Sunday, November 07, 2004

Blessed are the Peacemakers, pt. 1

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."--Matthew 5:9 (NRSV)

Death of a Statesman

Today we gather to mourn the (surely?) imminent loss to the world of a great man of peace. His name is Yasser Arafat. Yeah, go on and laugh. Done yet? No? Well, continue, I'll still be here when you finish.

All right. Glad to see you got that out of your system. Arafat-A man of peace? It's understandable to laugh considering how the mainstream media has catered exclusively to the theory that the failure of the Camp David Accords in 2000 between Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and President Bill Clinton was entirely do to "that terrorist Arafat, that thug Arafat, that Jew-hating, Hitler-loving, goose-stepping Brownshirt, Neo-Nazi, piece of pond scum Arafat", who hated Israel, wanted to destroy it, and didn't want peace, even if peace were handed to him on a silver platter. After all, the Israelis offered the best offer they had ever made, all of the Gaza Strip and 95% of the West Bank, and Arafat spurned this very generous offer.

It is what I thought, too, for a while. Until I found out that the Israelis had previously offered all of Gaza and 94% of the West Bank as the "best and final offer" a couple of months before. A couple of years before that, the Israelis' "best and final offer" had been at 92% of the West Bank. And even before that, Arafat had been assured that the Israelis would never offer more than 90% of the West Bank. Arafat had heard it all before. If you were in his shoes, and every "final offer" had been soon followed by a more generous one, wouldn't you expect that to be the case this time? Sure enough, at Taba resort in Egypt in December 2000, after his "final chance" at Camp David, after violence broke out again in September, a more generous deal (96-97%) was indeed offered, although it was short of Arafat's stated goal of 100% of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. So, realistically, Arafat would have been a fool to have taken the offer at Camp David in the summer of 2000. But he failed to count on the rise to power of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon. More on them later.

See, people often fail to understand Arafat's character. I've thought a lot about this over the years and have come to the conclusion that he has two overriding goals: to establish a secular Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and to maintain his power. The last is crucial. You cannot understand Arafat unless you understand his lust for life and power. This is a man who, I believe, is haunted by the fate of other Middle East leaders who took a gamble on peace. Anwar Sadat signed peace with Israel and was assassinated by his fellow Egyptians. Yitzhak Rabin, the man who shook Arafat's hand at the White House to begin the Oslo peace process, was dead within two years, killed by a fellow Israeli.

Arafat earnestly wants a Palestinian state and peace with Israel but his (justifiable) paranoia prevents him from taking the bold steps necessary to compromise. An editorial cartoon I saw in the Greensboro News & Record after the failure of Camp David illustrated the point rather nicely. (I wish I could find it again) The top box was captioned "Arafat being greeted by his countrymen after rejecting Camp David." It showed Arafat descending off a plane with armed Palestinians holding guns in salute. The bottom box was captioned "The greeting Arafat would have received had he accepted Camp David." The only difference in this box was that the guns were now pointed at Arafat! Arafat could have accepted Camp David, but then he would have had to plead for asylum, for he could not have returned home and lived to implement the accord.

The fault lies not just with Arafat. The problem was the "peace process" to begin with. Instead of seeing it as a process that would bring the peace everyone wanted, but only through painful compromise, the leaders in Israel and Palestine persuaded their people that it was simply a non-violent way to get everything they wanted and had not been able to get through years of war. There is a saying that diplomacy is "war by other means." Both sides viewed the peace process as "war by other means". No matter who was Prime Minister, no matter which party had a governing coalition, the liberal peacenik doves in the Labor party or the War Hawks in the Likud party, the Israeli government continued to allow, and even to expand and build more Israeli settlements in the lands Israel was now committed to give up. If you actually intended to withdraw from certain territory, would you continue to subsidize further settlement there?

No Israeli leader ever told his people that most, if not all, of the settlements would have to be withdrawn. Arafat never leveled with his people that few, if any of them, would ever be able to go back to their old homes in Israel which they had had to leave behind in the turmoil of the 1947-48 war. The sad truth is, neither side was ever really serious about making the sacrifices necessary for peace and neither side educated their populace to expect to have compromise anything. They wanted peace without effort. That is the true failure of Oslo, and it can be laid at the feet of both Israel and Arafat.

Well, that's not entirely accurate. Believe it or not, Arafat was more committed to peace than the Israeli leadership. The Israelis kept falling behind the deadlines established at Oslo. Arafat threatened to unilaterally declare independence when the deadline expired on May 5, 1999. He let the deadline slide to prevent the inevitable bloodshed. He also let the next deadline of September 15, 2000 slide as well. Arafat was willing to make sacrifices to keep the peace process alive, postponing the date every Palestinian lives and breathes for. He could have taken the easy and popular way out. Wisely, he didn't, in order to prevent bloodshed. So, yes, Arafat was a man of peace. He deserved his Nobel Peace Prize for his comittment to Oslo.

Now of course, Arafat is not, and has never been perfect. Yes, back in the days before Oslo, before about 1990, Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was responsible for a number of terrorist attacks, some of them planned by Arafat himself, that killed many Israeli soldiers and civilians. Arafat is a heavy-handed dictator, who probably rigged his 1996 "election" to the presidency of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) Saddam-style and has refused to step down or hold another election--or "election"--even though his term under the Palestinian Constitution is over. He has even been known to pull a gun on his own cabinet members to keep them in line. Yeah, Arafat is a thug.

Arafat is no idealistic Jefferson, no political theoretician like Madison or Hamilton; he has not the commitment to democratic rule that Washington had. But he is all the Palestinian people have, the deeply-flawed Founding Father of the Palestinian nation, and its enduring symbol, the one force that unites almost all Palestinians. If we can do business with such paragons of democracy as Pervez Musharraf and Vladimir Putin, if we could find common cause with such a bloody tyrant as Joseph Stalin, we should be able to put up with a two-bit dictator who earnestly desires peace.

For more on the life of Arafat, I recommend:

Arafat did commit himself to peace at Oslo, and the record shows that he kept that commitment right up until the peace process met its untimely end. At that point, Arafat was either unable or unwilling (a distinction I will examine in a later post) to stop the Palestinian terrorist organizations that, far from sharing his pragmatic recognition that an independent Palestinian state will have to coexist alongside Israel, are convinced that they have a divine mandate to "drive the Zionists [Jews] into the sea."

For despite all of Arafat's patience and his commitment to peace, violence engulfed the Occupied Territories at the end of September 2000, sparking the current spate of violence, the Second Intefadeh, or the al-Aqsa Intefadeh, sending the peace process down in flames.

Enter Ariel Sharon from stage left.

To be continued...