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Jewish World ReviewAugust 1, 2000 / 29 Tamuz, 5760

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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Arafat's lack of nerve -- What quality of character distinguishes the revolutionary or the terrorist who can rise to statesmanship at the key historical moment? Nehru had it. Nelson Mandela had it. David Ben-Gurion had it. Yasser Arafat does not. When the door of history opened at Camp David, Arafat wouldn't cross the threshold. When boldness was called for, Arafat was a Sahara of political courage. Now he is left without the prospect of a contiguous country and with diminished international political and financial support. He has bequeathed a shadow of violence to the next generation of Palestinians.

Not so his counterpart, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose political courage matched his military courage as Israel's most decorated soldier. Not so President Clinton, who risked his political capital in a brave and visionary effort.

Arafat came to the summit ready only to receive Barak's compromises. On Jerusalem, he rejected U.S. proposals that would give the Palestinians a mix of sovereignty and administrative authority over Muslim holy sites and Palestinian neighborhoods. Encouraged by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, he insisted on the unattainable: full sovereignty over virtually all of East Jerusalem. No Israeli government could yield on that point. The Israelis have sacrificed 20,000 lives since 1948 to build a homeland, and Jerusalem is its heart. But Arafat was trapped in an unreality of his own making, decades of fanciful claims and incendiary propaganda that have hardened the attitudes of Palestinians. It's worth remembering that they asserted sovereignty over Jerusalem only after the Israelis took it when they were attacked in 1967.

Magic Formula. Arafat could not even agree to put Jerusalem on the back burner while sealing other agreements. His style paralleled his substance. Barak made the most dramatic concessions ever with the aim of ending the century-long conflict. Arafat just listened to the proposals of Clinton and Barak without committing himself, leaving them to grope for the magic formula as if there were a bottomless pit of concessions–which perhaps he believes, since his commitment to Israel's legitimacy has always been questionable.

A grave responsibility now lies on Arafat. If he does declare independence September 13, he risks igniting violence–and no one knows where violence will stop. We do know it will convince many Israelis that they do not have a true partner for peace, which was the assumption underlying the Oslo accords.

Barak's hope in making such far-reaching concessions is that the benefit of a final end to the conflict would make the costs of the concessions acceptable to his compatriots. Indeed, his concessions led to substantial agreements on such issues as security, territories, settlements, and refugees, and if they could be made public his standing at home would be enhanced. But now, with only the costs staring Israelis in the face, Barak's position of leadership has been undermined, in a natural instinct to pull back from what many think was a "bridge too far." So Barak's continuing role as leader remains critical in how Israel will respond to future peace initiatives, if any.

Clinton and his team deserve extraordinary credit for the great advances on issues that had previously been taboo. Understandably, these advances are not binding in the absence of an overall accord, but the nature of any future dialogue has been permanently altered. Now the president must make some tough decisions. One surely is to review the U.S. relationship with Egypt, whose belligerence and hostility to Israel undermined Camp David. Egypt has been a saboteur, not a constructive partner–a continuation of its efforts over the years to prevent the normalization of relations with Israel by any Arab state. Despite its own peace treaty engineered by Anwar Sadat, Cairo seems never to have reconciled itself to Israel. Egypt seems to believe it can keep the $2 billion a year in aid from Washington, and an open relationship with the White House, while still acting as the leader of the hostile Arab front. What diplomats call a full and frank dialogue must be undertaken with Egypt.

As for the direct parties, the United States must signal its dismay with Arafat, and its support for Israel. The former means putting aid to Palestine in jeopardy, should an independent state be declared unilaterally, as well as securing Europe's support for withholding recognition of such a state. The latter will involve finally acting on the legislation to move the American Embassy to West Jerusalem. This is the only language that Arafat seems to understand.

JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2000, Mortimer Zuckerman