The Magazine

Arafat's War

By failing to hold the Palestinians accountable, Clinton and Barak invited disaster

Oct 23, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 06 • By TOM ROSE
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HISTORY seldom renders such stark verdicts. What began seven years ago as a promise of peace in the Middle East has degenerated into one of the greatest failures in the history of American diplomacy. Never before has an American president invested so much in a man of whom he asked so little. And by demanding nothing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the Americans and Israelis, egged on by world opinion, actually impeded the single most essential precondition to peace: the political maturation of the Palestinians.

The famous handshake on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, was a lucrative gesture for Arafat. It transformed a guerilla chieftain into a statesman. Bill Clinton lavished attention on Arafat, hosting him at the White House 13 times. Arafat got state dinners and over half a billion dollars in U.S. aid, plus land, an army, and all the trappings of statehood. And because no one ever thought to ask him not to, he used American largesse to create a corrupt and repressive regime that eliminates political opponents, tightly controls the media, and prevents the establishment of the free markets that could have produced jobs. As events have revealed, he also set up heavily armed militias reporting directly to him.

All that was ever asked of Arafat was to renounce his decades-long crusade to destroy the Jewish state. But when it became clear that he would not get 100 percent of what he demanded in negotiations, Arafat did what he does best: He started a war on his own terms. Israel now faces one of its darkest hours. Already the belief -- widely held just weeks ago -- that the Israelis were on the verge of achieving permanent acceptance by their neighbors has been shattered. Even the Israeli Left at last understands that its ten-year effort to win peace through concessions has been seen not as friendship but as weakness. Now, facing all-out war against Arafat's army, open rebellion by Arab citizens of Israel, and a dangerous resurgence of pan-Arab fury, the Israelis stand once again exposed to themselves and the world as a tiny, vulnerable enclave forced to fight for their very survival.

The question "Who lost Oslo?" can't be asked too soon. While Israelis don't completely agree on the answer, they universally accept that Oslo is dead. But official Washington won't let go. As of this writing, President Clinton still has not publicly laid any blame at the feet of Arafat, while Al Gore argued in the second presidential debate that the United States must remain neutral in the current conflict. The State Department line is that Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount on September 28 caused some if not all of the violence. Not only does this view invite further bloodshed, it epitomizes Oslo's fatal infantilization of the Palestinians.

By always allowing Arafat to find cover for his violations, American policy only reinforced a racist view of Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general. By allowing Arafat to blame Sharon for the latest violence, policy makers are really saying that Palestinians are like children, incapable of exercising self-control, and therefore cannot be expected or required to uphold any acceptable standard of civilized behavior.

Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount wasn't the only message Palestinians received in the days leading up to Arafat's "Intifada for Jerusalem." First came a dramatic break from established U.S. policy, when American ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, in a speech delivered at Jerusalem's Hebrew Union College on September 14, publicly called for the re-division of Jerusalem. Until then, Washington had always insisted that the final status of the city must be negotiated directly by the interested parties. By urging that Jerusalem be "shared," Indyk sent an unmistakable signal that the United States now backed Palestinians' claims to half of Israel's capital.

To Palestinians, this meant the battle for Jerusalem was on. All Arafat needed was a pretext. When Prime Minister Barak himself finally broke the taboo and told the Jerusalem Post on September 27 that there would be "two capitals" in Jerusalem, Arafat got what he needed: Almost immediately upon hearing Barak's statement, Sharon finalized plans for taking a contingent of Likud lawmakers to visit the Temple Mount to assert that Israel's capital would not be divided without a fight.