Much has been written in the few days about how the Israeli Cabinet decided to remove Arafat from the Palestinian political arena, but most of it has been nothing more than ideologically driven punditry–for better or for worse.
Just to give a brief scan of what has been written for and against, Ehud Olmert’s case basically rests on the proposition that Oslo was a bad idea to begin with, while the Palestine Media Center writes that “decision to ‘remove’ President Yasser Arafat as an unprecedented, racist and immoral measure that Nazism did not dare to take.” While I am not insinuating that Olmert’s words are nearly as illogical as those chosen by the PMC, it should be noted that neither articles give the logical reasons for the move by the cabinet, and are no more than hot air.
So where is the substance? Most readers of this weblog are probably well aware of Arafat’s long history of terrorism, and his brief stint as a national leader. What most people don’t know, however, was that Arafat was picked by Yitzhak Rabin to be a negotiating partner, and that at that time before Oslo, Arafat was holed up in Tunis, less popular than ever.
Many of us who are saturated in the history of the Middle East forget that Arafat’s acceptance by the Palestinian people is short-lived by historical perspective, even if he has today become the symbol of Palestinian nationalism. Does that lessen from his importance? No, but it does hint at the possibility that he will be less missed than some would think.
I, personally, am hard-pressed to decide what I would do if I was in the Israeli cabinet’s shoes. But, luckily, I’m not, so I will only submit this thought for now: Arafat’s exit would be a positive development, but Israel’s action against him would not. So, what could be done?
Robert Satloff sketches out and idea in an interesting article, which calls the US to do the ousting. Resting his proposal for Arafat’s removal on a long history of American regime changes, from the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos to Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Satloff finds precedent in removing the Reis. His practical advice focuses on building an international coalition to call Arafat down and to send “a bipartisan team of senior U.S. leaders to see Arafat…[and] deliver the following message, firmly and without equivocation: For the United States to support the Palestinian people’s desire for statehood, Arafat must resign all positions in the Palestinian political hierarchy and accept permanent retirement, outside the West Bank and Gaza or any contiguous state. If Arafat so acts, then the U.S. should lift all restrictions on direct aid to the Palestinian Authority.”
And yet, while I think US action would be the best possible solution to the Arafatian quagmire trapping the Middle East, I fear that the Bush Administration does not have the political capital for such a move. So, was the decision to expel Arafat rash? No. It could just be more than meets the eye.
As Herb Keinon writes in an excellent analysis:
First of all, it is necessary to point out that the decision contrary to what is being carried in press reports around the world did not call for Israel to exile or kill Arafat.
The official translation of the purposely vague and carefully written statement read as follows: “Events of recent days have reiterated and proven again that Yasser Arafat is a complete obstacle to any process of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel will work to remove this obstacle in a manner, and at a time, of its choosing.”
“Removing this obstacle” can mean one of many things.
True, it can mean exiling or killing Arafat, but it can also mean arrest and trial. It can mean restricting Arafat’s ability to receive visitors, it can mean cutting off his ability to communicate with the outside world, it can mean pressuring the Palestinians to strip him of any real authority.
What Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has done by declaring that Israel has decided to remove Arafat is throwing a new bargaining chip into the pot.
Sharon is telling the world, and the Palestinians, if you want to keep us from exiling Arafat, if he is that dear and important to you, remove him from his role as the spoiler. If you want us to leave him in peace, take away all of his powers.
By hanging a sword of some kind over Arafat’s head, Sharon is telling the world and the Palestinians: If you want to save Arafat, pay for it. The prime minister’s gamble is that the threat of removing Arafat will mobilize the international community to press the Palestinian Authority to clip Arafat’s wings for his own good.