The Baltimore Sun

Expelling Arafat won't help either side

By G. Jefferson Price III
Perspective Editor

September 14, 2003

Here's a question: If Yasser Arafat is as irrelevant as the governments of Israel and the United States say he is, why all the commotion about him?

If the Palestinian leader were irrelevant, the best way to treat him would be to ignore him. Let him stew in his wrecked compound in Ramallah where one assumes the intelligence services of Israel and the United States are capable of monitoring every word he utters, of knowing who his visitors are and what they are talking about. Isolate him. Make sure he stays irrelevant.

But Arafat cannot be both irrelevant and "an absolute obstacle to the whole process of placation and peacemaking between the Israelis and the Palestinians." That's what the Israeli Security Cabinet had to say about Arafat last week when it announced the decision to get rid of him one way or another, "to remove that obstacle," as the Cabinet communique stated. The possibilities include expulsion, even assassination.

Arafat loved it.

Until the Israeli declaration, he was holed up and under pressure to give up some of the tight hold he keeps on the Palestinian Authority, to give more power to his latest selection for prime minister, Ahmed Qureia. Israelis seemed poised to launch an assault against his Ramallah compound. By all accounts, the tension was palpable.

Then came the Israeli announcement. And before the end of the day crowds of Palestinians went to the Ramallah compound to proclaim their loyalty and support for Arafat. In Gaza, his followers were out in force chanting their support.

Washington was not pleased by the Israeli Cabinet declaration. Expelling Arafat "would just give him another stage to play on," said Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman. He'd become relevant on the international stage, visiting world capitals, maybe even insisting that as the elected leader of the Palestinians, he's entitled to address the United Nations again.

The Israeli Security Cabinet's decision served a visceral desire to lash back at Arafat - anyone on the Palestinian side, for that matter - for the latest series of terrorist attacks that added more Israeli dead to the hundreds of others who have died in the past three years of the Palestinian uprising.

That desire is understandable for any people who are in a state of grief, burying loved ones who died because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and because they are Israelis.

But at the same time, three times as many Palestinians have been killed by the Israelis. Some of these have been killed in targeted assassinations against the leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Aqsa Martyrs, the groups mainly responsible for attacks against Israelis. Many of the other Palestinian dead have been just as innocent as the Israelis who were killed.

I don't have any illusions about Yasser Arafat. I have observed him in various places in the Middle East over the past 30 years. The record of his failures to reach decisions that would help his people, even to keep his word when he says he has made a decision, is appalling. People are dying on both sides because of his failures. He is not a man of courage and he is not a man of imagination.

After the Oslo peace accords it seemed he had moved from revolutionary to peacemaker, that he had honestly given up on the idea of eliminating the Jewish state. That day, Arafat should have gotten rid of the uniform he wears and bought himself a decent suit. Staying in uniform has been a symbol of his unwillingness to completely abandon his "armed struggle." Israel can hardly be blamed for not trusting him.

But Israel can be blamed for enhancing the environment in which the "armed struggle" flourishes. This would include the taking of land, the leveling of Palestinian homes, the military assaults on whole Palestinian communities, bombings that kill innocent people and the near strangulation of Palestinian commerce and travel.

Israeli leaders who made huge sacrifices for peace and were ready to make more - such as prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak - have been replaced by men like Benjamin Netanyahu and now Ariel Sharon. Netanyahu and Sharon represent a side of the Israeli political mindset wedded to a greater Israel extending into the West Bank and Gaza, land where the Palestinians want their state.

"The problem between the Palestinians and us after Oslo is that they didn't give up terror as a negotiating tool, while we weren't ready to give up territories and settlements," Israeli journalist Yoel Marcus wrote in the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz last week.

Sharon, Marcus wrote, is "neither ripe for a permanent agreement with the Palestinians nor capable of eradicating terror. There is neither peace nor security, neither a political initiative nor light at the end of the tunnel. It is a failure of leadership from every standpoint."

From that leadership last week came the decision to get rid of Yasser Arafat. No message was attached to the decision explaining to Israelis how expelling or assassinating Arafat would help to make Israelis more secure, more capable of living in peace with the Palestinians and vice versa.

The most militant, brutal wings of both sides are in control of events. They nurture each other. Neither imagines genuine peace. They have kidnapped the peace process and innocents on both sides pay the ransom.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun