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January 22, 2002

Arafat should step aside, not away

Kenneth Stein is the William E. Schatten Professor of Middle Eastern History and Political Science and director of the Middle East Research Program and Institute for the Study of Modern Israel.


Dear President Arafat: The clock is ticking. This is not just the sunset of your life—it’s legacy-consideration time. Do you want to be remembered for your lifelong struggle to found a Palestinian state or the embarrassment of being mayor of Ramallah?

Most people recollect your last gig. I would say you have had six consecutive bad quarters, the shareholders are grumbling, and the first-call outlook for 2002 is not rosy. You need to be the CEO and let someone else be the COO.

Having recently spoken to active and former diplomats of Middle East negotiations, I think it is fair to say your reputation in Washington is about as bad as ever. No one is giving Ariel Sharon a “green light” to dispose of you, but you can be sure that you are not loved at the White House or the defense department, and you barely have a lifeline at the state department.

And this boat with 50 tons of weapons is a public relations blunder at best. At worst, it gives an eager Israeli prime minister one more stick to beat an otherwise legitimate cause.

In Europe and Moscow, your diplomatic currency is like the Argentine peso. Even the French are calling for you to shut down Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But neither America nor Europe matter as much as popular opinion in Israel (and among your own Palestinians), now at the lowest levels since 1993. The late congressman Tip O’Neill said it best: “All politics is local.” Now the Israelis are not allowing you to fly about the planet; Israeli tanks sit mere hundreds of yards outside your office in Ramallah.

Opportunities to grasp dwindling resources to kick-start a Palestinian economy are quickly fading. Eighteen months ago, you did not have to compete for funds to rebuild Afghanistan; your name was not remotely associated with Osama bin Laden. Use the Zinni mission to demonstrate will and courage. Be like the ’69 Mets, not the Buffalo Bills!

There is a way for you to extricate yourself from what seems an uncomfortable physical and political cul-de-sac. You do not need to step away; you could step aside.

Lessons from Zionist history might provide you a useful context for your next steps. I feel I can bring up these points again to you because I first raised them at an evening meeting in Washington on Sept. 12, 1993. This was the meeting you had with Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter.

You were in a buoyed mood; this was, as you recall, several days after you and Israel exchanged letters of recognition, and the night before your colleague Abu-Mazen signed the Declaration of Principles with Israel on the White House lawn.

Mr. President, when David Ben-Gurion led the Zionist movement in Palestine during the decade before Israel’s establishment, he and his primary political adversaries, Menachem Begin and Chaim Weizmann, separately made several critical decisions that kept the Jewish national movement from political implosion. I sense that you are in a similar but not identical situation. Moreover, I know that you are aware of Zionist history.

Like Ben-Gurion, you personify the image of self-determination and independence for your people. You and Ben-Gurion combined armed struggle with political considerations. When Ben-Gurion finally chose diplomacy, he never wavered from subordinating violence to political considerations. And when Israel was born, those who relied more heavily on violence as the means to achieve political ends disbanded their paramilitary organizations for the good of the national movement. Begin folded his militant tent for Zionist unity. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have a similar decision to make for the unity of the Palestinian national movement.

There cannot be another temporary suspension of violence; it must be complete. Once and for all, you need to let the AK-47 fall from your grasp and hold on only to the olive branch. You have to stop saying, as you did in your recent heralded speech, that you have nothing against Israel’s existence but then mention United Nations Resolution 194 which calls for the Palestinian refugee return to pre-1967 Israel.

The verbal acrobatics must stop. All Israelis know that invoking UN Resolution 194 means a desire to see a secular state in Palestine and remove the Jewish majority. When we met in 1993, I asked you in the presence of a former U.S. president and many from your PLO Executive if you felt you could be both a Weizmann and a Ben-Gurion, both the symbol of the national renaissance and the day-to-day strategist for building the state. You did not answer my question, but Abu-Mazen, who sat next to me, leaned forward, I think, hoping for the response that did not come. Then and since you have not delegated decision-making; if you do so now, your dignity and ideals can be saved.

Now is the time. Allow several of your close cronies to work as a collective prime ministership. Let a kitchen cabinet of security officials and politicians make the day-to-day decisions. Lay the ground work for another election like 1996—only this time, have a prime minister elected along with you as president. Though they feuded, when Ben-Gurion declared the state he knew he needed Weizmann as president, and Weizmann accepted.

As for Begin, he made a second ideological compromise in 1978 when he gave up settlements in Sinai. Technically, he did not; the Israeli Parliament voted to withdraw from Sinai. You do not have to give up your principle of wanting to liberate all of Palestine. Let this soon to-be-created kitchen cabinet do that for you.

Anwar Sadat told President Carter in April 1977 that an Egyptian peace with Israel would not come in his lifetime. He changed his mind and went to Jerusalem seven months later. Begin, Ben-Gurion, Weizmann and Sadat exhibited vision; you can, too.

A contiguous, independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital is possible, doable and necessary. If you take these steps of gathering the illegal weapons, incarcerating the perpetrators of violence and shutting down the hateful incitement in mosques and in the media, you will force reluctant Israelis to give up their myths and their dreams of having all the land for Israel west of the Jordan River.

Look at the change in Israel and the United States. A quarter century ago, when President Carter mentioned the need for a “Palestinian homeland” in a town-hall meeting, his remark was met with instant hostility, incredulity and anger from virtually every quarter supporting Israel. When George W. Bush called for a Palestinian state at the United Nations on Oct. 2, 2001, his remarks barely received a whimper from Israelis or American supporters of Israel.

Americans have been educated to the reality that a Palestinian state is necessary and required as long as it eliminates all hostile intentions toward Israel and Jordan.

As Israeli historian Yosef Gorny wrote, “Practical considerations do not necessarily contradict principles, and compromises do not always negate aspirations. On the contrary, compromise usually enables their realization.”

Maybe Sharon is the only Israeli prime minister who can make peace with the Palestinians; de Gaulle did it with the Algerians, and Nixon opened the door to China. You do not need to step away; just step aside.




Back to Emory Report January 22, 2002

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