Disregarding allegations (that may or may not be true) that Arafat indirectly or directly supported terrorist groups, Arafat’s unwielding, uncompromising resolve was his and his nation’s biggest hindrance to gaining peace and autonomy. The examples of this resolve are numerous and powerful, but Arafat’s July 2000 rejection of the peace plan submitted by former President Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak stands out as the most glaring and unfortunate. Clinton and Barak offered Arafat 92 percent of the West Bank, 100 percent of the Gaza strip, the dismantling of most Israeli settlements within the West Bank and the Gaza strip and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, and Arafat rejected it.
Rightly perceived by all but the most unrealistic Palestinian supporters as insane (Clinton, upon hearing Arafat’s pronouncement, banged on a table and exclaimed “You are leading your people and the region to a catastrophe!”), in reality Arafat’s decision revealed just how unwilling he was to accept the reality of his situation. He refused to concede that Israel possesses a stranglehold on Palestine, and any concession near that scale on the part of the Israelis was almost impossible to wish for. It’s true that Israel posited the annexation of eight percent of the West Bank for purposes of retaining concentrations of settlements and would have retained security roads in the West Bank after the deal was done, but the reality remained that Arafat rejected the closest thing to Palestinian autonomy that he or his people will see in a very long time.
So what are the Palestinians whom Arafat left behind to do? The future is hopeful-the remaining leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) has already shown prudence in nominating former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas as their new chairman. For the most part, Palestinian citizens seem content in mourning the death of their former leader while not believing that his passing will lead to their own.
If Palestinian leadership chooses to behave respectfully and do as Arafat did not do during the 2000 Camp David peace accords, they will have the first opportunity in generations to expose the reality of their situation to the world. Their opposition will no longer be able to mask the truths of the conflict with the image of a leader who is arrogant, sightless and who possibly sanctioned terrorism. If they choose to be prudent in carefully not sanctioning (verbally or otherwise) terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad while staying true to their cause of Palestinian independence (or the closest thing possible, such as that which Barak and Clinton put forth), Palestine will find itself more favorably viewed by the world. With exceptions in the actions of more moderate leaders such as Barak and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli government’s offenses towards Palestinians are numerous and odious. For the most part, Israeli leaders never stray from a continual effort to classify Palestinians as second-class human beings, unworthy of receiving trust and independence. Should the PLO act in a respectful, moderate light (their opportunity to do so is greater now than ever) by explicitly condemning terrorism against Israeli citizens, Israel’s offenses will be perceived as all the more dire.
The list of these offenses continually grows. Israel has been waging a fanatic campaign to destroy Palestinian homes and replace them with Israeli settlements. They have constantly mistreated Palestinians and followed a “policy of beatings” as advocated by former defense minister Rabin in the early 1990s. Finally, they have refused to allow Palestinians to return to homes from which they were unjustly forced. These are all examples of grave Israeli misconduct that will be forced into the spotlight should the Palestinians decide to take the more mature governmental road. Most importantly, if the United States decides to criticize Israel’s government as harshly as it has criticized the Palestinians’ and threatens to withdraw the billions of dollars per year it gives in aid to Israel, Israel will lose the moral upper hand it has enjoyed in the eyes of most non-Arab nations.
In the wake of Arafat’s death, the United States has a golden opportunity to work with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to secure the closest thing possible to an independent, autonomous Palestinian state. Palestinian leadership has, for the first time in years, a chance to expose the offenses of the nation that holds them under such an oppressive yoke. They may, should the possibility arise, be able to accept a peace plan similar to the one that their former leader rejected. On the part of the United States, President George W. Bush has a chance to criticize Israel in a manner that is politically possible (because, let’s face it, anything but blind support for Israel has meant certain political doom on the part of any American president) and to work with both nations to create what Arafat could not see and perhaps never really wanted to see: a free Palestine.
McNally can be reached at [email protected]