Treading the thin line

Print edition : July 06, 2002

President George Bush has embarked on a 'remove Arafat' campaign, but for the Palestinians Arafat seems to be their best bet, yet.

THE time has come to think of the unthinkable - a Palestinian movement for national self-determination without Yasser Arafat at its helm. Such a concept was created and advocated by Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it has been accepted by United States President George W. Bush and it has begun to be considered by Arab leaders and ordinary Palestinians. Sharon is on the verge of achieving his dream of burying his old enemy. But Arafat is not about to give up his political ambitions; he is a master of the art of survival.

It took several weeks for Bush to prepare the statement of his vision for West Asian peace. Buffeted by the conflicting ideas that were put forward by the hawks and doves in his own administration, constrained by his personal and political partiality for Israel, yet fearful of alienating Arab allies, Bush contorted and twisted his way to a statement of how he hoped developments on the Israel-Palestine front would unfold. The statement that was eventually produced had elements that pleased both Israelis and Palestinians, though it was ambiguous on the more important details and though within hours it took on the appearance of a work in progress. Despite the many hints that had been dropped by Bush and his aides, what came as a shocker was the central element of this "vision statement". The U.S. President had adopted unreservedly Sharon's central proposition that no progress could be made towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians so long as Arafat was guiding the latter's affairs.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in his office in Ramallah.-AWAD AWAD/AFP

The ultimate goal that everyone concerned with the Israel-Palestine conflict should strive for and Bush's own idea about the starting point for this march were both contained in the fourth paragraph of his statement. "My vision is two states, living side by side, in peace and security. There is simply no way to achieve that peace until all parties fight terror. Yet at this critical moment, if all parties will break with the past and set out on a new path, we can overcome the darkness with the light of hope. Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practising democracy based on tolerance and liberty. If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts. If the Palestinian people meet these goals, they will be able to reach agreement with Israel and Egypt and Jordan on security and other arrangements for independence."

Although Bush did not mention Arafat's name even once there could be no doubt about what he meant. Bush had spoken often enough of how Arafat had never won his trust and of how the Palestinian had never exercised real leadership in the interests of his people. Bush's National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had described Arafat as a corrupt leader who cavorted with terror. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had reportedly warned Arafat that the Bush administration would push for his removal if the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) did not move more effectively against the infrastructure of terrorism.

Leaders of Russia, the European Union and the Arab world whom Bush consulted read his intentions and urged the U.S. not to discard Arafat as the Palestinian interlocutor. An Arafat-specific move would be an endorsement of his personal enemy Sharon and would further complicate U.S.-Arab relations. Yet Bush decided that he needed to go ahead with his "remove Arafat" advocacy.

Perhaps Bush's personal dislike for Arafat and his inability to wrap his mind around the complexities of the Palestinians' situation had much to do with his decision. It is also probable that the "evidence" that Sharon had garnered or manufactured to prove his thesis that Arafat was the fountainhead of Palestinian terror formed a major input into the decision. It is even possible to think up the sinister possibility that Bush naively bought into Sharon's ploy to get the Palestinians embroiled in a leadership struggle while he (Sharon) pursued his own designs in respect of the occupied territories. But all these considerations notwithstanding, Bush might have found it difficult to cross that huge psychological and political barrier that stood against Arafat's ouster if not for the many mistakes that the Palestinian leader himself had made.

The Intifada, the use of excessive force by Israel, the spate of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians, the Israeli military incursions into the West Bank and the resultant oppression and death of Palestinian civilians were a set of developments that took their momentum from one another. Contrary to Israel's allegations, Arafat could not have closed down the Palestinian uprising at any time he chose. But his fault was that he never tried to get ahead of the curve and turn the mass uprising of his people into a non-violent and political path. The results that could have been produced if Arafat had turned the Intifada into a non-violent path and played to the conscience of the international community, as many Palestinian intellectuals had urged him to do, will remain one of the great "what ifs" of Palestinian history.

As has happened at various points in his long career, Arafat was not able, over the past two years, to make the choice between his own political standing and the political future of his people. Now Bush has made it for him. In essence, the U.S. President's message to the Palestinians was that they could either have statehood or Arafat's leadership; that they could not have both.

In their initial reaction, the Palestinians have, as could be expected, bristled at the U.S. effrontery in telling them who their leader should be, or rather who should not be. Arafat's senior aides and some of the Arab leaders took solace from the fact that Bush had not mentioned Arafat's name and tried to delude themselves that the U.S. President was not pushing for Arafat's ouster. But in all probability, sooner or later the Arab leaders and people will come to the conclusion that Arafat will have to be sacrificed if the Palestinians are to have a future.

