Fouad Ajami on Arafat's Perfidy and Clinton's Ignorance.

U.S. News & World Report Cover Story 10/23/00


By Fouad Ajami

The great circle of enmity. American diplomacy never understood Yasser Arafat's double game. In the legend of the Palestinians, the riots on the West Bank and Gaza are their second intifada. And there can be no mistaking the verdict of the great spectacle that has played out in the Palestinian territories and beyond: In the charred ruins lies the "peace process" of the past decade. In a flash of lightning, the great truths of the region were laid bare. The circle of enmity surrounding Israel has not been breached - the young boys in the West Bank displayed their great refusal to come to terms with Israel's statehood; so did the demonstrators in Arab lands, from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, whose rulers had staked a claim to moderation. Diplomacy was shown to be a pretense and a veneer.

The custodians of Pax Americana, the "peace processors" at the State Department and the National Security Council who are in charge of the care and feeding of Yasser Arafat, were in for the surprise of their lives. Spin the truth as they have to now, these handlers hadn't really understood Arafat or the deeper currents of his Middle Eastern world. The word was passed that President Clinton believes that his investment in Arafat has been in vain. Arafat had been folded into the American design in the region; his West Bank and Gaza regime had been granted American treasure and indulgence. He had been received at the White House over a dozen times - more than any other foreign leader. An American president given to a belief in personal diplomacy and bonding had come to think that he had "broken through" to Arafat. But Clinton hadn't really understood his Palestinian interlocutor, nor had he mastered the psychological terrain of that volatile region.

Chaos and fury. Clinton came close, he believed, to closing a deal between Israel and the Palestinians at Camp David only to be rebuffed by Arafat, who preferred the terrible status quo to a diplomatic accord that he would have to defend at home. On the table, Arafat was offered the best that could be had in a messy world - a recognized state with sovereignty and borders and legitimacy. He walked away, we are told, by asking Clinton if the American president had the intention of attending his funeral. This time, there was another disappointment for a president eager to leave his fingerprints on Middle Eastern history. The master of the Palestinian realm let the chaos and the fury do its destructive work. He commanded a large armed presence on the ground, but his forces either took part in the riots or averted their gaze. He let his Washington handlers know that they were owed no deference for the support he had been given since the 1993 Oslo peace accord. Arafat was playing in a different world, and a different arena. Arabs who had disdained him for his support of Saddam Hussein a decade ago had rehabilitated him. And those who had opposed his peace with Israel and seen it as a deed of surrender had given him a second chance. American diplomacy had never understood Arafat's double game.

The shadow of American power lies across these Middle Eastern lands, it is true. But that is a world that remains difficult to read and to shape. The traffic with rulers gives the United States precious little insight into the popular sensibilities of Arab-Muslim societies. The "Arab street" that exploded in resentment had not been prepared for an accommodation with peace and the concessions it takes. The case of Egypt goes to the heart of this impasse. For all the American treasure and hopes invested in Egypt, American diplomacy could secure no help from Egypt's ruler. Hosni Mubarak had no use for American entreaties. He played to his street and to a political class at home that has never really taken to peace with Israel.

Deep down those rulers understand their lands. They play a sly game: They rule with an iron fist, monopolize the political world, but wink at the displays of animus toward Israel. The Arab rage we were treated to in recent days is the permissible fury allowed populations otherwise shut out of political life. The crowds rail against Israel, it is true. But there is more to the overflowing wrath. There is the unease with modernity, the envy of Israel's economic success at a time of growing Arab poverty, the recognition of the ruled that their rulers never let them in on the accommodations and deals they make with strangers.

There is an inescapable asymmetry here: Israel yearned for a way out of the siege that has defined its history and its reality since statehood. The world around it has altogether different needs and realities. In their fashion, the diplomats picking up the pieces will say the usual things about the need to pull back from the precipice. But their work will fail and will deceive if it doesn't name and acknowledge all that has played out in this cruel, disillusioning fortnight.

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