Alas, poor Arafat!
Le Monde's Jerusalem correspondent Gilles Paris parts the veil of "progress" to reveal the hopelessness of the Palestinian situtation and the purloined legacy of Yitzhak Rabin.
Arafat and Rabin: The remains of inheritance
Two peoples came to render homage to two symbols. On November 11 Palestinians marked the first anniversary of the death of Yassir Arafat, who passed away in a French military hospital. The following day, Israelis came together in Tel-Aviv to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of Yitzhak Rabin at the site where he was assassinated by an extremist Jew. United briefly by a Nobel Peace Prize won in 1994, the pair did not come to their place in history in the same fashion. Sublime by martyrdom, Yitzhak Rabin became the incarnation of willingness in the collective memory, even if only an illusion. Yassir Arafat paid a dear price for his ambiguities and hesitations, carrying away with him general opprobrium.
The hyped presence of former President Bill Clinton in Tel-Aviv and his absence the day before in Ramallah has come to represent the common judgment of these two men. The judgment is particularly harsh for the founder of the Palestinian national identity. The old leader did his utmost while alive to inflate the ranks of his detractors.
Incapable of explaining the reasons for the collapse of the Camp David talks in July 2000, then incapable of measuring the consequences of September 11, 2001, Arafat multiplied his poor decisions and ambiguities up until the day of his death while his opposite number, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, repeatedly demonstrated his tactical intelligence.
Muzzled by Israel then silenced by the United States while receiving more or less tepid support from the European Union and his Arab neighbors, Yassir Arafat wasn’t exactly regretted by the international community. The election of Mahmoud Abbas on January 9th could only but be a comfort those who saw in his predecessor the source of all their woes. Elected on a program of rejection of violence, this long-enduring artisan of dialog and negotiation rapidly renewed ties with Israel and the United States. The Israeli evacuation from Gaza at the end of the summer reinforced the impression of the arrival of a new era, even if Sharon took the decision in defiance of his own party, of the will of Arafat while he lived and in disregard of internal Palestinian hazards.
Despite an accumulation of encouraging signs, today's less than ideal reality is more than vexing. Those who considered the founder of the Palestinian national movement to be “the main obstacle” to peace or who viewed him as “part of the problem, not the solution” could legitimately believe for a time that his disappearance was going to change everything. But nothing has changed. There is no visible momentum two months after the end to colonization of Gaza. The peace negotiated by Abbas at the beginning of the year is more and more fragile. The “Road Map”, the most recent international peace plan, which provides for the creation of a Palestinian state at the end of 2005, has been reduced to wishful thinking.
The sheer weight of the sad state of Israeli-Palestinian relations has caused us to relativize factors of personality, as overwhelming as they may seem. But it is a weight with which we are quite familiar. The Oslo Accords institutionalized the unequal relationship that the Palestinians maintain with the Israelis -- occupied and the occupiers.
The haphazard application of the provisions of the Oslo Accords assuaged the fears of those who, like many of Accords’ detractors, were by and large not hostile to peace or to dialog with Israel but who nevertheless viewed them as complicated mechanisms set in motion after very bad bargain.
The failure of Oslo and five years of Intifada left standing an artifact ingrained with contradiction—a Palestinian Authority intended at first as a placeholder but which has endured by default; an entity which is not at all an authority and even less a state, even if it curiously appears in certain international rankings, such as the list drawn up by Transparency International of the world’s most corrupt governments. The Palestinian Authority coincides with the Israeli policies adopted for the West Bank in this aspect: it is content with the control of the most important Palestinian agglomerations while Israel controls the facts on the ground in the main of the Palestinian territories. Surveillance of Gaza continues from the periphery by land and by sea, with the exception of a morsel of territory on the Egyptian frontier.
The only way out for the Palestinians lies is the opening of negotiations towards a final agreement. This is the calculus of Abbas, who has followed in the footsteps of Yassir Arafat in rejecting any intermediate solution which might gel into a permanent situation. Jewish colonization continues apace on the West Bank. In January 2006, the total number of settlers — including those in the annexed parts of Jerusalem — will be, once again, greater than that of the previous January as has been the case for the last thirty years.
Conversely, Sharon, as the prime beneficiary of the status quo, is tempted by unilateralism and the possibility, given the lassitude of the international community, of drawing the provisional frontiers of a future Palestinian state according to his own design. This eventuality, which enjoys popularity in Israel, is in opposition to the borders which the Labourite Yitzhak Rabin had in mind.
It is as if the cult status accorded Sharon every year by the Israeli public has no translation in politics. The Israeli PM imposes his conditions, starting with the demand to disarm the Palestinian militias as stipulated in the Road Map--including the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas).
Such a demand can be considered legitimate because it would translate into a return for the Palestinians to law and order, seriously impaired, in Gaza and in the Palestinian territories. However, it should not be a precondition-- as such it is an act of contempt towards Abbas. But neither should Israeli be released from its obligations which include, at least theoretically, a total freeze on settlements according to the same Road Map.
Basking in the glow of the Gaza evacuation, Sharon is, for now, in a position of strength to achieve his aims—unless the election of Amir Peretz, the inheritor of the legacy of the assassinated Rabin, as head of Labour Party reinstalls Israeli society with the taste for peace and the necessary will to achieve it.