or what should replace Arafat? Answering this question is less urgent than recognizing that he must go. The United States regularly pursues "regime change" in instances where its interests are at stake, and today its interests are threatened nowhere so much as by Yasser Arafat. While the history and culture of the Arab and Islamic worlds suggest that democratization is not a realistic short-term option, it must be an explicit long-term goal. The mistake of the past decade was to think that peace could be built by bankrolling an individual rather than supporting the principles and institutions required to nurture a free and open society. The sooner that mistake is acknowledged, discarded, and corrected, the sooner stability can be restored, and maybe even someday peace established, in the Middle East.

This article is reprinted with the permission of The Weekly Standard, it first appeared on June 18, 2001.

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Tom Rose is the publisher and CEO of The Jerusalem Post.

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