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Jewish World Review April 12, 2002 /Rosh Chodesh Iyar, 5762

Martin Peretz

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Before there were 'Palestinians,' there was Arafat: The making of a 'statesman'


http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Theodor Herzl wrote that Zionism's twin goals were to allow the Jewish people to "live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our homes peacefully die." And Zionism has achieved the first: a democratic, modern, liberal society, curious, scientific, on the cutting edge of medicine, accountable, transparent, and extremely plural. (Whatever hardships Arab citizens of Israel endure, they are mostly attributable to the unremitting enmity to Israel of their cousins in the neighborhood; and they are, still, the freest Arabs in the region.) Still, the second goal remains elusive. The Jews of Israel still cannot be sure that they will be allowed to die peacefully in their homes. In fact, the angel of death has intruded on their ordinary civilian lives for more than one century now.

The killings of Jews by Palestinians--and, earlier, by Arabs who didn't yet consider themselves Palestinians--predated the establishment of the state of Israel. The killers did not differentiate among their targets. They just had to be Jews, random Jews, any Jews: socialist farmers on some remote kibbutz in the Galilee, working people in Haifa, or ultrapious (and, for that matter, often anti-Zionist) men and women from a town like Hebron where Jews had lived innocuously and continuously since several centuries before Mohammed set foot on this earth.

Nor, for that matter, is the specific phenomenon of suicidal murder altogether an innovation of contemporary Arab and Muslim fanatics. This has been a hot subject in historic Islam for centuries, and it remains so in the mosques and schools of higher Muslim learning today, pro and con. The widespread adulation of Al Qaeda and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, of Osama bin Laden and Yasir Arafat, of Mohammed Atta and the young man on his way to paradise because he perpetrated mass murder in Tel Aviv, is evidence of the deep roots that this practice has in the culture of the Arab and Muslim world. And let us name the phenomenon honestly. When pampered Saudi princes praise the "martyrs of Palestine," and when Arafat himself says (more than a bit insincerely) that he wishes to die a shahid, they are (as Shimon Peres has pointed out) countenancing the idea of human sacrifice as an active agent of modern politics.

Yasir Arafat, of course, has never been finicky about terrorism, and his long history on that score mocks America's calls for him to renounce the only craft he has ever truly known. Arafat's debut on the world stage coincides with the beginning of the Palestinian revolution, which, it is urgent to recall, commenced at least three years before the Six Day War. This means that Arafat started the Palestine Liberation Organization before one Israeli ever stepped foot into the West Bank or Gaza Strip--or, for that matter, prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem or walked in the city's ancient Jewish Quarter. There were no "occupied territories" back then, and there weren't really any disputed territories either--except in the heads of the Palestinians. What Arafat wanted then (and what I believe he still wants now) was to liberate not Hebron or Nablus or Gaza (which in 1967 were in Arab hands) but Haifa and Tel Aviv, the plains of Sharon, and the Negev desert. Or, as military historian Victor Davis Hanson put it in The Wall Street Journal, "the current Arab-Israeli war--at least the fourth fought since 1948--is fought over the West Bank: but that is only because ... the Arab world lost the first three wars to destroy Israel proper."

From the beginning, Arafat's tactics of terror were audacious: blowing up airplanes in midair; taking children hostage in schoolhouses; skyjackings; hijacking of buses; shootouts and bombings in crowded airports, theaters, terminals, markets, beaches, restaurants, wedding halls. His most daring moment was during the 1972 Munich Olympics, in which eleven Israeli athletes lost their lives. (It was also the first moment when Peter Jennings showed himself to be oh, so understanding of Palestinian terror.) But this terrorism occurred only sporadically. It wasn't until the Oslo agreements and the handshake on the White House lawn that Arafat's terrorism became a routine feature of life in Israel. Israel obliged itself in 1993 to provide the Palestinian Authority weapons (augmented, of course, by the armaments the Palestinians smuggled and illegally manufactured themselves). And those weapons became the instruments of Jewish death. The closer the Israelis came to meeting Palestinian demands, the more intense the terror became. Suicide bombing, in fact, didn't become the Palestinians' chosen mode of day in, day out terror until the year 2000, when Israel offered Arafat more than the old butcher probably ever expected.

