The Magazine

Is It Time for Arafat to Go?

More and more Israelis think so.

Jul 23, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 42 • By TOM ROSE
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THE FIRST CRISIS TO THREATEN ISRAEL’S four-month-old national unity government was caused by a handshake: Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were photographed shaking hands at the Socialist International Conference in Lisbon on July 1. How could Israel expect President Bush and other Western leaders to refuse to meet Arafat, critics asked, when its own foreign minister was greeting him warmly?

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud party, was widely criticized for permitting the encounter, but the harshest censure was saved for Peres himself. Opinion polls showed more than 70 percent of Israelis opposed the Peres-Arafat meeting, which dominated public debate for days. Condemned by nearly every newspaper and attacked even by leading members of his own Labor party, the beleaguered Peres threatened to resign and bring the government down.

And yet mere months ago, the Lisbon meeting would have been considered routine for any Israeli leader, left or right. For the past ten years, while there was bitter disagreement about exactly what to say to him, mainstream Israelis agreed that their government had no choice but to negotiate with Arafat. Today, a sea change has taken place. For the first time since the Madrid Conference of 1991, Israelis are seriously looking at options other than Arafat, and clamor for military action is heard on all sides.

After a contentious cabinet meeting on July 9, ministers present described Sharon facing down demands for war against the Palestinian Authority. "You’re all big heroes with all your advice," snapped the prime minister and famously hardline former general. "At the end of the day, the responsibility is mine. This region is not going to war."

But they also reported a pointed exchange between Sharon and Peres, an architect of the 1993 Oslo Accord for which he won the Nobel prize, along with the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat. "Anyone who thought we could place our security in Arafat’s hands was mistaken," said Sharon, to which Peres replied, "Without Arafat, the situation will only be more difficult."

Peres speaks for some on the left who say that, detestable and untrustworthy though Arafat may be, it isn’t up to Israelis to decide who should lead the Palestinians. Increasingly, Israeli policymakers counter that it is very much Israelis’ place, in fact their responsibility, to decide with whom they will negotiate. Just as three U.S. administrations have refused to negotiate with Saddam Hussein, Israel must refuse to deal with Arafat. Besides, if the last Israeli government already made Arafat the most generous offer conceivable and was violently rejected, why resume a process that leads back to the same endgame?

While most Israelis seem to have concluded that the Arafat era is over, their uncertainty and fear about what comes next are his best hope for political survival. Those who reject the new "post-Arafatism" charge that casting off Arafat, either by forcing him into exile or, should Israeli security deteriorate further, destroying his regime, would bring chaos in the Palestinian Authority and the rise of radical Islamic leaders in his place. Advocates of a new Israeli approach say it has become necessary to isolate and ultimately remove Arafat from power precisely because he has aided, abetted, and armed the terrorists who threaten to engulf the region once again in war.

Among those who favor looking beyond Arafat are most of the senior officers of the Israeli Defense Forces, the very people who encouraged Rabin to engage Arafat in the first place. Defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, one of two candidates for leader of the Labor party, is the most prominent advocate of disengaging from Arafat, although he too has yet to specify how. Some military planners are less reticent. What purport to be updated top secret national security plans for an all-out assault—one document is entitled "The destruction of the Palestinian Authority and disarmament of all armed forces"—have been excerpted in Israeli newspapers and cited in the British publication Foreign Report.

Since it is now the position of Israel’s leading political and military figures that the Palestinian Authority is not a functioning interlocutor but rather a well-financed terrorist organization, some suggest that it would be better to disable and disarm it and deal separately with the various militias and atomized terrorist cells likely to replace Arafat. IDF commanders seem increasingly of the mind that decentralized Palestinian terror will be easier to combat than centralized Palestinian terror, but also that eliminating the Palestinian Authority’s oppressive presence in the life of nearly every Palestinian might allow more moderate figures to emerge.