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From the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 8)

Arafat is Running Out of Options


Gerald M. Steinberg, The Jerusalem Post (conservative), Israel, June 4, 2001

In one of history’s cruel jokes, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is a victim of his own “success.” Opinion polls show that more than 70 percent of the Palestinians under his control support the suicide bombings and murders of Israelis. Arafat, it seems, is popular at home.

In contrast, and precisely for this reason, the Palestinian leader is not very popular in much of the rest of the world. Following the brutality of the latest terrorist attacks, his credibility and support in the United States have evaporated, and in other countries, support for Palestinian victimization is weakening. After the Tel Aviv bombing, Arafat suddenly seemed to realize, after some prodding, that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon now has a free hand to crush the Palestinian violence and put an end to terrorism. Arafat clearly showed that he has not totally lost contact with reality, and instead of fleeing to a friendly and distant capital, he issued a statement in Arabic calling for an end to violence.

Even if these ambiguous words are followed by an end to the incitement campaign in the official media and the recapture of terrorist leaders, Arafat will have trouble justifying a sudden about-face. After walking out on the Camp David summit 11 months ago, the Palestinians have lost ground. The deaths of hundreds, and the wounding of thousands more, have given them nothing.

Nevertheless, Arafat may survive, at least for a short time. He has emerged from difficult situations before—in 1970, after fleeing Amman following the failed coup to overthrow King Hussein, and in 1982, when Israel invaded Beirut after the terrorism became intolerable and Arafat fled to Tunis. He may be a survivor, but every adventure takes Palestinians further from sovereignty and from the peace they desperately need.

In 1993, when Arafat was weak, he was rescued by Israel. Under pressure from Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, Yitzhak Rabin agreed to throw Arafat a lifeline in the hope of ending the cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Arafat grabbed the opportunity, but kept his options open, telling Palestinians to prepare for jihad. Once again, it seemed, Arafat was able to turn a weak hand into a personal triumph. Even after the latest campaign of terror began in September of last year, Arafat maintained some credibility.

Analysts claimed that the violence was tactical, designed to improve his bargaining position before making the necessary compromises. As the terror increased, the debate turned to the question of whether Arafat would, or could, control the attacks. As long as some ambiguity remained, he has been able to continue with his travels to world capitals and to receive phone calls, if not invitations, from Washington.

However, Ariel Sharon’s unilateral cease-fire caught Arafat off guard. While Sharon’s policy exacted a very high price in terms of lives sacrificed to Palestinian terror, it isolated Arafat and shifted international attention to the Palestinians. Another barbaric terror attack will bring a massive Israeli response, with the support of the United States and at least a passive acceptance from Europe.

In contrast, if Arafat is able and willing to end the violence, this will prove that he has continued to maintain control of events and is directly responsible for hundreds of needless deaths. Whatever response he chooses, as long as Arafat speaks for Palestinians, the Israeli public is unlikely to take any more risks in the now very distant hope for peace.


The writer is director of the Program on Conflict Resolution in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University.


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