Jews are the victims. Abbas is the target
By Neill Lochery
The National Post
Saturday, May 24, 2003
The clear message of the suicide bombers who struck Israel this past week is that there will be no deal on Israeli-Palestinian peace without Yasser Arafat's participation. Israel and the United States have tried to push Mr. Arafat into irrelevance, and prefer to deal directly with newly appointed Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. But Arafat, the PA Chairman, has retained control of much of the Palestinian security apparatus. And as the power struggle between Arafat and Abbas develops, there is increasing evidence that the radical Islamic group Hamas and elements of Arafat's own Fatah movement are co-ordinating their attacks on Israel. Indeed, the funding and infrastructure of the radical secular and Islamic groups appears not to be as separate as was previously presumed.
Once sworn enemies, Arafat and Hamas have found common ground as they both struggle to remain relevant in Palestinian society. While Arafat has been weakened by his international isolation, Hamas is threatened both by Israel's assassination of its key leaders, and by George W. Bush's war on terror, which has reduced the flow of funding from wealthy Saudi donors.
As the lines of Palestinian politics are redrawn, both Arafat and Hamas need to remind the world that they still command popular support among key segments of the Palestinian population. Thus, though both groups say they are fighting for a Palestinian state, they will both do everything in their power to prevent Mahmoud Abbas from securing one.
The Israeli government is aware of these developments. In recent weeks, the Israeli army's deployments in the West Bank have taken on a more permanent look. Bases once thought temporary are being reinforced, as are supply and communication channels. Hebrew road signs torn down when the army left back in the mid-1990s are slowly starting to reappear. The very unsubtle message that the Israeli government is sending Arafat and the Palestinian leadership is that it will not allow anarchy to break out in the West Bank.
The major debate within Israeli security and political circles, however, has centred on the question of Arafat's future. Given his new strategy -- which amounts to a declaration of war on Israel -- should he be sent into exile, left to roam the West Bank or placed under what would effectively be house arrest in Ramallah? There appears little appetite in Israel at this stage to put him on trial in Jerusalem -- although with the increasingly transparent linkage between himself and the bombers, this policy may change.
The current Minister of Defence, Shaul Mofaz, argues that sending Arafat into exile would only lead to an increase in terrorism. His views are mirrored by the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, who refused the demands of right-wingers in his Cabinet to exile Arafat following this week's series of attacks. There is a growing sense of confidence in Israel that Arafat's day has passed. So why exile him and allow him to return to his globe-trotting ways? Better to keep him hemmed in in the West Bank and not allow foreign officials any access.
Even the Israeli left -- whose members once subscribed to the view that there could be no deal without Arafat -- is now deeply divided over what to do with him. In truth, many Israeli doves would be pleased to see Arafat disappear altogether so they could start to forget about how he duped them into signing peace agreements that he had little intention of fulfilling, thereby sending the Israeli left into its very own political exile inside Israel.
The current violence in Israel and the Territories marks the endgame of Yasser Arafat and Hamas. It is extremely important, however, not to confuse this with the endgame of the Middle East peace process: The attacks amount to a declaration of war as much against Mahmoud Abbas as against Israel.
To help Abbasprevail, Israel must do all it can to make sure that its responses to attacks are directed against the terrorists, and not the wider Palestinian population.
One important but risky step is for Israel to allow the West Bank to remain open so that Palestinian workers can cross into Israel to earn much-needed wages. This in turn will help stimulate the Palestinian economy and give Abbas something concrete to show for his endeavours in dealing with Israel.
Let's hope that both Arafat and Hamas will soon be confined to a footnote in Palestinian history. Few have caused so much damage to the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people. There can be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until those who would blow up buses for their own cynical political purposes have exited the scene.
Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College, London.