September 24, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Regime Change in Ramallah

In one sense, Israel's announcement that it intends to “work to remove” Yasser Arafat was merely stating the obvious. Arafat is an obstacle to peace. Anyone who is serious about peace recognizes that.

But in another sense, Israel's statement was a stumble. It was a gift to Arafat. It caused Palestinians to rally around him just when they should have been asking themselves why they continue to follow him ever deeper into a valley of poverty, degradation and death.

And how does making such a statement benefit the Israelis? Although removing Arafat is a necessary condition for solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is not a sufficient condition. In other words, peace is not going to break out the minute the Israelis shove Arafat aboard a plane and send him back where he came from. (He was born in Egypt, and he was living in Tunisia when, a decade ago, the Israelis made the fateful decision to try to convert him from terrorist-and-archenemy to statesman-and-negotiating partner.)

Israel's threat also prompted Arab dictators and even some European leaders to reflexively reaffirm their solidarity with Arafat. It's not that they don't understand that there can be no progress toward peace so long as Arafat wields power. It's not that they don't realize that Arafat orders the murder of children riding school buses. They simply aren't that eager to settle the conflict — and they don't strenuously object to terrorism that is not directed at them and their fellow countrymen.

This mindset was vividly illustrated when the UN General Assembly “strongly condemned” the Aug. 29th bombing that killed more than a dozen UN civil servants in Baghdad. The General Assembly does not make it a practice to “strongly condemn” such bombings against Israelis – rather, it routinely condemns Israel's attempts to defend itself against such acts of terrorism.

Some people will argue – as do several elite news organizations – that there is a huge difference between suicide terrorists murdering UN employees and suicide terrorists murdering Israelis. They'll say: “One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter,” which is as logical as saying, “One man's ax murderer is another's man's heart surgeon.” (Or to put it so simply that even a Reuters editor might understand: Freedom fighters fight against soldiers and for freedom. Terrorists deliberately murder innocent civilians to express their opposition to peace through compromise and dialogue.)

Washington's response to talk of Arafat's re-location has been creatively bifurcated. Essentially, the State Department addressed the Israelis, saying it “would not be helpful to expel” Arafat, while President Bush reminded the Palestinians that he was “committed — solidly committed – to the vision of two states living side by side in peace and security” but that movement toward that compromise solution could only take place when there is a “new Palestinian leadership committed to fighting terror not compromised by terror.”

Mix those together and you get this American position: To achieve peace requires that Arafat go, but the Israelis shouldn't be his travel agent. However, if the Palestinians wanted to remove Arafat and take advantage of Bush's offer, how would they go about it?

In theory, a coup is always possible, but the only organizations that operate independently of Arafat in the West Bank and Gaza are terrorist groups opposed to peace and a “two-state solution.” A Palestinian “peace movement” is something Arafat would never tolerate.

Palestinians could express themselves through the ballot box – except that a free and fair system of campaigning and voting was never established under the Palestinian Authority.

Isn't it curious that at the same time that we're working feverishly to build basic democratic institutions  in Iraq – the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press, property rights – we somehow expect these same institutions to materialize out of thin air in the territories ruled by Arafat. By what mechanism would that occur?

Even more baffling are the many Europeans who want the United Nations to be put in charge of “nation building” in Iraq, ignoring the fact that in all the years the UN has been involved with the Palestinians — spending billions of dollars and deploying hundreds of international civil servants – the organization has made no attempt to create a democratic and civil Palestinian society. Instead, UN employees work cheek-by-jowl – and sometimes hand-in-glove – with such groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

All of this, of course begs the central question: If Palestinians could express themselves freely and vote for what President Bush has offered – an independent state that would live side-by-side in peace with a Jewish state – would they accept peace and compromise? Or choose to continue fighting until the bitter end, until one side is vanquished and the other triumphant?

We like to think we know the answer, but we don't, and maybe we won't – until Arafat is gone from the scene.

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