And they called it peace

Arafat has been emasculated, and has sacrificed any chance of bargaining over the Palestinian charter

THERE WAS a dreadful, telling moment during the latest Middle East theatricals, when President Clinton shared a Sunday press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. The American President had urged the Palestinians to abandon those clauses in the Palestinian charter which call for the destruction of Israel. Already, Yasser Arafat had arranged the very show of hands which the Israelis and Americans had demanded. Then suddenly - without any prior warning - Mr Netanyahu produced a new "condition" which the Palestinians would have to meet if Israeli troops were to make a further scheduled withdrawal from occupied Arab land on Friday: Mr Arafat would have to publicly abandon any plan to declare a Palestinian state next May.

Mr Clinton was silent. His face mirrored not perplexity but hopelessness. He had just promised Israel that he would ask Congress to give it a further $1.2bn to help Israel's "security" during the final stages of the "peace process". But he said nothing. If he realised amid his own personal crisis that the Israelis were torpedoing any hope of peace in the Middle East, he did not reveal it. The Israelis had simply produced one more "condition" which was supposedly included in the Wye agreement - itself a restatement of all the unfulfilled promises of the 1993 Oslo agreement - and the Americans went along with it. Then the Israelis said that Arafat must also halt all violent demonstrations. This too, we were told, was part of the Wye agreement.

It was nothing of the sort. There are no sentences, clauses or paragraphs in the Wye treaty which forbid Arafat from declaring a Palestinian state, any more than there are prohibitions on demonstrations, however violent. But Wye was so dishonest a document - so humiliatingly accepted by Arafat and his cronies - that it scarcely matters.

"You did a good thing today in raising your hands..." Clinton told the obedient members of the Palestine National Council who were merely reiterating what they had already said four years ago. No one asks anymore whether the conditions set by the Israelis are actually written into the Oslo or Wye agreements. "Palestinian compliance," as Mr Netanyahu's spokesman David Bar-Ilan puts it - note that word "compliance" - has become part of the rubric of this forlorn "peace process".

Now Mr Netanyahu's domestic political crisis is produced as a reason for Israel's refusal to abide by the peace accords - as if it is quite normal for a nation-state to break solemn signed agreements with a third party when its prime minister has personal problems with his ministers. Israel has long complained - and rightly - that peace treaties with Arab states might prove worthless if regimes changed and then chose to disavow the undertakings of their predecessors. But when Israel does just this, it is seen as a natural, if regrettable, course of events.

In reality, Arafat has now been emasculated. To keep America's friendship and secure Israel's next microscopic retreat, he has sacrificed any chance of bargaining over the Palestinian charter. He cannot allow Palestinians to demonstrate against the doomed "peace" process unless their protest turns violent. He cannot demand a Palestinian state. He cannot demand even a part of Jerusalem as his capital - Mr Netanyahu having stated (without a murmur of dissent from Mr Clinton) that Jerusalem is the "unified and eternal capital of Israel". Arafat must arrest his own opponents with the assistance of the CIA.

So what of the Palestinian leader who has so shamefully accepted this totally lop-sided agreement, who has smothered any aspiration to freedom and democracy in his putative "state", whose cruel secret policemen now murder suspects on whim or - how symptomatic of their carelessness- by mistake. Egged on by the CIA experts who now measure his battle against "terrorism", the chairman of the Palestinian Authority has now turned his would-be state into a typical Middle East dictatorship.

He ignores his 88-member Palestinian Legislative Council. He pays no attention to the laws they have passed. He bans books (Edward Said, the distinguished Palestinian professor at Columbia University, is merely one of his latest victims). A poll taken by the Centre for Palestine Research and Studies suggests that Palestinians believe democracy and human rights are better respected in Israel that in "Palestine". I still remember how Arafat boasted to me in Beirut in the dark days of the early 1980s that his nation was "a democracy among the guns". But what he has created in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - those pathetic slivers that he would call a "state" - is a grotesque version of the gunman's fiefdom which he ruled in Lebanon 20 years ago.

True, he is a deteriorating man. His brain tumour - following his air crash in Libya - has left him with a palpable shake in the right hand that looks suspiciously like the onset of Parkinson's disease. He may not be so quick to shuffle off the mortal coil as other Arab leaders - the cancer-riven King Hussein of Jordan, they say, may be with us for only another two or three months - but Arafat let slip a remark last week that in two years' time, someone else may be Palestinian leader. Chosen, the cynics said at once, by the Israelis.

Yet what do Arafat's opponents elsewhere in the Arab world have to offer? All the anti-peaceniks of Palestine met in Damascus last weekend to condemn the vote of the Palestine National Council. But when delegates called for the setting up of a rival PLO, Nayef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine - the sanest of the anti-Arafat league - opposed the motion and called for further political action in the occupied territories. He was howled down by infuriated Palestinian radicals shouting for "unity".

So what are we left with after the latest deplorable charade in the Middle East? A powerless Clinton, to be sure, too frightened, too lacking in concentration to dare criticise Netanyahu or do more than say that Palestinians should "determine their own destiny on their own land". Even if Netanyahu were to allow such a development - which he won't - Arafat would never permit it. True, Clinton was the first American president to visit Palestinian- controlled land. But he originally intended to land Air Force One in Gaza. The moment the Israelis suggested this might imply statehood, the leader of the world's only superpower meekly agreed to fly in from Tel Aviv by helicopter. In a real battle of wits between equal partners, Arafat might have made a few Netanyahu-like conditions to the Israelis: no continuation of the "peace process" unless Israel renounced its exclusive claim to Jerusalem as a capital (which precludes next May's final status talks as surely does a Palestinian declaration of a state); no more Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land in contravention of UN resolutions and international law; no more negotiations until Netanyahu ends Jewish settler attacks on Palestinians. But of course, Arafat would not do that - and America would not talk to him if he did.

So what was the surprise when Clinton, Arafat and Netanyahu ended their summit yesterday without any signs of the success proclaimed by the US government? Oslo and Wye destroyed any Palestinian hope for a just peace. Israel was allowed to build more Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, confiscate Palestinian identity papers, demolish Palestinian homes. And Arafat - for perhaps 14 per cent of the land of "Palestine" - had to promise to protect the Israelis who were building the settlements, confiscating the paper and demolishing the homes.

And they called it peace.

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