Wednesday, 10 November 2004
Yasser Arafat, who led the movement for Palestinian statehood for forty years, died today at the age of 75. Leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization since 1969 and President of the Palestinian Authority since 1996, Arafat founded the Fatah movement for armed struggle against Israel while living in Kuwait in 1965. He was leader of the PLO when it perpetrated its most public act of terrorism, the kidnapping and murder of nine Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Arafat later renounced terrorism and agreed with the right of the Israeli state to exist, though his critics doubted his commitment on either score. Despite the doubts, Arafat worked on and off with Israeli and international leaders over the next decades, achieving his greatest personal triumph in 1994, when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside Israelis Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. Nevertheless, he never achieved his goal of seeing an autonomous Palestinian state. In 2000, despite U.S. President Bill Clinton's strong urging, Arafat refused to sign an accord with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak establishing the boundaries of a new Palestinian State, because he believed that the Palestinians were being asked to give up too much. Criticized for his autocratic rule, for corruption, and for insufficient opposition to terrorism, Arafat nevertheless remained an icon of the Palestinian people and will no doubt be hailed as the father of a future Palestinian state.
Arafat was a controversial figure throughout his life, and some leaders of Israel and the U.S. refused to deal with him. Although the region never achieved final peace between Israel and the Palestinians, it came closest when other leaders recognized Arafat for who he was, the popularly elected spokesman for the Palestinian people. Efforts to sidestep him, isolate him, or even assassinate him only resulted in raising the level of tension, as well as the body count on both sides of the conflict. In particular, the refusal of both the current Bush administration and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose critics also label him a terrorist, to deal with Arafat have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Now these two governments, and the governments of the world, have an opportunity to make peace. Will they take advantage of it?
Most speculation concerning Arafat's successor is focused on moderate Palestinians like current Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, and it seems likely that a moderate will take over, at least in the short term. If so, it is imperative that Bush take the initiative, forcing Sharon by whatever means necessary, to resume peace negotiations in earnest. The Road Map to Peace is a good place to start, though so far it has been a Road Map to Nowhere. An even better place to start is the Geneva Accord. The most important thing, though, is to start immediately.
A senior leader like Colin Powell is most likely to achieve positive results if he is not hampered by neo-con ideologues who are looking to take total control of the Bush administration's foreign policy in Bush's new term in office. An unleashed Powell, negotiating with someone like Mahmoud Abbas and a reasonable Israeli leader, could no doubt achieve peace. Despite his association with the false justification for the war on Iraq, Powell still probably has the international respect necessary to get the job done, and he certainly has the negotiating skills. The obstacle to peace will probably be Sharon, so Powell needs to have the Bush administration's authorization to wield both a carrot and a stick. If Bush can ignore the neo-cons this one time, maybe he'll be the one to facilitate peace in the Middle East. If he can't, the Palestinians will probably not stick with a moderate leader for long, and peace will be further than ever from the grasp of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians.
It's ironic to say that the Middle East's best chance for peace comes immediately after the death of a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize, but it is nevertheless true. If former adversaries Begin and Sadat could sign a peace accord, perhaps even Sharon and an undetermined Palestinian leader could do the same. Peace will not come easily, since Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, the right to return, and the status of Jerusalem remain issues to be resolved. A strong American leader with a vision for peace has a chance to make possible Yasser Arafat's dream of a viable Palestinian state and every Israeli's dream of a secure Israel. Bush was re-elected largely on the basis of his supporters' perception of his moral values. Now the world will see whether Bush really is committed to the philosophy of peace preached by his favorite philosopher, Jesus of Nazareth, or whether his morality is just a pretence. Now is the time to act.