Immediately after September 11, the Israeli government began a diplomatic campaign aimed at convincing the international community, and in particular the U.S. administration, that Israel is subject to the same types of terror attacks as the United States. Ariel Sharon declared that Arafat is “our local Bin Laden.” This comparison also led to the conclusion that Palestinian violence against Israel is equivalent to terror.
This equation was rapidly adopted by certain segments of U.S. public opinion and, in particular, by New Yorkers, who, under the leadership of then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, equated New York to Jerusalem. However, the U.S. administration did not easily accept the Israeli diplomatic effort. Such acceptance was delayed more than two months, during which time the Bush administration worked on the formation of a coalition with certain Arab regimes. Only subsequent to the coalition’s establishment, after it became apparent that the alienation from Israeli policies was not necessary in the context of Afghanistan (unlike the Gulf War), did the United States adopt the Israeli characterization of the Palestinian struggle as terror.
The acceptance of the official Israeli attitude towards Yasser Arafat has extremely problematic implications. If the equating of the September 11 attacks and Palestinian violence is uncritically accepted, the meaning should be expanded to not only conclude that Arafat is the “local Bin Laden,” but also that Bush is the “global Sharon.” This superficial thinking, which simplifies complex political situations and the personification of historical conflicts, is the result of a conscious propaganda campaign and the unconscious effect of uneven power relations. Israel has been the occupier of the Palestinians during the past 35 years. As often occurs, the ruling side in a conflict is unable or unwilling to see the other as an equal, as a people with needs, dreams and dignity. This is what I will refer to here as the arrogance of occupation.
SHARON: “THE DOG (ARAFAT) IS CAPTURED IN HIS LODGE”
Toward the end of the first visit of the American envoy, General Zinni, to the region (at the beginning of December 2001), U.S. policy dramatically shifted, and the Israeli argument that the core (and the solution) of all problems lies with Yasser Arafat was officially accepted. Immediately prior to Zinni’s arrival, Israel executed a targeted killing of one of Hamas’s most respected political leaders in the West Bank, Mahmud Abu Hunud.2 A retaliatory wave of Palestinian violence exploded, reaching its peak in three suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa in which 25 Israelis were killed.3
In response, Yasser Arafat was put under military siege in Ramallah: his air force (two helicopters) was destroyed, along with the Dahania airport in Gaza. Sharon declared the siege would continue until Arafat satisfies a long list of Israeli demands, a list that seems to undergo daily expansions. (“The dog is captured in his lodge, and he knows what he should do to exit,” explained Sharon in a closed forum.4) Confining Arafat to Ramallah is not based upon an anti-terror logic. On the contrary, such confinement prevents Arafat from travelling to different areas, necessary in order to organize and encourage his forces to attempt to curtail extremist attacks against civilian targets and to engage in dialogue with different groups of political opponents. It also presents a very weak image of Arafat to the Palestinians of an impotent leader unable to struggle against Israel and to provide protection and security to his people.
Arafat’s weak image obviously jeopardizes his capacity to make authoritative decisions and lead the Palestinians. Hence, by any objective standard, the real goal of Arafat’s confinement is not to repel terror but to prevent the Palestinians from achieving any gains in the diplomatic arena, the only arena that can provide them significant progress.5 This goal was evident when Arafat was prevented from attending the Christmas Eve mass in Bethlehem. One of the powers capable of restraining the religious Islamic extremism among the Palestinians is their nation’s significant Christian minority. From the time he was allowed to return to Palestine in 1994, Arafat’s yearly prayers in Bethlehem have conveyed a moderate message with regard to Palestinian nationalism. This was precisely the message that the Israeli government was determined to prevent.
The question is, why does the international community, and especially the United States and Europe, remain almost completely indifferent to Arafat’s confinement? The argument here is that they accept the Israeli construction that Arafat’s personality is the cause of all problems in the region. This fabrication began in July 2000, following the Camp David summit, and is based on an arrogant and paternalist discourse on the “character of Arafat.” This discourse assumes that we, the Israelis, are at liberty to dismiss one Palestinian leader and appoint another in his place. As will be analyzed below, the arrogance in relation to Arafat highlights the underlying dimension of the failed Oslo peace process and the Camp David summit. As will be suggested, there is an intimate relationship between Israeli arrogance and the explosion of the new wave of violence that has almost erased any prospects of a peaceful solution of the conflict.
