Passover is around the corner, and a Hanukkah miracle has just dropped on Arafat's head. At the peak of the military conflict with Israel, with the two peoples reaching new heights of depression, Sharon set up a ladder that can de-escalate the mutual slaughter. He gave up the demand for seven days of quiet, and proposed a cease-fire so that the Tenet plan could get started right away.
If I were Arafat, I'd grab Sharon's offer with both hands and both feet. I'd say to myself that it could be a gimmick, but behind it is American pressure that could, sooner or later, fall on me like a sledgehammer, wielded by the gang that hasn't forgotten my backing of Saddam in the Gulf War. So better that I hitch a ride on the wagon of the "good guys" and save myself a headache.
Arafat has gone from sitting under house arrest in Ramallah to having no less a personage than the vice president of the United States being prepared to visit him. In return for agreeing to a cease-fire, Arafat has killed five birds with one stone: He has involved the American presidency in the conflict. He has turned America into the judge and final decision-maker on every issue. He has saved himself from being labeled a terrorist and transformed himself into a critical link in mobilizing support for the war on Iraq. He has made it possible for himself to attend the summit in Beirut, with the Americans guaranteeing his return to Israel. And for the whole lot, all he has to pay right now is lip service. The painful actions - arrests, collection of weapons, cutting down the size of his army, destroying terrorist infrastructure - will wait until his return.
Arafat is facing a tough test of leadership. It won't be easy when it comes to showing that he is in control, that he has the will and capacity to carry out his word. "What have you achieved?" his fighters will say. "Why are we laying down our guns?"
He could take the advice given to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War: Say you won and get out. Arafat could say to his people: We won. We forced Sharon to blink first and ask for a cease-fire. We forced him to withdraw Israel Defense Forces troops from Palestinian Authority territory. We won support for a state from Bush, and finally squeezed a vote in favor of the establishment of a state from the UN Security Council. Our blood has not been spilled in vain. We beat Goliath.
Arafat should be thanking Sharon right now.
In a way, Abba Eban's quip about the Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity also applies to us. Looking back, Israel has been no slouch in the missed-opportunity department, from Golda's insistence that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation, to getting ourselves in an irreversible fix by allowing settlements to be established in places in the territories that have no importance whatsoever for Israeli security.
But when we count up the mistakes, missed opportunities, stupidity and maliciousness, the scales tip in favor of the Palestinians, especially since the 1993 Oslo Accords, when they were so close to establishing their state. The moving ceremony on the White House lawn, the "peace of the brave," Arafat's commitment to laying down the sword - all of it collapsed the moment Arafat returned to Gaza and launched into impassioned speeches, calling upon his people to liberate Palestine by blood and fire. He encouraged them to spill the blood of innocent Israeli citizens in suicide bombings, and instead of building a state, caused so much harm to his people that no enemy could ever compete with him.
What logical explanation could there be for the spate of terrorist attacks that began within a year of that ceremony, when Yitzhak Rabin was yet alive? Why should women and children have been killed in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during the days of Peres, a man of peace and a friend of Arafat? Why did a wave of violence leading to hundreds of dead on both sides begin just as Barak and Clinton proposed a plan in which Israel would return 97 percent of the territories? Why would Arafat want to topple Peres and bring Bibi to power? Why would he want to topple Barak and bring Sharon to power, sending all the peaceniks scurrying to the right?
And what interest could he now have in bringing back Netanyahu, who told Time magazine this week that he plans to reoccupy the entire West Bank, exile Arafat and dismantle all his forces? Most of the Israeli public does not believe in a military solution and is prepared to make concessions for peace. Yet again, Arafat is being given a chance to prove that he is capable of stopping terror and becoming a relevant leader and partner in dialogue. Don't blow it again, Yasser.
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