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Wednesday, April 4, 2001

The second intifada at a turning point


Over 350 Palestinians dead, Israeli army blockades wherever they turn, growing poverty and nothing to show for it all: Six months into the second intifada, the Palestinian facade of unity is crumbling, and leader Yasser Arafat's authority, never very impressive, is getting weaker by the day.

The most convincing demonstration of that, paradoxically enough, was the recent claim by Palestinian Communications Minister Imad Falouji that the intifada was preplanned by the Palestinian Authority as a means of bringing pressure on Israel. "It had been planned since President Arafat's return from (the abortive peace talks last July at) Camp David, when he turned the tables on the former U.S. president and rejected the American conditions," Falouji told a rally in a refugee camp in Lebanon in early March.

Various people in Israel pounced on that statement as proof that Arafat was negotiating in bad faith, but what it really shows is the widening cracks in the Palestinian camp. No real ally of Arafat's would admit that, even if it were true, since it would do terrible damage to his leader's credibility. Falouji, on the other hand, is a former member of Hamas, the fundamentalist organization that is opposed in principle to peace with Israel, and whose military wing is responsible for most of the recent terrorist attacks in Israel.

He is now distancing himself from Arafat and the failed Oslo strategy for peace. The allegation he made in Lebanon is probably part of his attempt to regain credibility with his old comrades in Hamas.

Many other Palestinians are giving up on Arafat, too -- though that doesn't mean they have a coherent alternative strategy. On the contrary, some of them are losing touch with reality entirely.

Take the senior Palestinian officials who are accusing Israel of distributing chewing gum laced with chemicals meant to arouse people sexually and thus undermine the moral fabric of Palestinian society. Or Dr. Subhi Salash, head of the Arab Council for Science, Medicine and Technology, who alleged in a recent interview that the Israeli Army "is using poisonous gas that leads to functional and physical damage in the blood cells and reproductive organs of both sexes."

Utter nonsense, of course, but things have got so bad that many Palestinians believe it. They are also beginning to believe that Arafat is not the man to lead them out of their misery. They are probably right.

Arafat's fundamental mistake was made just over a decade ago, when he threw all his support behind Saddam Hussein on the strength of the Iraqi dictator's hollow promises to destroy Israel. What Hussein actually invaded, however, was Kuwait, and the wholehearted backing that Palestinians gave to that act of aggression totally alienated the rich Arab states of the Persian Gulf who had previously paid most of the Palestinian leader's bills.

So after the Gulf War they cut him off without a penny. Without money to reward his supporters and buy off his rivals, Arafat's leadership of the Palestinian movement, and even his achievement in creating a more or less united front, was in grave danger -- so in 1993 he signed the Oslo accords and started living off American subsidies instead.

Nothing comes without a price, and the price Arafat paid was high. Instead of the return by Israel of the occupied territories, as stipulated in United Nations Resolution 242 (the basis of all attempts at peace negotiations up till then), Arafat agreed to a process whereby Israel would choose which bits of the territories it would give back.

Perhaps it was a good gamble so long as Arafat's negotiating partner was Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a man who seemed to understand the requirements of peace. But once Rabin was assassinated by a rightwing Israeli extremist who feared he would make too many concessions to the Palestinians, Arafat was trapped in negotiations with people who would never yield him enough land to give him a deal he could sign.

Most Israelis believe that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a very generous offer at Camp David last year that Arafat summarily rejected, thus proving that the Palestinians don't want peace. But while the offer impressed or even enraged Israelis by its daring, it didn't offer the Palestinians any real control over the Arab part of Jerusalem. Arafat had to reject it, or he would have faced a revolt.

The problem is that he faces a revolt anyway, because he has no alternative strategy to offer. He is far too deeply committed to an American-brokered negotiated peace with Israel to walk away from it now, however unlikely it is that the United States would ever demand, or Israel offer, the kind of concessions that would make a deal possible.

A rapidly growing number of Arafat's allies and followers are ready to walk away from it, however, and he is powerless to stop them. This would mark the definitive collapse of the strategy that has governed U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East for the past decade.

It's not surprising, therefore, that we now have the spectacle of U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon both insisting that Arafat is still in charge and could stop the intifada if he wanted to. It's all just a negotiating tactic, we are told, and can be turned off like a tap. It isn't, and Arafat controls less and less of what happens. The Middle East is drifting toward a major crisis.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist and historian whose columns appear in 45 countries.


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