THE CAMP DAVID RESULTS: CLINTON BLAMES ARAFAT
The discourse labeling Arafat as the essence of the Palestinian problem did not achieve predominance by virtue of the campaign waged by the settlers’ leaders in the occupied territories or the extreme right. Rather, it is the discourse of the Israeli peace movement from the beginning of the Oslo peace process, and specifically, following the failure of the Camp David summit. President Clinton’s adoption of this discourse, immediately after the summit, fatally damaged the U.S. image as an “honest broker” between the parties. U.S. impartiality was further doubted because Arafat had argued in advance that the summit had not been sufficiently prepared for. The fact that the United States had lost its credibility was a central step in the deterioration of the peace process and the inevitable strengthening of the intifada, precisely because Oslo was based on the Palestinian hope that the United States would serve as an honest broker. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his foreign minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, reaffirmed this sophisticated and latent strategy of narrowing a tremendous regional conflict down to Arafat’s personality flaws by directly attacking Arafat immediately following the Camp David summit. Their obvious goal was to hide their own resounding failure from the Israeli public: they created high expectations that the summit would lead to a comprehensive agreement on all the issues in dispute and a Palestinian declaration of the end of the conflict.
Indeed the expectations created were ambitious, taking into account the very difficult political atmosphere that existed on the eve of the summit: one year after the formation of the government only one quarter of the Knesset remained in the Coalition. Two parties, representing 32 Knesset members, remained in the government, while four parties, representing 35 Knesset members, withdrew from the government as a result of differences between their views and those of the prime minister on various issues, including Camp David. Even the previous foreign minister, David Levy, was neutralized: He didn’t participate in the negotiations and warned of their impending failure. While the Knesset was not in session, a mass vote of no-confidence was expected to take place immediately after resuming the session, and new elections were to be scheduled. In light of Prime Minister Barak’s less-than-optimal political situation, rallying the peace supporters against Arafat was the result of Barak’s political instinct. However, his resounding success was due to the enlisting of Bill Clinton to back his interpretation of Camp David.
However, even when this move to reduce the conflict to Arafat’s personality can be explained by the interests of the actors and political conjunction, its success has a profound structural level. Indeed, the result of this eventual development was the reduction of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the “character of Arafat,” and hence the self-evident magic-wand solution of “removing the obstacle.” This arrogant discourse is reflected in the urge to enthrone in Arafat’s place an alternative, more “obliging” leader, and in the paternalistic argument that “we know what is better for the Palestinians.”
In effect, each wing of the Israeli government opts for a Palestinian leader who would best serve its respective purposes. The “moderates” prefer a moderate dressed in a business suit who would consent to deal in a rational Western manner. The “extremists” fancy a Hamas type who could justify an open and bloody war against “the Palestinian evil,” an easy way to show the world that we are the avant garde of the “anti-terror war.” Both of these camps share the same discourse that the burden for resolving the crisis lies on Arafat’s shoulders, while consequently soft pedaling Israel’s own responsibility. In fact, the government is fighting Arafat and his forces – thus preventing him and the Palestinian authorities from succeeding in any potential struggle against extremist Islam, because Palestinian extremism and terror facilitates hiding the core problem of occupation.
It is important to emphasize that this discourse, which was accepted first in Israel, and later in the United States, was constructed by the leaders of the “Left,” and not by the “extremist and nationalist Right.” Indeed, they did so because of their need to explain away the fiasco of their term of office. However, the general acceptance of this discourse by the Israeli public and the U.S. administration is related to the power relations between Israelis and Palestinians.
BETWEEN OCCUPATION AND THE “PEACE PROCESS”
The arrogance and paternalism produced by occupation are not peculiar to the Israeli situation. European settlers who occupied regions inhabited by non-Europeans developed similar discourses. The local inhabitants were classified as inferior and primitive, deserving no individual rights and certainly no collective right to a homeland. Such has been the state of affairs in Israel/ Palestine since the onset of the colonization; the Oslo peace accords introduced no fundamental change in the power relationship. Oslo didn’t dismantle Israeli domination of Palestinians, but the language of peace has hidden the continuity of Israeli occupation. Indeed, the right of Palestinians to self-determination was recognized, as was Arafat as their representative. However, this recognition was subordinated to the arrogant discourse of occupation: the land belongs to us, Israelis, we are its masters, and the Palestinians must accept whatever we are benevolent enough to offer them. The indignation of the “Left” towards the Palestinians following Camp David stems from the Palestinians’ ingratitude and their refusal to accept Barak’s “generous” offer. The support of the United States for the Israeli attitude caused the Palestinian despair that deteriorated into a new intifada.
