Will Arafat Father a Country?
USA Today, Oct. 16, 2001
by Samuel G. Freedman
Shortly after midnight on June 22, 1948, barely a month since Arab armies had attacked the newly founded state of Israel, a ship named the Altalena moored off the shoreline of Tel Aviv. It was carrying $5 million worth of arms to the Irgun, the radical underground of the Zionist movement, notorious for bombings and assassinations.
On the beach waited fellow Jews in the official national army, poised not for welcome but for assault. Because the Irgun had refused to disband, because its incoming weaponry bristled with the prospect of Jewish civil war, the Israeli leader, David Ben-Gurion, ordered his troops to sink the Altalena.
That episode carved a divide between the left and right wings in Israeli society that has lasted to this very day. And yet it made Israel, the nation, possible, for it demonstrated Ben-Gurion's commitment to preside over a single country with a single army, and his rejection of terrorism as a tactic. Yasser Arafat faces the identical choice now. The man of a thousand and one opportunities, all of them squandered, has one more. With President Bush calling for Palestinian statehood and his administration pressing Israel to resume the peace process, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair hosting the Palestinian leader for talks -- all this by way of helping to hold moderate Arab states in the American-led anti-terror coalition -- Arafat has been presented another chance to be the peace partner of Oslo and the Nobel Prize, the father of a country instead of a fantasy.
What he must do, however, is act as decisively as Ben-Gurion did against renegades and rogues: the terrorists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. When Arafat released them from the Palestinian Authority's prisons a year ago, in the early stages of the intifada, he may have calculated that just enough drive-by shootings and suicide bombings would wring from Israel even more concessions than it had offered at Camp David. Now it must be apparent that the strategy has failed and the genie of terrorism refuses to slip back into the bottle.
All that the intifada has done is persuade Israelis to replace Ehud Barak, a prime minister prepared to divide Jerusalem and return more than 90 percent of the occupied territories, with Ariel Sharon, who would never make such offers, even in peacetime. All that the intifada has done is destroy a nascent Palestinian economy of industrial parks, tourism, agriculture, natural-gas deposits and construction labor, leaving Arafat's people to wring out subsistence under Israel's defensive throttle around Gaza and the West Bank.
Not so long ago, a majority of both American and Israeli Jewry was prepared to trade land for peace, to forever abandon the folly that an archipelago of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land could provide security, rather than a disconnected and vulnerable frontier. Now even many in the peace movement accept the targeted assassination of would-be terrorists as a necessity. After the events of Sept. 11, who can blame them?
Through it all, Arafat has juggled the roles of revolutionary and statesman, condemning the most abhorrent attacks on Israel, such as the suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv nightclub, without ever cracking down on the perpetrators. The Israeli settlers -- most of whom would have been dislodged under the Camp David proposals -- continue to be regarded by even mainstream Palestinian leaders as fair game for lethal attacks.
But the charade is over. The world has now seen Palestinians passing out candies to celebrate the Sept. 11 atrocities and marching behind posters of Osama bin Laden; the world has seen a university campus on the West Bank mark the first anniversary of the intifada with a scale model of the Jerusalem pizzeria where 15 Israelis perished in a suicide bombing, an exhibit replete with imitation body parts suspended from the ceiling.
Isolated voices within the Palestinian community have been warning all along of the futility, the self-destruction, of the intifada. The official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, in August urged Palestinians to resist "with stones and shoes instead of weapons," because only political means would enable them to achieve their goals. On the first anniversary of the latest uprising, the historian Samih Shabib wrote in the West Bank newspaper Al-Ayyam, "If only we had enough courage to criticize some of the means and methods that have weakened our situation and damaged our past and future."
To undo that damage, Arafat must do more than donate blood for the Sept. 11 victims or renounce bin Laden's support for the Palestinian cause. He must do more than close the schools and universities in Gaza, as he did last week to quell demonstrations in support of bin Laden. He must do even more than turn Palestinian Authority police against pro-terror marchers. Welcome as those gestures are, they address only the immediate moment.
No matter how much pressure Bush and Western Europe apply, Israel will not consent to a Palestinian state that serves as a staging area for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Only by subduing those murderous extremists can Arafat hope for an Israeli government to offer anything close to the Camp David compromises.
There will be apologists, of course, who will insist that Arafat risks being toppled by the Islamists in his midst. The risk of civil war is undeniably great. As it was, too, for Ben-Gurion in June 1948. But when he looked back later on the sinking of the Altalena, as the prime minister of a recognized state instead of the shaky potentate of feuding gangs, he said that the gun that struck the blow was "blessed."