The problem is that Ishmael (to go by the Islamic version of Ibrahim's sacrifice) is not willing to lay himself down on the sacrificial slab. Arafat instantly spotted the chink in Bush's argument and slipped his way through. For all his faults, Arafat is just about the only Arab leader who was voted into office in an election that was closely monitored by a whole host of international observers. With what justification can Bush employ the efforts of the Mubaraks and the Abdullahs in his oust-Arafat plan and with what face can they in turn join these efforts? While the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were still trying to digest Bush's words, Arafat had skipped nimbly ahead by announcing that the P.A. would hold the presidential and parliamentary elections in January 2003, and the local body polls two months later. Arafat also announced with complete insouciance that he would be a candidate in the presidential polls.

Even before Bush's speech, Arafat had taken some measures to reform the Authority along the lines that the U.S. President was to insist upon. A couple of weeks earlier, Arafat had finally signed onto a piece of legislation that conferred independence on the Palestinian judiciary. A newly appointed security chief was engaged in discussions with Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence heads on ways and means to streamline the Palestinian security services. Arafat had also carried out a cabinet reshuffle that the U.S. and others recognised as being a meaningless exercise. But there is hardly anything that prevents Arafat from sacrificing his aides if it became unavoidable.

ARAFAT might not be troubled greatly even if the Palestinians were to draw up a constitution that rendered his presidential post into a ceremonial one and transfered executive power to a Cabinet that is accountable to Parliament. Loss of control over Palestinian public finances, which Arafat has held firmly in his hands all along, will hurt deeply. The U.S. is going to line up the E.U., international aid agencies and all other donors behind Bush's proposition that monetary aid be given only to a Palestinian financial apparatus that is transparent, accountable and free of corruption. This is the most powerful lever that Bush could use to effectuate a thorough-going reform of the P.A. - something that he sees as being the most basic necessity that has to be fulfilled.

Perhaps Arafat could survive even the use of the financial weapon against him simply because he is Arafat. There is no one else around who can match his mastery of the splits and relations between Palestinian clans and sub-clans, of the various cliques and factions and of how to play off one side against the other. Even if he is booted into a ceremonial post Arafat will remain by far the most influential person in the Palestinian territories. If he plays his cards well - and there is no guarantee either way - Arafat might eventually make Bush and Sharon realise that they have to live with his presence in one form or the other.

In a way, the Israelis are creating the conditions that would enable Arafat and his Authority to fulfil the major precondition laid down by Bush. Currently the Israeli Army is entrenched deeply in Palestinian territory and is in complete control of all Palestinian towns other than Jericho. It is busy mopping up the parts that compose the machinery of terror. Suicide bombers - youth filled with despair and frustration - will continue to come forth as long as the occupation exists. But Israel is steadily taking into custody the people who plan the bombings, instigate the bombers and prepare the bombs. Once, and if, the suicide bombing campaign ends and the Authority is reformed to the extent possible, Bush might have no choice but to press Israel to implement the measures that he had outlined for it.

A White House spokesman has clarified that the measures that Israel has to take should be taken in tandem with the results that will be produced by the reform programme of the P.A. For instance, if the violence abates and the Israeli and Palestinian security services renew their cooperation, the Israeli military will have to withdraw to the positions it occupied before the latest Intifada broke out on September 28, 2000. It will have to remove the barriers on the movement of Palestinian people and goods and hand over withheld taxes to the P.A. Israel will also have to put an end to the construction of Jewish colonies in the territory that lies beyond the 1967 borders.

If all these eventualities do occur, then the Palestinians will be able to set up a provisional state on the territory that was handed over to them through the Oslo processes - about 40 per cent of the West Bank and most of the Gaza Strip outside the colonies. Bush has not elaborated on the concept of a "provisional state" but has indicated that it will have some elements of sovereignty. This process is expected to be completed in 18 months. Once set up, the provisional state will negotiate with Israel on contentious issues such as borders, Jerusalem, the future of the refugees, restrictions on Palestinian sovereignty and the future of the colonies. Bush did not deal with the specifics of these issues but his statement, if read in context with the agreement that Israel and the Authority almost forged in Taba in January 2001, does hold some promise that a Palestinian state could be created in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with its borders more or less along the 1967 lines.

In eight years of covering the various conflicts of West Asia up close, the one lesson that has been learnt is that optimism is the sole factor that helps the people of the region and their well-wishers retain their sanity. Such optimism is all the more necessary when the resolution of the central issues in the region is hostage to two cantankerous senior citizens and their desperate dreams.

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