The Oslo accords were shaped according to the hegemonic arrogance of occupation. Having been initially “granted” Jericho and Gaza, Arafat was placed “on probation.” If he passed the test, he would be awarded additional territory; if not, the process would be halted, as Rabin constantly proclaimed. When Rabin was assassinated, the Israelis voted for a more open and openly arrogant discourse proposed by Netanyahu. After the withdrawal from the problematic urban areas, difficult to rule by military forces, Israel had no new incentive to continue the process. It remained in control of all the vital aspects of nationhood: borders, water, electricity, telephones, ports and airports, movement between the cities, and the Palestinian economy.6 A few thousand automatic weapons are no competition for Israel’s tanks, artillery, missiles, helicopters and bombers.
Netanyahu got tough: “If they provide results, they’ll get more, if they don’t, they won’t.” Israel legally controls everything, and resumption of the Oslo process depended upon Arafat’s “good conduct,” his grades to be determined by Israel and signed by the principal, the U.S. president. Arafat was expected to do what the Israeli army had failed to do: restrain Palestinian extremists and provide security to the Israelis. However, he wasn’t entitled to protect the security of the Palestinians, still ruled by the Israeli IDF, or to struggle for independence for his people. Hence, Arafat’s authority was not derived from the Palestinian people and their legitimate rights but rather from Israel’s consent to his presence. Hence it is also feasible to expel him.
While the Oslo accords constrained Arafat’s capacities and authority, they didn’t restrain Israeli power or balance it in any way. Israel compromised merely by vacating the larger Palestinian towns (and some land in their vicinity, as Israel saw fit), thus allowing Arafat to appoint governors and policemen but not permitting territorial contiguity or sovereignty. Israel did not take upon itself the ceding of military control, the creation of a Palestinian state, the granting of economic independence, withdrawal to 1967 borders, and certainly not the resolution of volatile issues such as Jerusalem or the Palestinian refugees. Israel did not even halt or slow down its colonization drive in the occupied territories. The entire agreement rested upon Israeli goodwill. What guaranteed to the Palestinians Israel’s future good will? Two factors: Arafat’s trust that Rabin would bring the process to its final end, and the umbrella provided by the “honest broker,” Bill Clinton. Rabin’s assassination followed by the election of Netanyahu fatally wounded the chances of bringing the Oslo peace process to a happy end. Clinton’s blaming of Arafat after the Camp David summit was the kiss of death.
WILL THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY STOP SHARON?
Ariel Sharon came to power under very peculiar circumstances. While the majority of the Israeli public still believes that the only viable solution to the conflict is the creation of a Palestinian state, there are no political forces able to lead Israel to this end. Barak destroyed the credibility of the peace camp as well as the status of the Labor party in Israeli public opinion. Sharon has no legitimacy in Israel to defeat the Palestinians (and return to the pre-Oslo direct occupation), so he prefers to attack Arafat, according to the arrogant discourse constructed by Barak.
This discourse, supported by international public opinion since the tragic events of September 11, prevents the emergence of significant peace forces in Israel and Palestine that could lead a new peace and anti-violence movement. What must be made clear here is that the absence of an Israeli peace movement, political forces and leadership is deeply connected to the “carte blanche” given by international diplomacy to Sharon – to the targeted killings, and to the confinement of Arafat and the destruction of his political and military forces. Without external pressure on Sharon, no significant internal force can be generated to arrest the arrogant discourse of occupation within Israel.
This is not the first time that Ariel Sharon has clamped a siege on Arafat and attempted to destroy his forces and impose a new order in an Arab state. He did so in Lebanon in the summer of 1982. Now he is using the same logic, based on military power, used to destroy the legitimate representation of the Palestinian people. In the case of Lebanon, the international community prevented him from entering the besieged city of Beirut. However, he succeeded in enthroning Bashir Jumayel as president of Lebanon. As will be recalled, Jumayel was assassinated within days of his appointment, while the Israeli army was drawn into the 18-year occupation and low-intensity war against Lebanese militias that ended in Israel’s forcible removal from Lebanon.
