Neither rejoice, nor lament

arafat and rabin 224.88 (photo credit: GPO [File])
arafat and rabin 224.88
(photo credit: GPO [File])
Israelis' reaction to Yasser Arafat's demise has been singularly subdued, if not indifferent. This response - or rather, the absence of one - is curious. For nearly 40 years Arafat has been a major focal point for Israelis, alternately as the embodiment of our worst fears and the object of our fervent hopes. It was Arafat whose terrorist strikes against Israel in the mid-1960s helped trigger the Six Day War; Arafat who turned first Jordan and then Lebanon into bases for launching murderous strikes into Israel; Arafat who masterminded the Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972 and then, two years later, appeared before the United Nations General Assembly with a pistol on his hip. Yet it was also Arafat who, starting in the late 1980s, recognized UN Resolution 242 and who in 1993 shook the hand of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House ceremony many Israelis believed would herald an end to our century-long conflict with the Palestinians. At the height of what was known as the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, Arafat's image in Israel underwent a profound transformation. The arch-terrorist with the sinister five o'clock shadow was now depicted in much of the Israeli media as a shrewd and avuncular statesman, admired as much for his bonhomie as for his uncanny ability to outwit successive Israeli prime ministers. Following her husband's assassination in 1995, Leah Rabin made a point of inviting 'Uncle Yasser,' as she called him, to her home while refusing to receive opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Arafat's seeming rehabilitation served to divert Israel's attention from his increasingly calamitous policies in the territories. It wasn't until the summer of 2000 that most Israelis were forced to admit that Arafat was not the peacemaker they thought, and that their original impression of him had been correct. THAT IS WHY Arafat's death has stirred up so few emotions in Israel. The hopes for peace he once kindled died long before him. At most, there has been a muted sadness here, reminiscent of the Israeli reaction to the passing of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970. Then, as now, rather than celebrate the demise of a man who repeatedly threatened Israel's existence, we Israelis regretted the loss of the only Arab leader who seemed strong enough to end the conflict. Arafat, like Nasser, had the political power and moral authority to conclude an agreement with Israel. But unlike Nasser, he had once posed as a serious partner for peace. Ironically, the only Israelis who regret Arafat's passing are those from the radical Right who believe that Arafat was Israel's greatest asset -the man whose intransigence relieved the Jewish state of the necessity of making any painful sacrifices. Yet the far Right need not worry. It seems highly unlikely that any Palestinian figure will be capable in the foreseeable future of marshaling the legitimacy needed to make peace with Israel, or the military power to impose that peace on the Palestinian terrorist groups that will certainly oppose it. No Palestinian leader today is capable of reversing the warlike brainwashing of children and of reeducating them for coexistence. Fatah leaders such as Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei may be perfectly acceptable to both Israel and the United States; but it is far from certain that they will ever be acceptable to the Palestinians. There is much talk now among European leaders and in the Western media about the so-called window of opportunity opened by Arafat's death. Certainly, Arafat's exit might open doors to new and more moderate leaders. But it might also usher in an era of even more radical Islamic extremists. At this stage it would be premature, if not counterproductive, for the United States and the other members of the Quartet - the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, which are seeking to restart peace talks - to designate some Palestinian as Arafat's successor and railroad him into signing a treaty he might be either powerless or unwilling to fulfill. Furthermore, any Israeli attempt to embrace one of the Palestinian contenders will immediately delegitimize him in Palestinian eyes. While steps could be taken to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian civilians and increase pressure on the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terrorism, the international community would be wise to follow Israel's example and simply wait and see. It, like Israelis, should neither rejoice nor lament at Arafat's passing, but only reflect sadly on the peace that he should have achieved, and look hopefully to the peace that, with his passing, may yet be possible. Originally published November 21, 2004