Behind Arafat's Mask

Bitter disappointment and great disaster await anyone who is wishing for a Palestinian leader who has a likeable face that hides a new reality and that beams with a magic solution to the bloody conflict.

The pride and joy of Ehud Barak, the old-new claimant to the crown, was his success in "removing the mask" from the face of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. The right eagerly swallowed Barak's thesis that beneath the mask, the bad old visage of the terrorist with the hairy face was revealed.

The left adopted with a sigh the version that at the moment of truth at the Camp David summit in July, 2000, it turned out that Arafat had not relinquished the right of return - meaning the destruction of the Jewish state.

That being so, then the replacement of the man in the mask by a person who is the same inside and out - for example Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), a Palestinian who opposed to violence and supporting a two-state solution - would open a new era in relations with our neighbors. Obviously the reality is infinitely more complex than the official line that with his departure, Arafat is leaving us a legacy of peace.

It's more complex than the assessment or hope of Shabtai Shavit, former head of the Mossad, that the departure of the chairman will mean "the Palestinian issue will come off the national agenda," since "there will be no one to step into his shoes as an opener of doors to the leaders of the world" (Yedioth Ahronoth, December 7, 2001).

When the world leaders found out that that Arafat had not entirely given up the idea of the armed struggle and the habits of corruption, their doors were slammed in his face and they left him isolated in the Muqata, his Ramallah headquarters.

Abu Mazen, as prime minister, had the privilege of conferring twice with the president of the United States, and the leaders of Europe are going to stand in line to greet him as the new president of Palestine.

His external face, his fighting tongue, his fertile imagination and his perverse habits of governance were the mask on the face of the Israeli occupation. Who is to blame for the deaths of hundreds of children in the territories? Arafat, of course, who started the intifada.

Who brought his people to the roadblocks? Clearly Arafat, who continues to support the Tanzim. Who forced us to build concrete walls in Jerusalem? No question about it - Arafat, who rejects the reform in the security organizations.

Who is delaying the evacuation of the outposts, as required by the road map? Nu, really, every child knows that this is because Arafat is not combating terror, as stipulated on that same map.

When Abu Mazen warns against the killing of children, complains of cruelty at the roadblocks, fights the route of the fence and demands that the roadblocks be lifted, parallel to a reorganization of the Palestinian security organizations - the leaders of the world will listen to him. Maybe even the citizens of Israel will listen to him.

The demonization of Arafat by the politicians and the media was very successful, like the attitude toward an incurable disease about which nothing can be done. The obsession with the person hid the demographic problem and the danger of Israel's isolation in the world.

By the fact of his presence he released Israel from the need to deal with peace initiatives that cropped up on the diplomatic horizon, such as the Arab peace initiative in March of 2002, which for the first time offered Israel normalization with the members of the Arab League and an agreed upon solution to the Palestinian problem.

For as long as the present-absent partner was there in the Muqata, the road map, never mind civil initiatives like the Geneva accords and the Nusseibeh-Ayalon agreement, were non-starters.

In the miserable approach to the Muqata, at the end of an interview we conducted in June with Yasser Arafat, Palestinian Minister Dr. Nabil Sha'ath told us that at Camp David Abu Mazen had taken a tougher stand than Arafat on the issue of Israel's recognition of the right of return - and agreement to the return of a limited numbers of refugees.

Abu Mazen is no less faithful than Arafat to the decision by the Palestinian national Council in 1988 concerning the solution to the refugee problem and a withdrawal to the 1967 borders.

No Palestinian leader has the authority to give up a single centimeter of the West Bank - except in the context of a one for one exchange of territory - or Haram al Sharif (Temple Mount).

Bitter disappointment and great disaster await anyone who is wishing for a Palestinian leader who has a likeable face that hides a new reality and that beams with a magic solution to the bloody conflict.