The Magazine

Arafat's Naval Adventure

It's time for him to go.

Jan 21, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 18 • By TOM ROSE
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IF NEW PROOF were needed that reforming Yasser Arafat is a lost cause, the Israeli navy's pre-dawn seizure last week of a cargo vessel destined for Gaza City and packed with 50 tons of weapons supplied by Iran should have provided it. The ship was registered to Arafat's Palestinian Authority, paid for with PA funds, and skippered by a lieutenant colonel in the PA Navy who told investigators his assignment was to deliver his secret cache directly to the PA. At least 7 of the 13 crew members belonged to Arafat's private militias.

The Israeli government called it the largest and most dangerous illegal arms shipment ever attempted. Had it reached its destination, every inch of Israel would have been in range of its cargo, which consisted of long- and short-range Katyusha rockets, LAW and Sagger anti-tank missiles, long-range mortars, sophisticated mines, nearly two tons of hi-tech semtex plastic explosive many times more deadly than what the suicide bombers currently use, hundreds of high-powered sniper rifles, thousands of rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank grenades, and, most dangerous of all, an undisclosed number of SA-7 (Strella) anti-aircraft missiles capable of imperiling commercial air service into and out of Tel Aviv.

On the other hand, Arafat has been leading one terrorist organization or another for four decades. Why should a little Katyusha-running change anything? As it turns out, it won't. Israel seems to view the episode as just another public relations opportunity to be milked; the United States as a public relations challenge to be managed. Neither regards it as reason to begin the process of replacing Arafat's regime with one less malign.

Not only did the State Department refuse even to discuss breaking with Arafat, but Washington's special Middle East envoy issued no rebuke to Arafat. Quite the contrary. Retired Marine general Anthony Zinni concluded a visit to Israel two days after the boat was seized by telling reporters that he saw "a real opportunity for progress." A State Department official traveling with Zinni said bluntly, "Our mission will go on, ship or no ship."

That passing comment explains why recent American and Israeli efforts at Middle East peacemaking have so miserably failed. Excusing Arafat's criminality only insures more. If it takes the United States five days to so much as criticize the most brazen attempted violation of the Oslo Accords, what crime could ever justify Arafat's ouster?

The obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not the inability to resolve particular issues, but the violent, oppressive, and unstable nature of the Arafat regime. Until U.S. and Israeli policymakers realize that peace depends far more on the nature of a future Palestinian state than on its borders, Israelis will not know peace and Palestinians will not know freedom.

If a future Palestine were free, nonviolent, and committed to bettering the lives of its people and to living in peace with Israel, it wouldn't threaten Israel. But a Palestine that resembled the corrupt and dictatorial Palestinian Authority would be a mortal danger.

Dictators make bad neighbors, and before he is an Arab, or a Palestinian, or even a Muslim, Yasser Arafat is a dictator. When he founded the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964, there was not a single "Jewish settlement" to oppose nor an "Israeli occupation" to resist, because the West Bank was ruled by Jordan and Gaza was ruled by Egypt. Arafat created the PLO to destroy Israel. He learned that first he had to consolidate his power over a fractious and scattered people. He chose to do that by killing those who challenged him and oppressing the rest.

It took an inarticulate Israeli general turned prime minister to lay bare the fatal mindset from which Oslo was born. The PLO leader, said the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was the ideal partner precisely because he was a dictator. Arafat could crack down on terrorists, Rabin said, because, "unlike us, he doesn't have to worry about elections or human rights groups." Thus, Israel itself was midwife to the terrorist-supporting tyranny now in its midst. Rather than requiring that the Palestinian Authority have an open political system, Oslo gave Arafat both the time and the resources to consolidate his rule.

Like other dictators, Arafat has to worry not about losing an election, but about losing his life, and those most likely to take it are the extremists he has armed, funded, and trained. The notion that Arafat could ever crack down on the very organizations he needs to survive is preposterous. For Arafat, upsetting Colin Powell carries little risk. Upsetting Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or even his own private militias carries the ultimate risk.