Even my friend Tom Friedman, generally much too credulous about Arafat's intentions, recently wrote that the Palestinian president and his compatriots "have not chosen suicide bombing out of `desperation.'" The Palestinians, he says, were offered "a peace plan that could have ended their 'desperate' occupation, and Yasir Arafat walked away." He goes on to say that the Palestinians "want to win their independence in blood and fire," and that is because "all they can agree on is what they want to destroy not what they want to build.... Let's be very clear: Palestinians have adopted suicide bombing as a strategic choice.... This threatens all civilization because if suicide bombing is allowed to work in Israel, then, like hijacking and airplane bombing, it will be copied and will eventually lead to a bomber strapped with a nuclear device threatening entire nations."

If Friedman is right--and I believe he is--then the solicitude for Arafat expressed by so many world leaders is itself perilous. Prince Sultan, the Saudi defense minister, called the siege of Ramallah "the greatest crime in the history of humanity." Is he out of his head? The Lebanese president's bleatings on Arafat's behalf are more than a little hypocritical given his decision to prevent Arafat's speech from Ramallah from being heard live at the Beirut summit. As for the threat by Jordan's foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, to send the Israeli ambassador back to Jerusalem, he is playing an old, and silly, game. The Hashemites know all too well that Israeli intelligence is their first line of defense against their menacing Arab neighbors and that the Israeli military is their second. That has been clear since at least 1970, when the Israelis turned back Syrian tank divisions heading toward Amman. Israel guarantees Jordan's survival. The king and his Cabinet can express their "deep anger" at Israel's treatment of Arafat; but, in truth, he is a threat to them as well, and as such they wish him nothing but ill. King Abdullah and his advisers surely don't want Israel to give Arafat all the territories captured from them in 1967, and they were desolated when it seemed that Ehud Barak would do just that. They want the Jordan Valley in Jewish hands--as a buffer between emergent Palestine and their own country and also to prevent chaos among the West Bank Palestinians from spreading to the Palestinians in their own kingdom.

Arafat's most sincere partisans are not in the Arab world; they are in the nations of Europe, whose leaders routinely threaten Israel with retribution when it seeks to defend itself. Some of this is domestic politics: European leaders must now cater to ever larger, and more militant, Arab and Muslim populations within their own borders (a fact that should give pause to Americans who wish to indiscriminately admit immigrants who would bring their old hatreds to their new home). In the diplomatic strutting of European states that once deployed real force around the world but now no longer can, there is probably also some nostalgia for empire. Who really cares, after all, what Belgium thinks about Israel's conflict with the Arabs? The European states and, for that matter, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan are structurally incapable of truly influencing events on the ground in Israel, the disputed territories, or the rest of the Arab world. They cannot produce a real concession from Israel because they cannot produce--and haven't--even a symbolic concession from the Palestinians. And, for all their patronage and nurturing of Arafat, he has never given them even a diplomatic crumb to take to Israel.

The European country that has hectored Israel the longest and most obsessively, of course, is France. And why should we be surprised? After all, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's attacks on the Jewish state have accompanied a frightening intensification of antiSemitism in France.

Then there is the left--like the people who went to be with Arafat inside his compound this month. These "progressives" are not a new phenomenon in world affairs: They and their ancestors have been worshiping bloodthirsty leaders for more than half a century. But with Stalin, Mao, and Castro, there was, for a time, at least a veneer of brutal idealism. Zionism was an expression of European liberalism, and there were Arab intellectuals who imagined that their nationalism also would be nurtured by that source. But, in practice, Arab nationalism has become a very nasty business, defined everywhere by dictatorship. Palestinian nationalism is no different. Arafat has no grand vision of human affairs whatsoever, no desire other than territory--and territory not as the seedbed for an inspired vision of community but as a launching pad for war against the Jews.

Arafat could not possibly have stirred these activists' dreams of a just society, because he has none. His scant program contains not even the deceit of egalitarianism. Arafat is a fascist, and his fascism has at its very core the hatred of Jews. And since he is unabashedly stirred by this passion, one has to suspect his admirers as well, all of them (including--if I am permitted to go local--the three Episcopal bishops of Massachusetts and their political adviser, a priest in a Cambridge church, who in their preaching and protests seem to think that innocent Jewish life is without value). In France, already, synagogues are being burned and cemeteries trashed. And in Israel, amidst a rage of daily terror, a young Palestinian came to the seder door and murdered 25 men and women, one pregnant with two children in her belly, never to see the light of day.



Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief and chairman of The New Republic. Comment by clicking here.

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02/08/02: Foresight
10/23/01: When America-haters become Americans

© 2002, Martin Peretz