The Palestinians learned the lessons of Lebanon well. They are weary of the Oslo accords, which they regard as an excuse for continued occupation. Arafat did not instigate the new intifada, although he may be endeavoring to direct it, so as to retain his status as the leader of the people to whom he is accountable. Unless we, the Israelis, cast off our arrogant mode of thinking and our position as an occupying power, the present cycle of bloodshed can only intensify, with Arafat or – even more so – in his absence.
From an international point of view, the acceptance of Sharon’s claim that “Arafat is Bin Laden” and that he is the only obstacle to halting violence is extremely dangerous. It could lead to Palestinian despair as well as to expanded and uncontrolled conflict in the area. The attempt to achieve a cease-fire and resume negotiations based on the Mitchell report is doomed to fail. First, because Israel continues exerting the cruelty of occupation in everyday life, a form of violence that is usually unseen but leads to Palestinian reactions instigated by opposition groups. Second, because no negotiations can reach a balanced agreement given the power relations between Israelis and Palestinians. There is no chance for fruitful negotiations between the jailor and the prisoner. In order to balance this relationship, decisive international intervention to stop Sharon is needed. The international community must know that its latent support of Sharon’s policies causes damage every day. Their intervention to stop him is urgently needed for the sake of the Palestinians and the Israelis as well.
1 Shorter versions of this article have been published in Hebrew (Maariv, December 17, 2001), German (TAZ, December 22, 2001) and Swedish (Dagans Nyheter, December 20, 2001).
2 The tactic of executing targeted killings in periods of a relative low level of Palestinian violence became one of the dominant ways used by the Israeli government to provoke a violent Palestinian response. This is a cynical use of the killings, based on the fact that they are accepted by the public as legitimate. They provoke high levels of Palestinian violence, and they help the propaganda effort to show that Arafat is unable to repress “terror.”
3 The assassination of Abu Hunud is a salient example of the political goal of the targeted killings, aimed at creating Palestinian reaction (while writing these words, on January 14, 2002, a similar targeted killing of the Fatah leader of Tulkarem, Karmi Raad, brought to an end a long cease-fire period declared by Arafat four weeks before). A very striking report in Yediot Aharonot (Hebrew daily, November 25, 2001, “Dangerous Liquidation”) by Alex Fishman, the security reporter, makes clear the awareness of the military elites of the meaning of the killing. The article was published before the suicide attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa: “After raising our hats to the Shabak and the IDF for the liquidation of Mahmud Abu Hunud, . . . we again find ourselves preparing with dread for a new mass terrorist attack within the Green Line [Israel’s pre-’67 border]. Whoever gave a green light to this act of liquidation knew full well that he is thereby shattering in one blow the gentleman’s agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority; under that agreement, Hamas was to avoid in the near future suicide bombings inside the Green Line . . . . This understanding was, however, shattered by the assassination the day before yesterday – and whoever decided upon the liquidation of Abu Hunud knew in advance that that would be the price. The subject was extensively discussed both by Israel’s military echelon and its political one, before it was decided to carry out the liquidation. Now, the security bodies assume that Hamas will embark on a concerted effort to carry out suicide bombings, and preparations are made accordingly . . . .”
4 Maariv (Hebrew newspaper), January 4, 2002.
5 Different politicians have declared contradicting goals for the current war against the Palestinians. However the Israeli military officers constantly declare what the goal is. The goal, according to the military, is to prevent the Palestinians from any gain from the intifada. This is also the reason that the military declares that the present violent wave will continue at least five years: If Arafat cannot show to the Palestinians any political gain, he will obviously be unable to stop the violence.
6 In an article I published immediately after the signing of the Oslo accords, I raised two crucial contradictions in the process: 1) the Palestinian interest in the long-range results, in contrast with the Israeli interest in the short range; 2) the contradiction between the drive for continued negotiated pacts between the moderate elites, and the uneven power relations determined by the occupation (Lev Luis Grinberg, “A Theoretical Framework for the Analysis of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict,” Revue Internationale de Sociologie, No. 1, 1994, pp. 68-89).
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