September 10, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Reality Bites; Middle East Fictions Fade

The resignation of Mahmoud Abbas was sudden but not surprising. For a few months, everyone called him Mr. Prime Minister, but everyone knew that was a fiction.
Abbas never enjoyed any real power within the Palestinian Authority. And he attempted to exercise only the power of persuasion over Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other terrorist organizations that that have been permitted to plot acts of mass murder from bases under the PA's control.
Could Abbas have taken charge if he'd had the will and the courage? Perhaps, though it's hard to see how. Yasser Arafat remained the …well, the 800-pound guerrilla whose presence America and Israel tried to ignore. The rulers of the surrounding Arab states did not follow suit. They, and too many Europeans, continued to treat Arafat with a respect he does not deserve.
Much of the media – e.g. the Washington Post last weekend — describe Arafat as “the elected leader” of the Palestinian Authority. That, too, is a fiction. It suggests that Arafat was the winner of a free and fair election within a democratic system. If that's so, there must be an opposition party in the Palestinian territories, as well as an opposition leader. Can anyone name them?
Abbas was hardly Israel's friend. He was not even willing to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state which, realistically, must precede any serious negotiations that could lead toward an enduring peace.
He did oppose terrorism – not because he sees terrorism as a crime, but rather because he sees it as a blunder. Terrorism, he believes, will not further the Palestinian cause, if the Palestinian cause is defined as having an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza in the near term, while leaving more ambitious goals for the long term.
Arafat, by contrast, hasn't the patience to settle for half a loaf in the present, while praying for Israel's extermination in the future. At Camp David in 2000, prodded by President Clinton, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat brusquely refused the offer. The explanation is not that Arafat “never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Rather, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Arafat's goal always has been to wipe Israel off the map completely. In fact, the maps Arafat displays on his uniforms, on his official documents and in his offices show not a shrunken Israel, but no Israel whatsoever; a final answer to the Jewish question of the Middle East.
Like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, Arafat fancies himself a latter-day Saladin, a reference to the 12th century Muslim warrior who defeated the infidels and drove them from the Holy Land.
Remember that Arafat founded Fatah (Arabic for “conquest”) before Israel took possession of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel took those territories from Jordan and Egypt because it was from those territories that Egypt and Jordan launched the 1967 war to destroy Israel. Israel never formally annexed the West Bank and Gaza (AKA Judea and Samaria) because Israeli leaders thought it better to use them as bargaining chips.
But to bargain again with Arafat would be a fool's errand. Can anyone seriously imagine Arafat spending his golden years as the emir of a West Bank/Gaza mini-state, collecting taxes, filling pot holes and entertaining foreign investors? That goes beyond fiction to fantasy.
Abbas' resignation is a blow, perhaps fatal, for the Road Map. But the inspiration for the Road Map, President's Bush's June 24, 2002 description of a new, post-9/11 approach to settling the Arab-Israeli conflict, remains the best hope for peace. Bush said to the Palestinians, in effect: “You can have a state. We'll help. Or you can have terrorism. But you can't have both, because the US will not support the creation of another terrorist state – and that is what a state born out of terrorism inevitably would be.”
If a majority of Palestinians wanted to take President Bush up on his offer, how would they express themselves? By standing up on soap boxes in Ramallah? By voting against Arafat, and for an anti-terrorism “peace candidate”? Pace the Washington Post, those options do not now exist. Those options can exist only when and if there is real freedom and democracy within the Palestinian Authority.
But it's worse than that. Much as we'd like to believe that most Palestinians are ready to make peace with Israel that, too, may be fiction. For more than a generation, the Palestinians have been told they can and will have it all – that Arab Muslims will rule from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. Arab leaders could tell the Palestinians that that dream is a fiction. They could tell them to cut a deal with the Jews and give their children a chance to lead normal lives. Arab leaders would do that if they sincerely wanted to see an end to the conflict. Sadly, that, too, is a fiction.
Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



Palestinian Politics