The Weekly Standard, 01/21/2002

ARAFAT'S NAVAL ADVENTURE

It's Time For Him To Go.

by Tom Rose

IF NEW PROOF were needed that reforming Yasser Arafat is a lost cause, the Israeli navy's pre-dawn seizure last week of a cargo vessel destined for Gaza City and packed with 50 tons of weapons supplied by Iran should have provided it. The ship was registered to Arafat's Palestinian Authority, paid for with PA funds, and skippered by a lieutenant colonel in the PA Navy who told investigators his assignment was to deliver his secret cache directly to the PA. At least 7 of the 13 crew members belonged to Arafat's private militias.

The Israeli government called it the largest and most dangerous illegal arms shipment ever attempted. Had it reached its destination, every inch of Israel would have been in range of its cargo, which consisted of long- and short-range Katyusha rockets, LAW and Sagger anti-tank missiles, long-range mortars, sophisticated mines, nearly two tons of hi-tech semtex plastic explosive many times more deadly than what the suicide bombers currently use, hundreds of high-powered sniper rifles, thousands of rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank grenades, and, most dangerous of all, an undisclosed number of SA-7 (Strella) anti-aircraft missiles capable of imperiling commercial air service into and out of Tel Aviv.

On the other hand, Arafat has been leading one terrorist organization or another for four decades. Why should a little Katyusha-running change anything? As it turns out, it won't. Israel seems to view the episode as just another public relations opportunity to be milked; the United States as a public relations challenge to be managed. Neither regards it as reason to begin the process of replacing Arafat's regime with one less malign.

Not only did the State Department refuse even to discuss breaking with Arafat, but Washington's special Middle East envoy issued no rebuke to Arafat. Quite the contrary. Retired Marine general Anthony Zinni concluded a visit to Israel two days after the boat was seized by telling reporters that he saw "a real opportunity for progress." A State Department official traveling with Zinni said bluntly, "Our mission will go on, ship or no ship."

That passing comment explains why recent American and Israeli efforts at Middle East peacemaking have so miserably failed. Excusing Arafat's criminality only insures more. If it takes the United States five days to so much as criticize the most brazen attempted violation of the Oslo Accords, what crime could ever justify Arafat's ouster?

The obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not the inability to resolve particular issues, but the violent, oppressive, and unstable nature of the Arafat regime. Until U.S. and Israeli policymakers realize that peace depends far more on the nature of a future Palestinian state than on its borders, Israelis will not know peace and Palestinians will not know freedom.

If a future Palestine were free, nonviolent, and committed to bettering the lives of its people and to living in peace with Israel, it wouldn't threaten Israel. But a Palestine that resembled the corrupt and dictatorial Palestinian Authority would be a mortal danger.

Dictators make bad neighbors, and before he is an Arab, or a Palestinian, or even a Muslim, Yasser Arafat is a dictator. When he founded the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964, there was not a single "Jewish settlement" to oppose nor an "Israeli occupation" to resist, because the West Bank was ruled by Jordan and Gaza was ruled by Egypt. Arafat created the PLO to destroy Israel. He learned that first he had to consolidate his power over a fractious and scattered people. He chose to do that by killing those who challenged him and oppressing the rest.

It took an inarticulate Israeli general turned prime minister to lay bare the fatal mindset from which Oslo was born. The PLO leader, said the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was the ideal partner precisely because he was a dictator. Arafat could crack down on terrorists, Rabin said, because,"unlike us, he doesn't have to worry about elections or human rights groups." Thus, Israel itself was midwife to the terrorist-supporting tyranny now in its midst. Rather than requiring that the Palestinian Authority have an open political system, Oslo gave Arafat both the time and the resources to consolidate his rule.

Like other dictators, Arafat has to worry not about losing an election, but about losing his life, and those most likely to take it are the extremists he has armed, funded, and trained. The notion that Arafat could ever crack down on the very organizations he needs to survive is preposterous. For Arafat, upsetting Colin Powell carries little risk. Upsetting Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or even his own private militias carries the ultimate risk.

But there's another, more important reason why Arafat isn't going to crack down on terrorists--namely, that they help him. In fact, these groups provide his regime with the best insurance stolen American aid money can buy: They keep the national focus on fighting the external enemy rather than on the failings of their leader. If Palestinians could vote, things might be different. Arafat might have to defend his record. And quite a record it is.

Many people think Arafat's refusal to rein in the terrorists demonstrates his weakness. But Arafat is far from weak when it comes to dealing with those Palestinians who clamor for an end to corruption, a freer press, religious liberty, or even elections. With these opponents, his retribution is swift and merciless. While the number cannot be known for sure, Arafat's PA is almost certainly responsible for the murders of dozens of political opponents, none of them Islamic extremists.

Since its creation in 1994, his Palestinian Authority has presided over the collapse of the Palestinian economy. He was given billions in aid, and squandered what he and his cronies didn't steal. With GDP down nearly 70 percent, Palestinians have seen their collective national net worth reduced by more than two thirds. Virtually nothing remains of a once reasonably vibrant private sector. Corruption exists on a scale that even the normally approving Europeans cannot abide. Public infrastructure has disintegrated. Public health standards, just seven years ago the highest in the Arab world, are among the lowest. And the disastrously self-destructive terrorist war against Israel that Arafat started last year has reduced Palestinians to the most desperate conditions they have seen since the creation of Israel in 1948.

Arafat denies responsibility for the actions of extremists he cannot stop. Yet he alone controls the state media, whose endless torrent of incitement to murder creates the climate in which young men embrace the vocation of terrorist. A central character on Palestinian television's leading children's show is a 7-year-old boy who aspires to become a suicide bomber. The people's cry for blood, which Arafat purposely foments, Hamas and Jihad can answer, creating in the process new martyrs to fuel the cycle. Arafat and Hamas aren't enemies or rivals, they are co-dependents. Arafat needs Hamas and Jihad to divert the people's hatred, while Hamas and Jihad need Arafat to provide "moderate" cover for their murderous acts. Arafat needs terror much more than he needs Colin Powell.

It seems worth asking why neither Jerusalem nor Washington ever sought to democratize the Palestinians. Particularly in the early stages of Oslo, when Arafat was dependent on American and Israeli support, the Palestinians would have had an excellent chance to build the first democracy in the Arab world. A democratic Palestine would have been a landmark achievement. If only someone had bothered to insist on it.

But it wasn't without reason that no Israeli, American, or European government ever made such a demand. It's just that the reason is a dirty little secret. The truth is that virtually no one in either government believes Arabs to be capable of--or even worthy of--democracy. In Israel, it is the supposedly enlightened left that most passionately rejects the notion that Palestinians could govern themselves democratically. The only reason the right hasn't rejected the idea is that it has never considered it. With the exception of Natan Sharansky, the deputy prime minister who spent nine years as a prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Gulag, not a single political figure has made the case for Palestinian democracy.

How else can one explain that when Secretary of State Colin Powell finally set out his much anticipated "vision" for reaching peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he never mentioned "freedom" or "democracy"? Secretary Powell used a November 19 speech at the University of Louisville to endorse an independent Palestinian state more emphatically than any U.S. official ever had before. But he devoted not even one sentence of his 43-minute address to what kind of state he thought Palestine should be.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is less about land, borders, or even refugees than it is about the inherent inability of dictators to be peaceful. It is dangerously premature to focus on where the borders of a future Palestinian state will be drawn before determining how it will be governed. For until someone gives them a chance to develop a more open political culture, the Palestinians will never taste the fruits of freedom, and peace will never come to the Middle East.



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