It turns out that it's hard to get rid of Yasser Arafat while he's still alive. On Wednesday of last week, when the Palestinian cabinet - meaning the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Arafat - decided to accept the plan put forward by Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, which has been dubbed "Gaza and Bethlehem first," the decision was unanimous. The decision to dispatch top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Interior Minister Abdel Razek Yehiyeh to Washington was also taken unanimously, as was the decision to hold a security meeting with Israeli representatives that evening.
Apparently, the recognition that it is impossible to remove Arafat from the political arena without also removing him from this world is penetrating even the minds of the decision makers in Israel. One Foreign Ministry official remarked that Israel is treating Arafat the way Egypt treats Israel: Mubarak talks to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and to Benjamin Ben-Eliezer but not to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as though the two ministers are in a position to set policy that is different from what the prime minister dictates.
The criticism that is being voiced aloud about Arafat's performance, both in the territories and in the Arab states, should not mislead anyone. It is in fact, trenchant criticism that sometimes has harsh things to say about the institutions of the Palestinian Authority, points to the corruption that has spread in the PA, to its inability to decide the goals of the war against Israel, and even to its methods of operation, such as the suicide bombings. It is also direct criticism of Arafat. Israeli officials who meet with Arab representatives are always eager to tell about the scale of the disgust with Arafat. Behind the scenes, the Arab representatives say, the Arab leaders would be happy if Arafat were no longer in the arena. Occasionally an Arab leader will come out with a public statement against Arafat, such as the declaration by King Abdullah of Jordan that Arafat did not deliver the goods.
"You have to draw a distinction between legitimate criticism of the kind that exists in every democratic society and removing a leader on the basis of a dictate," says a senior figure in the Palestinian Authority. "I assume that if we were already deep within the peace process and if we had a state, in free elections - if the economic and social situation were not better - Arafat would find himself outside the government or holding an honorific post. But in our situation today, Arafat, even if his symbolic importance has been eroded, continues to serve in another important role: he now serves as a symbol of the independence of Palestinian decision making." In other words, no one is going to tell the Palestinians who their leader will be even if they themselves are not satisfied with him.
"Just imagine that tomorrow President Bush would call on the Israeli people to replace Sharon because he did not live up to his promises. He did not bring either peace or security, your economic situation is very bad and the social situation is wobbly. The entire Israeli society, including those who do not like Sharon, would mobilize against the American demand," says an Egyptian commentator. "Look what happens in the Arab world when the United States or Europe tries to remove, or even just insults, an Arab leader. Will you find even one public Arab voice that will support the call for the ouster of Saddam Hussein? Is anyone condemning Bashar Assad? You have to differentiate between conversations in backrooms in which people agree that Saddam or Assad or Arafat are disasters, and readiness to take action in order to bring about their removal. In our modern history there has never yet been a case in which an Arab leader of one country removed the Arab leader of another country, other than by war."
So far it is difficult to discern any benefit in the anger directed at Arafat. Even if his isolation does not strengthen him, it certainly does not help further any sort of plan. In the final analysis, Israel, wants, and justly so, to deal with someone who is capable of carrying out his commitments and controlling all the elements of the Palestinian forces.
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