The post-Arafat era
By Zalman Shoval
This month witnessed the re-election of President Bush and the death of Yasser Arafat. Both should be good news for the democratic world (although not everyone wants to admit it) and for the Palestinians as well. A Bush defeat would undoubtedly, though unjustly, have been interpreted by radical Islamists and in large parts of the Arab world as a victory for terror — just as the defeat of the former government in Spain and the subsequent withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq was seen as a victory for terror.
What is the impact, then, of the renewed mandate to the president on Israel and on the prospects for peace with the Palestinians? Mr. Bush has now reiterated, after his meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his position on this matter: Yes, the president will make a major effort to bring about Palestinian statehood according to the "roadmap," but no, he does not see himself bound by a 2005 deadline or by any sort of strict timetable. Everything will depend on whether the Palestinians create a reformed, democratic leadership and stop violence and terror.
Nor is there need now for another international conference or a special envoy. The only viable and practical route is that of the Sharon "disengagement plan." Under this plan, if indeed there will be a reversal of Mr. Arafat's terroristic and corrupt ways, the Palestinians would eventually become Israel's partners. True, whether this will actually happen anytime soon is a moot question, given that "Arafatism" is still the dominant strain among Palestinians. But it could hopefully change over time.
Although the tally of his victims may by some accounting have been smaller than al Qaeda's, Mr. Arafat was a close contender for the title of the world's number one terrorist. He was the first to "legitimize" the murder of innocent men, women and children and the blowing up of civilian airplanes to advance his political aims. He was also an unmitigated disaster for the Palestinians, who paid a high price for his intransigence in rejecting Israel's and America's most far-reaching and generous proposals ?- as he did four years ago at Camp David. There, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, under the aegis of President Clinton, offered him practically everything but the kitchen sink. Then came the so-called al Aqsa intifada, raining death and ruin on both sides.
Europe will also have to face up to the reality that President Bush's decisive re-election victory will, as an op-ed in the British Financial Times by that paper's U.S. managing editor put it, "force a rethink." This also means that there would be little inclination in Washington to follow the advice of some Europeans and so-called "moderate" Arab leaders that pressure on Israel could or would put an end to Islamist terror or to instability in the Middle East.
Actually, there never has been any real, intrinsic connection between the Arab-Israeli conflict and Islamist terror. The root causes of the latter lie elsewhere, and even if Israel were forced to submit to all the most extreme Palestinians'demands (which would have meant Israel disappearing from the map)worldwideterror would not be eliminated. On the contrary, the terrorists would see this as vindicating and encouraging further acts of terror elsewhere. The Arab-Israeli problem is usually used by Arab regimes as a subterfuge to explain away their own lack of democracy and their rampant corruption -? just as some European governments use it to mask their often unholy business and political alliances with those same corrupt and undemocratic regimes.
Israel is now making a major effort to improve the prospects of peace by moving ahead with its "unilateral" disengagement plan. "Unilateral" does not necessarily mean total and splendid isolation. On the contrary, the United States, a hopefully more constructive Europe, as well as Egypt and Jordan could play roles in making the proposed transition easier without interfering with its basic concept.
No less a contribution should be made by the "new" Palestinian leadership. I have put the word "new" in quotations not only because the oft-mentioned names belong to Yasser Arafat's generation and Tunis crowd (even though some of them had rejected his terrorism as a policy conducive to resolving the Palestinian problem), but also because it is not clear that they will be willing or able to effect a complete change of policy. The chaos at Mr. Arafat's funeral in Ramallah and the subsequent attack on Mahmoud Abbas's entourage in Gaza do not bode well for the hoped-for Palestinian democracy.
Israel's approach is based on a realistic and sober view of the situation. Should there nevertheless evolve a Palestinian leadership which will destroy the terrorist infrastructure and stop violence, hand over illegal arms and stop anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement in its media and schools -? in short, implement all those measures which had been in previous agreements but were never honored by Mr. Arafat ?- this would be an important step in the right direction. But should things on the Palestinian side be more of the same, Israel will go ahead unilaterally, withdrawing from some areas while providing for its security.
Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, is a senior adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Shar