Arafat’s Predicament

Just as the new U.S. special envoy, General Anthony Zinni, was in the middle of his first Middle East peace mission, new horrific bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa left scores of innocent Israelis dead and wounded. This, in addition to the continuing bloodshed in the past several weeks that have left dozens of Palestinian and Israeli casualties, has quickly shifted the focus to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s ability to prevent such violence.

At stake is not merely the prospects of a cease-fire or a return to the negotiating table.

It is important to look at this juncture not only as a test of Arafat’ s leadership or even the viability of the Oslo agreements of 1993 that have led to the limited autonomy that the Palestinians now have in the West Bank and Gaza. More important, this is a critical juncture for the entire nationalist project that has framed Arab-Israeli negotiations over the past three decades. It conceived the conflict not to be so much an ethnic and religious one, but a nationalist conflict whose resolution can be found in two states through territorial compromise. Weakened as Arafat is politically, he represents the nationalist Palestinian project that changed the nature of the conflict. With the ascendence of religious political movements and the increasing infusion of ethnic and religious language into the Israeli and Arab political discourse in recent months, the demise of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority would significantly increase the prospects of transforming the conflict into a religious and ethnic one.

The role of the Palestinian issue in the consciousness of the region is more profound than is readily recognized: It has been central to the collective identity of many Arabs and Muslims over the past half century, in a similar way that Israel has become an integral part of contemporary Jewish identity. Many Jews around the world, for example, may dislike Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, and blame him for some of the troubles with the Palestinians, but they will still support Israel if it’s attacked or threatened. Many Arabs and Muslims look at the world through the prism of the Palestinian issue: They pass subconscious judgments on countries or groups they don’t know well, largely on the basis of their positions on this issue.

Such framing of the conflict would not allow for a compromise formula between the two sides and would most likely result in intensifying the violence.

In confronting the militants, Arafat’s dilemma is this: On the one hand, he has superior military forces to those of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two main militant Palestinian organizations.

In the 1990s, when Arafat offered hope through a peace process that seemed to have a chance, he was able to mobilize not only his core supporters, but also the majority of Palestinians who wanted to rid themselves of occupation and end their daily humiliation. But since the collapse of the Camp David negotiations, Arafat has had no political option to offer his people who desperately want change.

There is another dilemma that the Palestinians have not figured out how to address: For Palestinians, the status quo under Israeli occupation is unbearable, and cannot continue. Yet, any change in the status quo is at the mercy of Israel’s overwhelming power. This was indeed the dominant Palestinian fear after the failure of Camp David, for which the Palestinians blame Israel. Whether deliberately or not, the Palestinian Intifada came to be seen by the Palestinian Authority and by the Palestinian public as a lever in the negotiations with Israel, just as the assertion of Israeli power in the West Bank and Gaza is also an instrument of politics. In fact, just as the majority of people in Israel support very harsh measures against the Palestinians in this painful environment, majorities of Palestinians support violence as an instrument of Palestinian policy. The paradox is that despite the hardening of Israeli and Palestinian views on the use of violence, majorities among both communities remain supportive of a Palestinian-Israeli peace through negotiations.

Israeli and Palestinian politicians have not figured out how to separate their need to respond to public opinion and their need to assert leverage without at the same time undermining their return to the negotiations. Every Palestinian attack hardens Israeli political views and results in Israeli retaliations that harden Palestinian views and weaken Arafat’s authority. And in the efforts to end the violence and return to the negotiating table, the parties get trapped into the chicken and egg problem.

That is why the commission led by former Senator George Mitchell ultimately recommended steps that both sides would have to undertake to end the violence and quickly return to negotiations that inspire hope and help to rebuild some of the lost trust. General Zinni’s current mission was ultimately aimed at implementing the Mitchell report.

The question now is whether the tragic events of the last few days have changed the mission entirely. Will the horrific bombings and the Israeli retaliations create an environment of war even if the parties want to avoid it? Do the Israelis want to make a deal with Arafat, and if so, how can that work if his power is further undermined? Will Arafat see the tragic events and the new American diplomacy as an opportunity to assert his power internally? And will the United States watch the events unfold as a bystander, or will it move to establish redlines to prevent further escalation?

The answers to these questions could determine not only the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire in the foreseeable future, but also the possibilities of Palestinian-Israeli peace in this generation.