The Magazine

Arafat Dies, Israel Yawns

Will a historic opportunity be missed?

Nov 22, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 10 • By TOM ROSE
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Jerusalem

IN ISRAEL, the Arafat deathwatch elicited nothing so much as apathy. Israelis were far more interested in news reports of the overflight of northern Israel by an unmanned Iranian spy drone operated from Lebanon--and slightly more interested in the resignation ultimatum issued, then retracted, by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu--than they were in Yasser Arafat's impending demise.

Those Israelis who did care to hear the latest rumor before it was denied mostly learned it from the Fox News Channel. And the tabloids made hay with the soap opera aspects of the drama, like the public spat between Mrs. Arafat and the triumvirate of Palestinian leaders angling to assume control of Arafat's ill-gotten billions. But for the most part, the Arafat story rated less interest in Zion than in Zionsville, Indiana.

Now that it has arrived, the post-Arafat era--which Israelis always said would allow a new start in Israeli-Palestinian relations--seems to have caught many of them simply indifferent. While nonchalance may be a prerequisite for sanity in this volatile region, Israel's collective detachment from an event with such profound implications for the nation must raise questions.

For all their domestic boasting about how well prepared they are for this moment, Israelis seem long on tactics and short on strategy. The defense establishment is more than capable of meeting any tactical military contingencies sparked by Arafat's demise, but the Israeli public and leaders have scarcely debated the strategic challenges it occasions, let alone reached any consensus as to how to proceed.

The agenda for the cabinet meeting of November 7 included an extensive military discussion led by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who warned of "spontaneous violence" inside the Palestinian Authority and an upsurge in attempts to perpetrate terrorist attacks inside Israel--promptly followed by a spirited debate about banking legislation. Not a word about what Israel should do to strengthen the prospects for improving relations with the Palestinians, as they undergo the first leadership change in the history of their national movement.

Curiously, whereas America tends toward global overreach, deliberately seeking to influence events and trends, Israel tends toward regional underreach. Its inclination is to underestimate its power, to see itself as reactive. Not being strong enough to initiate positive changes, Israel limits its range of options to its reactions to the deeds of others. Two thousand years of accusations that the Jews control everything have left Israelis convinced that they can't control anything.

Given all that Arafat destroyed--the lives taken by modern terrorism, the hopes dashed when he led millions of Palestinians to water but would not let them drink--it's hard to imagine that his death could herald anything but better times. Yet finding an Israeli optimist is no easy task. Unlike Americans or Europeans, who assume massive change will result from Arafat's death, Israelis expect more of the same.

Israelis do not necessarily believe movements need leaders to grow in strength or malignancy. All around them are examples of Jewish religious sects, political movements, even Zionism itself, that have survived and prospered in the wake of their founders' deaths. Israel's ultra-Orthodox world consists of dozens of sects, each of which was created by a larger than life personality called a "rebbe." It is characteristic of these sects that they never replace their founding rebbe, they never countenance any change in their core beliefs or values, and they always seem to grow larger. Some have been around for hundreds of years. If these sects of Jews can carry on unchanged without leaders or new policies, why should the PLO not do the same?

Unchallenged is the notion that Israel must have no role in the looming Palestinian power struggle. As a result, a genuine opportunity to influence the future may be slipping away. Rather than stating clearly that it will never allow Palestinian society to descend into total chaos, or permit another dictator to take Arafat's place, Israel seems to be encouraging Egypt to step into the power vacuum.

This strategic void vis-à-vis the Palestinians shows that the Israelis have not learned the very antiterror lesson they have taught others at great cost: The Palestinians cannot rid themselves of terrorists until they rid themselves of dictators.

The Oslo peace process proved a failure because it embraced the fatal premise that it wasn't freedom the Palestinians needed to build peace with Israel, it was a strong dictator. Whether Israel will now repeat its mistake of 1993, when it actively resuscitated Arafat from his near political death and granted him both a fiefdom and the means to dominate it--or merely allow others to do essentially the same--hardly matters.