Now that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has passed, we can expect increased prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine. But peace will have little to do with a more capable leader to replace him. We cannot immediately expect the mitigation of violence in the Occupied Territories, either. In fact, the renewed chance for peace will not be due to a change in the Palestinian side at all.
Peace is more likely now because Arafat is no longer a viable scapegoat for Israel.
Before I sound as if I’m vindicating Arafat’s legacy, I’m perfectly aware of his corruption and overseas bank accounts. I’ve heard ad nauseum about his possible ties to terrorist groups. But most importantly, I know that none of this matters in the overall situation. The Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be attributed to an individual. It cannot be reduced to a myopic view where one man is responsible for all of the violence. It is far more complex.
First, violence does not occur in a vacuum. On one side, violence results from continued oppression of Palestinians and the illegal settlement of land seized by war. On the other side, violence is a consequence of the continued terrorist attacks on civilian targets. Scores of innocents on both sides are killed, and this brief description does not even begin to do the subject justice.
Yet Israeli policymakers persist in oversimplifying the conflict by fixating on Arafat. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his cabinet members and extremely biased press like the Jerusalem Post attribute entirely to Yasser Arafat the high unemployment and poverty in the West Bank and Gaza, the death of Palestinian civilians and the strength of paramilitary groups opposed to Israel’s existence.
Blaming such factors entirely on Arafat is unreasonable. Israeli checkpoints within Palestine, the seizure of fertile land by settlement activity and the construction of the wall all impose undue economic hardship on Palestinians. Such actions strengthen the appeal of violent paramilitary groups to the dispossessed and desperate. Yet the Arafat fixation allows the Israeli government to completely absolve itself of any responsibility.
One common argument right-wing Israelis push is that Yasser Arafat’s “refusal” to reign in terror groups necessitates the harsh responses, which result in economic hardship and civilian casualties. But in response to the former leader’s death, Abdelrahim Mallouh, deputy head of the Popular Front for the Libration of Palestine said to al-Jazeera, “Leaders go, individuals go, but the cause remains.” It sounds as if terror groups have always considered Arafat insignificant, and the idea that he heads all or most of these terror groups is a complete myth. How Arafat is expected to maintain a cease-fire or reign in paramilitary groups who ignore him – particularly when walled into his compound for months at a time – is beyond comprehension.
Another usual argument is the former leader’s abandonment of Ehud Barak’s “generous offer” of 95 percent of Palestinian land. The truth is that no formal map was ever drawn, and the extra 5 percent Israel wished to keep was not random: it served to lock in 80 percent of existing settlements, divide the West Bank and legitimize Israeli control of the West Bank’s eastern border.
University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer in the New York Times even said, “It is hard to imagine the Palestinians accepting such a state. Certainly no other nation in the world has such curtailed sovereignty.” But Ariel Sharon still uses Arafat’s walkout to claim that he has “no partner for peace” and must refuse all future negotiations. Even one step in the right direction, the Gaza pullout, comes amid two steps back: the wall and fortification of illegal settlements.
Arafat’s absence greatly changes the situation. Without him, hard-line Israelis cannot easily avoid acknowledging their own misconduct by pointing fingers at Arafat’s ill deeds – much like how Arab leaders point fingers at Israel to divert attention from their own failings. They would be forced to abandon the black-and-white view of the conflict as being merely good versus evil.
The situation in Israel and Palestine is much too complex to be reduced to a single individual. Perhaps with the death of Yasser Arafat, more people will come to realize it.
-The writer, a senior, is external vice president of the Islamic Alliance for Justice.