Arafat’s Legacy: A Palestinian ‘Culture of Suicide’

Posted November 12, 2004 at 2:55pm

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is Exhibit A for the proposition that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Norway needs to adopt a provision allowing the prize to be revoked in case of bad behavior.

Not only did Arafat debase the premise for his award; he made it horrifically difficult for any other Palestinian to be a peacemaker. He fostered a culture of suicide among his people that may be impossible to undo.

Arafat received the peace prize in 1994 along with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for beginning a Mideast peace process.

But in 2000, after Rabin had been martyred for his efforts and his successor, Ehud Barak, offered Arafat the most generous peace plan Palestinians are ever going to get, Arafat balked and launched a wave of violence that hasn’t ceased.

History, if it is written honestly, will record Arafat as a murderous terrorist. He had the opportunity to be a Moses for his people, but he refused to allow them to obtain their Promised Land.

He became leader of the Palestinian people through decades of violence and intrigue — plane hijackings, bloody civil wars in Jordan and Lebanon, the murder of Israeli athletes in Munich. From its inception, his organization was dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

Under Rabin, he was allowed into Palestine and permitted to establish a governing authority. It was rife with corruption and run as a dictatorship. Though Arafat formally acknowledged Israel’s right to exist, his propaganda was ceaselessly anti-Semitic.

The story is told of an Arab watching Rabin and Arafat together on television. Asked what struck him, the man replied, “Rabin wears a plastic watch. Arafat has on a diamond Rolex.”

Israel, under Barak, was prepared to give the Palestinians a state with a piece of Jerusalem to call their capital. They would have controlled all of Gaza and roughly 95 percent of the West Bank territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war.

The United States, Israel, Europe and the rest of the world had every interest in seeing the new Palestinian state prosper economically. Palestinians are well-educated and hard-working. Their country could have blossomed.

But Arafat — possibly because he feared Rabin’s fate — refused the bargain and launched the so-called Second Intifada, waged with automatic weapons. Barak’s government fell, to be succeeded by one headed by right-winger Ariel Sharon, who will offer Palestinians a deal, but not Barak’s.

Democrats and Europeans condemn President Bush for refusing to follow up on peace efforts launched by Barak and President Bill Clinton, and for allowing the Mideast situation to fester.

In fact, Bush understood that there was no peace to be made with Arafat and that Sharon had to create new realities — including the isolation of Arafat and military control over the West Bank — before any new talks could start.

Bush has tried now to engage two Palestinian prime ministers, but progress was thwarted each time by … Arafat. And the hatred spewed toward Jews by Arafat-dominated Palestinian radio and television stoked continuing violence against Israelis.

Arafat made pronouncements decrying suicide bombings against Israelis, but he did nothing to contain Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the extreme Islamist groups that encouraged young people to strap explosive belts around themselves and blow up markets and pizza parlors full of civilians.

To contain the violence, Sharon’s government is building a security fence between Israelis and Palestinians. It is largely serving its purpose — bombings are dramatically reduced — but it cruelly cuts off Palestinians from Palestinians. However, it could be moved.

The late Abba Eban, long Israel’s most eloquent diplomat, famously said that “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Now, with Arafat’s death, they have yet another opportunity. They can hold peaceful democratic elections. They can choose a government that serves its people instead of stealing its money. They can accept Sharon’s latest offer.

It’s much less than the Barak offer. Sharon wants to withdraw Israeli control over the desperate Gaza Strip and territory twice that size in the West Bank.

The new Palestinian government should take what’s offered, govern it well, contain violence and appeal to the world to insist that Israel give more. I’m convinced that Israel would — if its people felt, at last, that Palestinians were actually willing to live side by side in peace.

President Bush should make it clear that this is a process he will foster. Indeed, he has done just that. Should he appoint a special Mideast envoy? Sure — if the Palestinians show signs of moving in the right direction. It’s worth noting that Bush has appointed envoys before. But they got nowhere.

Now it’s up to the Palestinians. There’s every reason to fear that, owing to Arafat’s influence, they will miss their opportunity once again, undergoing a violent transition and possibly seeing the Islamists gain in influence.

That would be suicide — suicide for the hopes of the Palestinian people, a choice of death over life, and of continued degradation over the possibility of prosperity. If that’s their choice, it’s their departed leader’s doing. Arafat, R.I.P.