Arafat's death alone will not bring peace to the Middle East
Special to The Times
A joke circulating in Israel claimed that it was taking Yasser Arafat so long to die because the gates of hell wouldn't open for him — Arafat was too evil even for hell.
Arafat as the devil is a popular myth in Israel, but even outside Israel, his demise is seen by some as a potential opening for, finally, some progress in quelling an Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has lasted 122 years.
Others, meanwhile, predict Arafat's departure from Middle East affairs will draw Palestinians into a cataclysmic civil war.
Neither of those prophecies is necessarily correct. Arafat was, for the past 40 years, one of the most prominent, controversial and outspoken Arab leaders in the world, the creator of the modern national Palestinian movement. But his death, however dramatic, cannot singularly change the politics, and violence, in the Middle East.
Demonizing Arafat was widespread within most political and even academic circles in Israel. It was Arafat who was seen as personally responsible for massive terrorist attacks against Jewish civilians within the Green Line (Israel in its pre-1967 borders). Such a national image of Arafat was very popular until he signed the Oslo peace accord in 1993, and it surfaced again with the eruption of the second intifada, led by Arafat himself, in the late 1990s.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and most other Israelis blamed Arafat as the only cause for the later demolition of the Oslo accord. That erroneous belief also was held by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Blaming Arafat for the Oslo failure has some truth in it. He was certainly myopic in misunderstanding the terrible consequences of the second intifada, which has made the miserable conditions of the Palestinians even harsher. But no prime minister in Israel had been able to dismantle the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank, and it is utterly doubtful to what degree Barak would have been able to do so, as well.
Arafat not only failed to maneuver his people to a sustained reconciliation, but also played into the hands of his bitter Israeli enemies, especially in the Jewish right-wing factions.
While Arafat's death will expose some of the Israeli excuses for not withdrawing from the occupied territories, it will not change the dominant disposition within the Israeli establishment that even if disengagement from Gaza is sensible, the West Bank is a completely different issue, for military, strategic, historical and religious reasons.
With the death of Arafat, there is no Palestinian figure, either in the occupied territories or in exile, who could replace him both as a charismatic leader and as a founding father. Palestinians are united only around the vague notion of redeeming themselves from the humiliating and cruel Israeli occupation, gaining control of all Palestinian territories, and declaring Al-Kudtz — Jerusalem — as their capital.
Meanwhile, Gaza Strip is undergoing a humanitarian crisis, and the West Bank is approaching that stage. The levels of child malnutrition and unemployment in Gaza have crossed the 50-percent marks. Israel's uncertain disengagement from Gaza will not redeem the Palestinians.
The international community must intervene, not militarily but economically. Hampered by lack of a charismatic, influential, moderate leadership, on the one hand, and by a surplus of radical terrorist groups on the other, the Palestinians are unable to improve their conditions, and Israel can be trusted not to make their lives easier.
The Bush administration should change its policy drastically. Instead of supporting almost blindly the Israeli establishment, it should approach Europe, call for an international conference, and declare the Middle East a disaster region that deserves urgent humanitarian, international assistance.
Such a new tack by the Bush administration can serve both Palestinians and Jews, and be part of a larger policy of U.S. military withdrawal from the Middle East.
The only policy that can reduce the violence is to change the atmosphere through international cooperation and humanitarian involvement. The death of one "devil" will not bring peace without also the gradual demise of other devils haunting the Middle East, including the diabolical image of the United States in the minds of most Palestinians and Arabs.
International cooperation to save the Middle East is the only replacement policy before al-Qaida sets in.
Gad Barzilai, a professor of political science and law at Tel Aviv University, is a visiting professor at the University of Washington's Jackson School of International Studies and Comparative Law and Society Studies Center. His most recent book is "Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities" (University of Michigan Press, 2003).
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