By JOE AUCIELLO
President Bush, in a major address on the Middle East, declared, “Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror.”
The sincerity of the president’s proposal for peace in the Middle East can be judged by its conditions: If Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat steps down or is voted out of office, then the United States pledges to support a process that might ultimately lead to Palestinian statehood in three years, subject to Israeli approval.
Arafat, in other words, must first commit political suicide to secure a promise of U.S. assistance in negotiations for a Palestinian state whose borders are yet to be defined. It’s an offer that Arafat and the Palestinians cannot accept.
The idea itself is not new. Bush’s proposal is nearly a return to the era of the Camp David talks in 1978 when, out of deference to Israel, Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization were not allowed to represent Palestinian interests.
This past January, Vice President Dick Cheney suggested that negotiations would proceed more favorably without Arafat. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel has long insisted that Arafat must go. Last spring, shortly after President Bush declared, “Ariel Sharon is a man of peace,” Sharon stated, “With Arafat, no one will be able to make peace” (The New York Times, April 25, 2002).
Bush, Cheney, and Sharon to the contrary, no lasting resolution in the Middle East can possibly be achieved by excluding the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people.
President Bush’s proposal really means that the U.S. has accepted Israel’s bargaining terms. At the very least, it exerts greater pressure on the Palestinians to make more concessions for no immediate or short-term gains.
Clearly, the United States has been no impartial mediator between the Palestinians and Israelis. Bush’s peace proposal is a continuation of war by other means. Its aim is to destroy the Palestinian national movement at the bargaining table, since brutal military force has not succeeded, or escalate the scale of the war against the Palestinians.
Arafat’s popularity among the Palestinians has wavered, and, in fact, he is politically vulnerable. On the Palestinian side, a strong and justifiable anger exists against the corruption and inefficiency of the Arafat regime. For the Israelis, on the other hand, the Sharon government’s extreme hostility to Arafat-including public speculation on his assassination-is well known.
Thus, Bush’s demand to remove Arafat is a cynical ploy intended to meld Palestinian discontent with Israeli extremism. But it won’t succeed. Palestinian and Israeli criticism of Arafat spring from different and opposing sources. They cannot be merged into a common agenda.
The masses of Palestinians have supported Arafat, despite criticisms, because he champions their aspirations for their own state with full sovereignty, a Palestinian state free of Israeli control. Yet, Arafat has long made concessions to Israel. He has, notably, abandoned the call for a democratic, secular Palestine where Arabs and Jews could coexist and has instead accepted the legitimacy and permanence of Israel.
Recently, Arafat told the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that he would now accept the peace proposals previously offered by President Clinton. These entail Palestinian concessions on refugees and border disputes.
Nevertheless, for all these concessions, Yasser Arafat is still the Palestinian symbol of popular resistance against Israel. The Sharon government remains implacably hostile to Arafat for the very reason the Palestinians support him. President Bush’s speech against Arafat is only likely to increase his popularity among Palestinians. They will see through Bush’s ploy and will not accept it.
Given the likelihood that Palestinians would reject Bush’s proposal, why was it presented in the first place? If, as can be expected, Arafat does not step aside and is re-elected next year, the U.S. can claim its peace offer was rejected. This would give Israel the pretext to continue and accelerate its war against the Palestinian people.
Certainly, Israel is eager to find such pretexts and has done so already. As the June 25 New York Times noted about the president’s speech, “In the view of Israeli officials, Mr. Bush gave Mr. Sharon a free hand to continue his present West Bank offensive.”
The Israeli strategy of “conquest as retaliation” would be consistent with the Sharon government’s current practice. As reported in the June 22Boston Globe, “the Israeli security cabinet confirmed a decision made by Sharon and top security officials earlier in the week to seize Palestinian Authority-ruled territory as retaliation whenever there is a terrorist attack on Israel, and to hold these territories until the attacks cease.”
Yasser Arafat is capable of negotiating a cease-fire and a peace settlement with Israel. For the U.S. and Israel, the rejection of Arafat could really mean a rejection of negotiations in favor of war. Why bother with mere concessions if it is possible to “seize and hold” all of Palestinian territory?
A Palestinian stand-in for Arafat, a puppet acceptable to the U.S., could not negotiate a compromised peace with Israel, but such a figure could sign a surrender, a peace on Israeli terms. Bush’s rhetoric to the contrary (“A stable, peaceful Palestinian state is necessary to achieve the security that Israel longs for”), his real goal is a stable Israel, a secure outpost of U.S. imperialism. So far, it has only been possible to maintain that goal by the use of ever-increasing military force.
No matter how flawed the Arafat regime might be, it is not the business of the U.S. government to pick and choose the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. That decision remains the inalienable right of the Palestinian people themselves.