Why Arafat Couldn't Deliver on Peace—and Still Can't


National Journal, October 21, 2000

The bishop of Ipswich was renowned for replying to all bad tidings by saying, "Well…it could have been worse." One day a deacon ran in with eyes bulging and face aghast. "Awful! Awful!" he shouted. "One of the parishioners came home last night and found his wife in bed with another man. The husband locked them both in the house and burned it to the ground."

The bishop replied placidly, "Well…it could have been worse." "Good grief," said the deacon. "How could it possibly have been any worse?"

"Well," mused the bishop, "if he had come home the night before last, he would have found _me_ in bed with his wife."

In October, the news from the Middle East has been about as bad as news comes. In the spirit of the bishop of Ipswich, however, I dedicate this column to the proposition that the news could have been worse. The conflagration could have come after a peace agreement, instead of before.

At a reception in late July, I ran into Daniel Pipes, the director of an independent, Philadelphia-based think tank called the Middle East Forum. Like almost everybody else, I was scratching my head over the turn of events that had just taken place at the Camp David peace summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Barak had made an astonishing offer. Israel would agree to cede more than 90 percent of the West Bank for a Palestinian state; it would accept Palestinian refugees into Israel proper; and Palestinians would be given sovereignty over the Christian and Muslim quarters of Jerusalem's hallowed Old City and would be granted continued control (though not sovereignty) over the sacred Temple Mount (known to Arabs as Haram al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary). In response, Arafat simply walked away.

I asked Pipes what he made of the Camp David failure. He expressed relief. Relief? But surely, I said, without a deal it's just a matter of time before a bloodletting begins. True, he replied, but even _with_ a deal it's just a matter of time before a bloodletting begins. "The Israelis are saying, 'Take this and leave me alone,' " Pipes recently told me in a follow-up interview by telephone. "The effect is not going to lead to the solution they want. It leads to the opposite. The Israelis want resolution; the Arabs want victory."

In July, I was unpersuaded. Now I think I see what he meant. You don't have to believe that Arafat was negotiating in bad faith in order to believe that a Camp David success might have turned out worse than the Camp David failure. You need only to consider what the events of the past few weeks have shown about Arab public opinion.

The idea behind the Oslo peace process (the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations established under the Oslo Accord of 1993) was to use diplomatic momentum to create peace on the ground. When it didn't work, the Clinton Administration decided to roll the dice on a summit and a big final deal. The rub was that both countries' leaders would have to sell a final deal to their publics. That was hard enough for the Israelis, but for Arafat it was a nightmare. Arafat clings uneasily to power. Extremists command wide support in the streets. Half the Palestinians are under the age of 14, and many have been taught to blame Israel for almost everything. In the eyes of many, any deal that Israel would accept is perforce unfair and inadequate.

What to do? Some hope rested with moderate Arab states. If Egypt, Jordan, and other key countries blessed a deal, Palestinian opinion might bow to the inevitable and sign on the dotted line. Thus would Israeli moderates join forces with Arab moderates to overpower the extremists on both sides. That, at least, was the Oslo gamble.

In theory, the plan might have worked. But October brought bad news for moderates. Not only did violence break out and escalate, but it enjoyed far broader popular support among Arabs than did the peace process.

"Yes to the uprising, no to the summit!" read a banner that Palestinians of Arafat's own Fatah faction raised during a funeral procession in Ramallah. That about summed it up. Everywhere you looked, demonstrators were calling for an intensification of the fighting. If Arafat refused to call for restraint, that was partly because he sensed he would be ignored. Palestinian popular opinion, or at least a large and possibly dominant part of it, believes that violence can produce a better deal than negotiations.

Some elite Palestinians agree. Writing in last weekend's Washington Post, Muhanned Tull, an official with Arafat's Ministry of Labor, said: "Israel's actions have taught us that it does not respond to anything but violence. So it appears we have to wait a few more days, months, or years; we have to wait until other nations join the process, or until Israel realizes that in order to achieve peace and security it needs a solution even more than we do." Rough translation: Violence or the threat of violence is the Palestinians' only weapon, and continuing to wield it will get them a better deal by wearing down the Israelis and winning international sympathy.

This calculation is not attractive, but it may well be correct. The Israelis are palpably exhausted by years of conflict. They desperately want to be a normal nation, at peace. They want not to be killed and hated, which is what Jews have wanted for a couple of millennia. They want not to shoot 12-year-old boys. By the time of Camp David, they had reached the point where they would consider almost anything. They were even willing to consider giving the United Nations control over the most sacred site in Judaism. Imagine the Saudis turning Mecca over to an international body not known for its sympathy to Muslims, and you begin to understand the nature of the sacrifice that Barak was suggesting.

Given the visible erosion of Israel's strength, the best, and perhaps only, hope for persuading Palestinians in the streets to embrace a deal with Barak was for the moderate Arab states to lean on them, hard. But that was out of the question as soon as the first bullets were fired, and as soon as the anti-Israel crowds poured into the streets of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, Iraq, and other Arab countries.

In short, diplomatic momentum was able to create a constituency among Arab diplomats for Camp David, but not among the public. Arafat was an interlocutor who could not deliver, and the moderate Arab leaders could not deliver on making him deliver.

The result is tragic, but possibly it is less tragic than what might have happened. At Camp David, Arafat knew he was on thin ice. He protested before the meeting that he wasn't ready, and he protested during the meeting that compromising on Jerusalem might cost him not only his hold on power, but his life. Suppose, however, that he had been braver. Suppose he had made a bargain that he could not keep.

Then the less bad scenario would have been the outbreak of riots and conflagrations before the deal could have been implemented. Palestinian moderates might have been swept away. Egypt, Jordan, and the others might have turned tail and run for the hills, denouncing the agreement they had promised to support. Back to square one.

The much bleaker scenario would have been if implementation preceded violence. Then Israel would have given up Jerusalem and the West Bank for nothing more than a temporary respite—which is to say, for nothing. Israel would be out of cards to play.

For Israel, any grand bargain must end the conflict. But Palestinian hard-liners—extremists and realists—are reluctant to give up on violence until its usefulness is exhausted. That was what Pipes meant when he said that one side wants resolution, while the other side wants victory.

The current crisis led many American observers to call on the Clinton Administration to rally to Israel's side, rather than to continue to play the "honest broker." Israel, after all, is the only democracy in the region; it is the only reliable U.S. ally in the region; it is the tiny and encircled homeland of the most sorely abused and embattled people in the history of the world. All of those are good reasons for America to get off the fence, but they still would not be reason enough if honest brokering offered realistic hope of a tenable peace deal that would stick.

But both history and game theory suggest that in a contest where one side has every incentive to settle and the other has every incentive to fight, settlements rarely stop the fighting. In Bosnia, the fighting continued until NATO's bombs helped persuade the Serbs that they could not win by force. In the Middle East, the fighting may continue, sporadically but interminably, until enough Palestinians and other Arabs believe that settlement will get them a better deal than violence. One way to help convince them might be for America to get off the fence and back Israel.