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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 1996, pages 29, 137

Speaking Out

It's Time for Arafat to Put Netanyahu on the Defensive

by Paul Findley

As he approaches his 30th year as the world's most prominent and persistent advocate of Palestinian rights, Yasser Arafat must be having long somber thoughts about policy options that remain. He is reeling on the defensive.

Although he heads the Palestinian National Authority (as he calls it; Israel and its supporters omit the word national) and bases his operations in the new Palestine (known elsewhere as the occupied territories or the administered territories, the favorite Israeli euphemism), he is less independent, in some respects, than ever before.

His world and therefore the Palestinian world remains controlled by the Israeli government. He is on a short leash, and the prime minister of Israel holds the leash.

On the first four of the five memorable occasions when I have had direct discussions with the Palestinian chief, Arafat reminded me that he had only a few cards to play in his crucial political game with the government of Israel.

The first and most potent card was official recognition of the State of Israel. The second was a pledge of nonviolence. Arafat said he must guard these cards with great care and play them only when they were certain to win important advances for the Palestinian people. On my second meeting with him, in November 1978, Arafat was more specific: if Israel would withdraw its forces from the West Bank (which includes East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip, and establish a connecting corridor between the two, the new Palestine would establish de facto diplomatic and commercial relations with Israel, live at peace with Israel and all other neighboring states, and halt all violent efforts to enlarge the size of Palestine.

To me, it was a pledge of enormous significance. With high hopes, I relayed it to Cyrus Vance, President Jimmy Carter's secretary of state, and to Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Sadly, the pledge was ignored, not even acknowledged. Even the news media gave it almost zero attention.

From his base of operations, then situated in Damascus, Arafat probably wondered if he had erred in offering specifics on the price he would demand in exchange for recognizing the State of Israel and an end to PLO-sponsored violence.

In many ways, Arafat's PLO was riding high worldwide. It was unchallenged as the leader and authority of all things Palestinian. It had the solid allegiance of Palestinians in the occupied territories, and Arafat's skill kept together under the PLO umbrella a variety of subgroups ranging from pacifists to those pledged to bomb throwing.

Palestinians were in the majority in East Jerusalem, still the social, cultural and religious hub of Palestinian activity. The construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories had only begun and, in the words of the late Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, those few were built with such stealth that no one in Washington noticed.

Arafat then received the political support of all Arab states without exception and substantial financial support from some. Although shunned as an untouchable terrorist by Israel and its chief benefactor, the United States, Arafat and his organization had the sympathy and support of more than 100 governments, as well as many non-governmental organizations worldwide. He managed to avoid subserviency to any of these non-Palestinian sources.

The Palestinians controlled no land, but the PLO functioned as an independent government in all other respects, providing medical, social, educational and military services for those in the diaspora.

There must be moments now when Arafat reflects on those days as heady ones. Some Palestinians recall them as the best of times and consider today's circumstances as far worse. Once a leader with great power and independence, Arafat is now under the Israeli thumb as never before.

In solemn undertakings, he has played the precious cards he once held close to his chest. Even though Palestinians exert control over no land at all, Arafat has recognized the existence of Israel as a government and pledged nonviolence.

The plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories has worsened in most respects. Once almost devoid of constraints on movement, the occupied territories now are subdivided by a grid of highways built by Israel with two goals in mind: first, the exclusive travel convenience of Jews who reside in the settlements, and second, the exclusive travel inconvenience of Palestinians, who are isolated from each other as never before and, for all practical purposes, excluded from East Jerusalem, their historic center of life.

On the plus side, Palestinians can display their own flag and elect a parliament and president, but these institutions are only a thin veneer below which is always found the authority of the Israeli government.

The Palestinian National Authority has responsibility for policing and a few other municipal tasks Israeli authorities were glad to shed. But in its zeal to keep negotiations alive with the Israeli government, the Arafat government has used torture to seek out violent dissidents among Palestinians.

Unemployment is at an all-time high. Palestinians are routinely barred from traditional jobs in Israel and can market goods abroad only via the Jewish state.

In East Jerusalem, the life of Palestinians has been squeezed so effectively and new Jewish residents have been welcomed in such numbers that Jews are now in the majority. The rest of the occupied territories have been peppered with Jewish settlements, 160 in all, with an aggregate population in excess of 150,000.

Given these bleak facts, Arafat desperately needs a dramatic step that will get the Palestinian cause out of the doldrums. John V. Whitbeck, a U.S. citizen who practices law in Europe, has the answer. Whitbeck urges the Palestinian leader to proclaim the existence of the state of Palestine and begin to act like a head of state.

After reading Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's recent pledge to the Likud Party Congress in Jerusalem, Whitbeck repeated his recommendation. He quoted Netanyahu as offering this reassurance to the partisan gathering: "You can dream every night and you will still wake up every morning and see there is no Palestinian state. There is no Palestinian state. There is not and there will not be a Palestinian state."

Whitbeck wants Arafat to challenge Netanyahu forcefully and unequivocally on the question of statehood. The American lawyer insists that the Palestinian State has existed since November 1988 and has been accorded diplomatic recognition by 124 other sovereign states since that year. The proclamation was issued by the Palestine National Council at Algiers.

In short, the State of Palestine has existed for eight years, five years prior to the Oslo accords. Whitbeck argues that by announcing that simple fact, Arafat "would make absolutely clear what Israel and the United States refuse to see: Palestinian statehood is not even an issue in the permanent status negotiations now under way between Palestine and Israel. Palestine exists. Peace does not—and will not until the occupation ends."

In his renewed appeal to Arafat, Whitbeck pleads that the Netanyahu attitude cannot be ignored: "I fervently hope that you and your colleagues...will agree that the course I recommend is the best, indeed perhaps the only way forward, for the Palestinian people."

I second the motion. I offer a further recommendation: Arafat should offer to exchange diplomats with the 124 nations that have long recognized Palestinian statehood. The offer would put Israel on the diplomatic defensive worldwide as never before. It would of course provoke a showdown, but, from the standpoint of justice and human rights, the sooner the better.