Look to the Future Palestinian Leadership

National Post - January 14, 2002
Source: IMRA News Service

[IMRA: The National Post is Canada's national newspaper, circulated from coast to coast in Canada and the USA.]

by Neill Lochery

One wonders what the late godfather of surrealist filmmaking, Federico Fellini, would have made of the past week's events in the Middle East -- the tale of a ship loaded with arms that appeared out of the Red Sea fog, to the start of the Israeli election campaign from the federal prison cell of a convicted Israeli spy in Butner, N.C.

In truth, there can be no disguising the fact it has been a bad week for peacemaking in the Middle East. Though international do-goodies insist a week does not make or break a peace process, there is much evidence to the contrary. At some point, the international community, and in particular, the United States, is going to have to admit its peacemaking strategies have failed, and there is a need to try new methods.

The latest blow to peacemaking attempts is the seemingly related seizure by Israel of the Karine-A, which was apparently on its way to offload more than 50 tonnes of arms (allegedly from Iran) to Palestinian groups, and the breaking of a short-lived ceasefire by the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad

There are two schools of thought about Yasser Arafat's involvement in the Karine-A affair. The first is that it was a straightforward gunrunning effort by Mr. Arafat to help prepare the Palestinian Authority for a forthcoming military confrontation with Israel, as Charles Krauthammer argued on these pages Saturday. The second is that it was an attempt by Mr. Arafat to manufacture a near replica of the 1948 Altelena ship episode in Israel. At that time, the provisional government, led by David Ben-Gurion, ordered the ship to be scuppered off the coast of Tel Aviv because it was carrying arms for members of the rival Jewish Revisionist fighters. The story goes that Mr. Arafat was to give orders for similar action to be taken against Karine-A, claiming the arms were intended for the radical Islamic groups, thus gaining him considerable international brownie points.

Whatever the real story behind Karine-A. -- in true Sir Humphrey Appleby style, Mr. Arafat has ordered an internal inquiry into the affair -- it is worrying for Israel. If Mr. Arafat is preparing for war, then Israel needs to abandon any pretext of negotiating with a man who refuses to accept its existence. If the arms were meant for radical Islamic groups, then this fits in with the pattern of a major escalation in the war between Israel and these groups.

Following the attacks of Sept. 11, there has been a feeling among many in the local leadership of Hamas that suicide attacks (or "spectaculars" as they are referred to in their propaganda sheets) no longer shock the international community. Israel's responses to such attacks have become "proportional," not increasing the cycle of violence as much as Hamas hoped. As a result, these groups are planning bigger attacks in addition to the blowing up of commuter buses and shopping malls. Major attacks against Israeli army bases, such as last week's, represent one new method. Worryingly, another is the use of chemical or biological weapons against Israeli population centres.

From all this danger, a clear picture emerges of what needs to be done in the region. First and foremost, the Bush administration must address the mistakes of the Clinton era, which was defined by concerted attempts to try to bring the parties' negotiating positions closer together on key issues. This remains the wrong strategy. What is needed is an effort to strengthen the parties themselves. On the Palestinian side, the Bush administration must cast Mr. Arafat aside and seek new stronger, long-term Palestinian partners. Current U.S. indecision, however, reflects the Arabic proverb: "Do not rejoice over him who goes, before you see him who comes." In Israel, the United States should stop playing Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, off against Shimon Peres, the more dovish Foreign Minister, and instead help strengthen the broad-based government of national unity.

On Thursday, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister and re-crowned king-of-the-right in Israel, launched his election campaign from the prison cell of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard (though not due until 2003, elections could be held as early as this spring). Pollard was sentenced in 1985 to life imprisonment for passing U.S. secrets to Israel. By meeting with Mr. Pollard, whose case is a major rallying call for the right, Mr. Netanyahu confirmed his intent to run in the next Israeli election with a strong right-wing platform. The former Likud leader stated he regards the PA a terrorist entity and that he would move immediately to dismantle its infrastructure.

Love him or loathe him, Mr. Netanyahu has clearly taken the kind of decision the Bush administration, and international community, needs to undertake about Mr. Arafat. Those of us who prefer to see the back of Mr. Arafat hope this decision will come soon. Look to the future Palestinian leadership and move to strengthen it. This strategy will bear the greatest fruit in the long term.

Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College in London.

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