Arafat and the Power to Persuade

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

August 8, 2001

As one who has just returned from the front lines of the intifada, I find the current argument about what happened at Camp David to be surreal. Violence is worsening, Hamas’s strength is growing and the Palestinian Authority’s institutions are beginning to crumble. Unless we quickly intervene to reverse the rapid deterioration, the next terrorist attack could push both sides toward open warfare and threaten American interests in regional stability as well.

Our focus should be on persuading Yasir Arafat to take the initiative to stop the violence. If he does that, my own experience suggests, it will not be difficult to get Mr. Sharon to respond. The only way to stop the escalating cycle of violence is to replace it with more vigorous Palestinian efforts to arrest terrorists, reciprocated by Israeli actions to stop targeted assassinations, ease closures of the West Bank and Gaza, and redeploy Israel’s military forces.

Can Mr. Arafat stop the violence? Back in June we glimpsed his capabilities. At that time, he declared a unilateral cease-fire and then committed himself to a work plan hammered out by George Tenet, director of the American Central Intelligence Agency, which included arresting terrorists. Even before this, Mr. Arafat had stopped the shooting from the Bethlehem area onto the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. After Mr. Arafat’s efforts, violent activities declined throughout most of the West Bank and Gaza. Until last week, his security forces had also begun to stop the mortar firing in Gaza and had taken steps to control violence connected to arms smuggling across the Egyptian border at Rafah.

However, Mr. Arafat still had not stopped drive-by shootings in the northern West Bank. And, most important of all, he had avoided a serious effort to arrest those members of Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad who were involved in terrorist activities. Instead, he had jawboned Hamas into a temporary suspension of bombings, but Islamic Jihad operatives and others were thumbing their noses at him.

This is typical of Mr. Arafat. Confronting Hamas and Islamic Jihad is no easy wave of the hand for him, especially since he has allowed them free rein and let elements of his own security forces collaborate with them. He has always preferred consensus building to confrontation with these opposition elements, and this is even more so today because of their popularity with Palestinians angered by Israel’s attacks.

But Mr. Arafat has acted effectively against the terrorists in the past, and he remains capable of doing so today. He is very much in control of the nine security organizations he established to maintain order in the West Bank and Gaza. Mr. Arafat may just be desperate enough now to issue orders to them to put terrorist organizers in “protective custody.” But he will be able to sustain those orders only if he gets help from Israel and the United States.

Mr. Sharon will need to stay his army’s hand and ease the economic pressure on the Palestinian people. He began to do this back in June. After his own cease-fire declaration, he tolerated a degree of violent activity while Mr. Arafat made an effort to bring it under control. He stopped launching raids into areas under Mr. Arafat’s authority. He loosened the closure in areas where there was quiet and indicated through his security chiefs to Mr. Arafat that he was prepared to go much further.

But as the weeks wore on, with Palestinian violence continuing, Mr. Sharon’s tolerance evaporated. Under pressure from his own right wing to end restraint and facing intelligence assessments that Mr. Arafat was doing nothing about terrorists who were planning more bombings, Mr. Sharon resumed targeted assassinations of people believed to be involved in terror activities.

This is where the United States should have come in. Instead, the Bush administration watched the deterioration from the sidelines, substituting daily denunciations from the State Department for high-level engagement with the parties. That approach didn’t work this time, any more than it worked when the Clinton administration brokered the Sharm el Sheik understanding and then watched from the sidelines as the violence continued.

Left to their own devices, Palestinians and Israelis have not been able to end the cycle of violence. Effective American intervention is necessary and does not require us to reinvent the wheel. The blueprint for ending the violence already exists in the Tenet work plan, and the road map for rebuilding confidence and resuming negotiations has already been outlined in the Mitchell Report. Mr. Arafat has already committed to arresting terrorists, and Mr. Sharon has already agreed to putting a freeze on settlements, including “natural growth,” when the confidence-building period begins

Now the first step is for the United States, backed by the international community, to insist that both sides renew their commitments to a mutual cease-fire, with a specific date for putting it into effect. We need to establish a “monitoring group” much like the American-led team that helped maintain a degree of stability in southern Lebanon from 1996 until the Israeli withdrawal from there last year. Its central element would be a small team of American, Israeli and Palestinian officials capable of around-the-clock monitoring of the cease-fire. The team would investigate violations by either side and provide accounts of the incidents to the two leaders for prompt and appropriate action.

I believe this type of arrangement would be acceptable to the Israeli government. Although it is not the international observer force Mr. Arafat would prefer, it would give him the assurance of third-party involvement and the ability to say that he was not following Israel commands.

Finally, the parties should move directly from the cease-fire declaration into the “cooling-off” period recommended by the Mitchell Commission. We should not wait for the seven days of quiet that Mr. Sharon is now insisting on before beginning this period. This would give the Palestinians the sense that the process is moving toward the confidence-building measures and the resumption of negotiations, both of which are important to them. And Mr. Sharon can be reassured that the cooling-off period would stop if there was significant violence and would resume only when quiet was restored.

Of course, none of this can work absent Mr. Arafat’s decision to confront the terrorists, Mr. Sharon’s willingness to reciprocate with substantial restraint and a commitment from President Bush to more intensive and sustained engagement by his administration. In the process, Mr. Arafat will have the opportunity to show himself capable of being a partner to Israel and the United States in peace negotiations. And if he doesn’t, there won’t be a peace process to argue about.

Martin Indyk was American ambassador to Israel from 1995 to 1997 and again from January 2000 to July 2001.