TCS Daily

Triumph of Pessimism Over Experience?

By Shawn Macomber - December 7, 2004 12:00 AM

On September 11, 2003 the Jerusalem Post issued a bold editorial entitled, "Kill Arafat," declaring that the world had left Israel "no alternative" but to assassinate the head of the Palestinian Authority.

"No one seriously argues with the fact that Arafat was preventing Mahmoud Abbas, the prime minister he appointed, from combating terrorism, to the extent that was willing to do so," the editors posited. "Almost no one seriously disputes that Abbas on whom Israel, the US, and Europe had placed all their bets failed primarily because Arafat retained control of much of the security apparatus, and that Arafat wanted him to fail."

Further, the editors wrote, Europe's "refusal to utterly reject" Arafat "condemns Palestinians, no less than Israelis, to endless war and dooms the possibility of the two-state solution the world claims to seek."

A little over a year later, on November 11, 2004, the Post's editorial board had its wish granted without all the messy political ramifications of an assassination when Arafat expired in a French hospital. Considering the ferocity of the sentiment against Arafat, one might expect a cautious joy to descend. It has not.

"Recent predictions that the death of Yasser Arafat will usher in a new era of Palestinian peacemaking are, I regret to say, a joke," Zev Chafets wrote in a New York Daily News column. Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, warned that "cynical Palestinians" were "exploiting President Bush's laudable commitment to democracy" in order to achieve "the same objectives that Arafat long sought." Scholar Daniel Pipes declared, "There will be no successor to Mr. Arafat -- he made sure of that through his endless manipulations, tricks and schemes." On the left, Mitchell Plitnick, of Jewish Voices for Peace, won the most overblown eulogy award for his statement that, "The world lost the one Palestinian leader who could potentially make peace."

No one ever expected to wake up on the day Arafat died and find the West Bank suddenly transformed into a sunshine land of milk and honey, but this kind of fire and brimstone pooh-poohing of the post-Arafat era before it has even begun is counterproductive. After all, if Arafat's death had no chance of ameliorating the situation; if there truly was no more virtuous or honest broker in all of the Palestinian territories; then why was he the focus of such frustration? Why did the Post's editors so badly want him dead? The logical endpoint of this "nothing's changed" school of thought is quite illogical: If there is no chance of anything getting any better than all complaints about Arafat were superfluous. And clearly they were not.

Here's the good news: Despite the grim outlook of many well-intentioned friends of Israel, Arafat's death has indeed made a difference and there is cause for cautious optimism. Consider what has happened in the three short weeks since Arafat's death: The roving Gaza "death squads" Arafat had a personal affinity for have been broken up. Making the announcement, Palestinian Brigadier General Rashid Abu Shba told the Associated Press with astonishing candor, "We are facing a new phase, and we must say farewell to chaos and all who cause it. We must clear the air of the past mistakes of the previous era." Hamas is boycotting the upcoming election, but also promising to abide by it and not disrupt it with terror attacks, within Israel or elsewhere.

Beyond that, front-running Palestinian presidential candidate and interim PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas -- the man the Jerusalem Post claimed was restrained from "combating terrorism" by Arafat, now dead -- has acceded to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's long-standing demand that PA end "the poisonous incitement on television and in the education system" of anti-Semitism. Palestinian officials have said in a matter of days programs glorifying "revolution" and martyrdom will be a thing of the past.

In Abbas, despite a checkered past, the Israeli and U.S. governments see a man they can deal with. Sharon has already pledged to hold a summit with Abbas should he win the January election. He may not have the guns, but he has international support. This is not about a single man, however. One of Abbas' major opponents in that election is Mustafa Barghouthi, a U.S. educated physician who openly seeks a democratic future for the Palestinian territories.

"We need reform," Barghouthi told Reuters. "We need democracy. Enough is enough. We have been dragged into so many tunnels without hope."

Can anyone fathom such a statement being made just one month ago during the reign of Yasser Arafat? Still, not everything is perfect. Polls show deep popular support in the Palestinian territories for terrorist attacks against Israel, even if a peace deal is made. But, to some degree, that sentiment is a product of the current poisoned environment. Many years will likely pass before the nihilism that breeds terrorism completely abates. But that is no reason not to begin the process. It is not unreasonable to believe that, as fairness and democracy slowly take root and statehood goes from being an abstraction to a tantalizingly close reality, average Palestinians will become increasingly reluctant to destroy it all in pursuit of hatred.

Other pundits point to Abbas' calls for the "Right of Return" for refugees and 1967 borders as proof peace is DOA after Arafat. But, as more than one Israeli official has pointed out, the time for moderation is after the election. The Israeli government itself is "suspending judgment" on Abbas during the campaign. No Palestinian leader will ever be perfect in the eyes of Israel and their supporters, just as no Israeli leader will be perfect to the Palestinians. They have national goals that are diametrically opposed. But a working relation ship is a start.

For many these positive developments seem to be dismissed as part of an overt opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state that may be borne of loyalty to Israel and well-intentioned, but is no longer realistic. The United States, Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and the Israeli government, through the so-called "road map," have all accepted the creation of a Palestinian state as an eventuality. No one can put that genie back in the bottle. If Israel wanted to permanently own real estate in the West Bank or Gaza, they should have annexed it after the 1967 war. It is politically unrealistic now to believe prolonging the inevitable is a solution. Times have changed. Arafat is dead and Ariel Sharon is preparing plans for disengagement. There is no mystery to where this is heading, only to how much blood will be shed getting there.

Arafat profited too much from the suffering of the Palestinian people to ever let it end. Let us not be guilty of the same sin.

Shawn Macomber is a Staff Writer at The American Spectator and runs the website


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