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Issue Date:  November 19, 2004

Arafat -- a symbol of conflict

If he was, as many on each side of the divide will say, a “powerful symbol,” Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was a symbol first and foremost of polarity, a condition that seemed to apply to every aspect of his public existence.

While he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his work toward peace with Israel, it was he, hardly a symbol of peace, who ordered the killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

At the same time that he embodied and symbolized Palestinian hopes for statehood, for redress of historic grievances and for a place of respect in the world, critics contend that the Palestinian struggle with Israel became the only reason for his existence, that without it he would cease to exist, that he could not, in fact, live with the prospect of peace.

The death of Arafat Nov. 11 brings clarity to two disturbing realities: the so far irreconcilable differences between Israel and the Palestinians and the near impossibility of even dreaming about peace in the Middle East.

Even before his death, as exemplified in this issue of NCR (see story) and other publications anticipating the inevitable, the extreme polarities were the characterization of the day: “among the most detested villains of Jewish history,” “an icon of the Palestinian cause,” “Nobel Peace Prize winner,” “terrorist,” “statesman,” “satan.”

Israel considered Arafat the prime obstacle to peace and he, as much as any single element, became the justification for invasion and occupation of Palestinian territories, for military operations that killed civilians, destroyed homes and kept Arafat a virtual prisoner in a compound in Ramallah for the past three years.

However, now that Arafat is dead, few see any automatic new openings to peace. Arafat might have symbolized and widened the divide, but it was not he who created it.

* * *

In Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948, Meron Benvenisti, a former mayor of Jerusalem, confronts what he calls “a subject that has haunted me for so long ... the most contentious issues in the most controversy-ridden conflict of the second half of this century.” What Benvenisti recounts is the deliberate destruction, the wiping from memory, of the Arab landscape of the pre-1948 Arab-Israeli war, the war with those he terms his “brothers-enemies.”

His is simultaneously an affirmation of Jews’ right to a homeland in Israel and an acknowledgement of the injustice dealt Palestinians who were swept from that land and marginalized. Arabs, he writes, could never have “accepted Zionism as a just cause, and therefore the 1948 war was inevitable. The sword had decided, and both sides must share the responsibility for the outcome. I couldn’t interfere in their attempts to draw lessons from what came to pass and expect them to assume even partial responsibility for their catastrophe. But what were my lessons? Do we not have a special responsibility, if only because we turned out to be the victors? What have we done to the vanquished enemy? Have we transformed a struggle for survival into an ethnic cleansing operation, sending people to exile because we wanted to plunder their land?”

Such questions are not rare in Israel today -- and among significant sectors of Jewish society -- even if they are not part of the ordinary exchanges of the politics of occupation and terrorist reprisals. Benvenisti posed bold questions, but it is not unreasonable to argue with some of his assumptions, primary among them that the sword decided. Is it unreasonable to say that nothing was decided, that in fact all the sword did was divide? If Israel is a victor, then why does it continue occupying Palestinian territory? Why does it need, in the early 21st century, a wall, a hideous divider from earlier ages?

Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy and chief peace negotiator for both the first Bush and the Clinton administrations, wrote in The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, “Arafat’s greatest travesty as a leader is that he did nothing to delegitimize those who used violence against the Israelis. Never throughout the Oslo [peace] process did he declare that those carrying out terror and violence against Israelis were wrong, were illegitimate, were enemies of the Palestinian cause.”

Ross allows that Israel “should not have made Palestinians feel powerless.” At the same time, he places the onus for acting nonviolently upon the Palestinians, saying that “nonviolent protest by Palestinians would have galvanized the Israeli public and made them a powerful partner for the Palestinian cause.” Inherent, then, is that the Palestinian cause (a definition of which would take more time and scrutiny than possible here) is just. Also inherent is the expectation, as Ross spells out, that the Israeli people would become willing partners in a peace process if only the Palestinians were led by someone who recognized that the right way to seek change is nonviolently.

* * *

The most pessimistic view of the immediate future is that intransigence on both sides means considerably more bloodshed is inevitable. Others gather some seeds of hope in the recent determination shown by Israel to remove settlers from Gaza. They believe that such resolve combined with the long-sought change -- even among many Palestinians -- that occurs now with Arafat’s death can open new avenues toward peace.

Haaretz, a leading Israeli daily, sees a new situation “fraught with opportunities that are important to exploit.” While agreeing with the rationale of removing settlers “as soon as possible,” it cautions against Israel moving unilaterally now that there is the possibility of new Palestinian Authority leadership, including people with whom Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has negotiated in the past.

Moving the settlers following agreement with new leadership of the Palestinian Authority “would ensure a smooth transfer of responsibility for the vacated territory, make it easier to prevent attacks during the complex evacuation and provide an opening for continuing diplomatic negotiations aimed at an agreement that would enjoy broad international support in accordance with the road map,” said Haaretz in an editorial.

If Israel expects the Palestinians to move quickly on the matter of eliminating terror, said the paper, Israel in turn “must give the PA’s new leaders an opportunity to take control of the territory and to present their countrymen with a ‘diplomatic horizon’ and visible improvements in their living conditions.”

While the way ahead may be ripe with opportunities, they are delicately balanced and susceptible to the slightest hint of violence. If the Palestinians must move quickly to gain control of violent elements, Israel has an even greater obligation, because of the enormous military force it can bring to bear and the full support of the United States that stands behind it, to show the greatest restraint and to give clear indications that it is willing to end its occupation. Granted, the United States, not terribly evident in any diplomatic sense during Bush’s first term, is hardly a model for restraint in the Middle East.

The alternative, however, seems to be another layer to the landscape -- one of perpetual conflict.

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 2004

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