Time flies when you're having fun, as the saying goes. Next month marks one year since the death of Yasser Arafat, and the masses will not fill the squares in Ramallah in memorial assemblies; Bill Clinton and other world leaders will not come to inaugurate a center in his name. However, the anniversary of his death serves as an opportunity to raise questions about Israel's behavior before and after his death.
The year since Arafat's death has not been beautiful as they promised us, and life here without him has not been better than our life with him. Arafat served as an excellent excuse for Israel to continue the occupation and almost the only significant change that has occurred since his passing is the loss of this excuse.
The past year was the year of disengagement. Not a "partitioning of the land" and not anything approaching this. Not even progress toward peace, but merely a year in which a unilateral arrangement was imposed on the Palestinians that completely disregards their needs. There was no letup in the occupation during this year. Gaza remains imprisoned; in the West Bank, the restrictions on Palestinian life continue in their full cruelty, and are even intensifying due to the separation fence. All this, despite the fact that the demonization of Arafat by Israeli leaders in his waning days could have led one to assume that the largest obstacle to peace had disappeared when he died.
"He'll bury all of us yet," prophesized Israel's leading Arafatologist, Major General (Ret.) Amos Gilad, shortly prior to Arafat's death. But like other predictions by Gilad, this also proved to be false. In the government and the Israeli public, there were many who sought to expedite his demise: Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who wanted to kill him; the government, which determined in 2001 that "Arafat is not relevant" and the inner cabinet, which decided to expel him from the territories in 2003.
The ministers competed with each other in verbally assailing Arafat; the commander of the IDF land forces, Yiftah Ron Tal, called for making Arafat "evaporate" and Gilad was responsible for writing a white paper that included cheap propaganda slurs against him. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom deliberated in September 2003 for three days with no fewer than 30 foreign ministers at the UN General Assembly, reciting to all a single refrain - that Arafat is the "main obstacle to peace." And what has Shalom done for peace since this obstacle has been removed, except for his support for the disengagement and his meeting with the foreign minister of Pakistan?
True, the terror attacks have drastically decreased and the IDF is also killing less. But when one looks at the statistics, it is impossible to attribute this to the death of the rais: The steep decline began while he was still alive. Since 2002, a gradual drop has occurred, from 184 Israelis killed in 2002, to 104 in 2003, and to 13 this year. However, the last month of his life, as he lay dying in Paris, was a bloody month, with the highest number of Palestinian casualties since Operation Defensive Shield - 140 killed in a single month. Two months later, when Arafat was no longer among the living, Israel killed another 100 Palestinians. That is, to the extent that both sides have held their fire, it was not because Arafat was no longer in the Muqata.
Arafat was replaced with the most moderate leader the Palestinians have ever had. However, thousands of Palestinian prisoners continue to rot in prison, some of them without trial. In recent days alone, Israel arrested about 400 more - it's not clear why. With the exception of two barren meetings between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas (the third is slated to take place on Tuesday), during which Abbas outlines his requests and Sharon rejects most of them, the prime minister did not bother to strengthen relations with the new leader, and certainly did not treat him as an equal. If Sharon vowed not to meet with Arafat, and kept this promise, why has he not met with his successor more often?
During this year, not only has Israel done nothing to help solidify Abbas' rule, it has done everything to weaken him. And now it complains about his weakness. Israel bears a heavy responsibility for the dramatic strengthening of Hamas in Gaza, and soon in the West Bank too. The targeted assassinations have returned, the checkpoints have not been removed and the conditions of life have remained as harsh as before, with and without terror attacks, with and without Arafat. The only change to occur has been the weakening - though not the disappearance - of the defamation of the Palestinian leader.
There are not many who long for Arafat. The Palestinians blame him for not doing enough to extricate them from their miserable lives, and in the eyes of Israelis he became Satan long ago. Palestinians and Israelis forget the long path he traveled from non-recognition of Israel to the historic crossing of the Rubicon in establishing relations with it. In a certain sense, it was Israel that missed a chance with Arafat, perhaps the only leader who had the power to reach a compromise with Israel.
History will judge the man both by his success in consolidating the Palestinian people and raising their case to the top of the international agenda, as well as the cruel violence and corruption for which he was responsible. But a year after his death, one can hardly say a new dawn has risen over the Middle East. A civil war threatens the Palestinian people (and this is also bad news for Israel), a war that Arafat did everything to prevent and apparently would not have erupted in his day. And Israel is not doing a thing to conduct negotiations with his successor on a just accord that would ensure an end to violence. It turns out that contrary to the promises, Arafat's death did not bequeath life to anyone.
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