Arafat is not the bringer of peace

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The Independent Online
YASSER ARAFAT has been able to visit Gaza and Jericho courtesy of, on the one hand, the government of Israel, and, on the other, Hamas, a terrorist organisation openly devoted to the destruction of the state of Israel.

Arafat is, of course, committed under the Self-Government Interim Agreement to the curbing of terrorist organisations wishing to use the ceded territories as bases for attacks on targets in Israel. In fact, he has no forces on which he can rely that would be both willing to curb the terrorist organisations and capable of doing so. Thus Arafat's Palestinian police, from the first moment of their deployment in Gaza, fraternised openly with the local gunmen, who celebrated their arrival as allies with volleys of gunfire.

Arafat's own Fatah would not support any attempt to clamp down on Hamas, nor would the local population support that. It must be assumed that Arafat, before risking his person in Gaza and Jericho, had given secret guarantees to Hamas, and the rest of the unreconstructed terrorists, that those provisions of the Self-Government Interim Agreement that might entail inconvenience to any terrorists would be allowed to remain a dead letter. Had he not supplied some such intimation, directly or through intermediaries, he would have had a very rough ride indeed. In the event, Hamas and the other terrorists were as quiet during Arafat's visit as Sherlock Holmes's dog in the night-time, and for similar reasons.

The cession of Gaza and Jericho by Israel to 'the PLO' was supposed to be an exercise in 'territory for peace'. The territories are ceded, and this is the kind of peace that Israel has got in exchange. It is hardly surprising, in the circumstances, that many Israelis are angry, and some of them violently so.

What may appear surprising is that the government of Israel accepts this state of affairs so meekly. After Arafat had returned from his somewhat-less- than-triumphal visit to Gaza and Jericho, he and Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's prime minister, were reported as affirming, in Paris yesterday, that they had 'made progress towards the next stages of Palestinian self-rule'. Not much progress, to be sure. It does not seem that the Rabin government has any intention of handing over control, or the appearance of control, of security in any further areas of the West Bank to Arafat and his friends, aka the PLO.

Mr Rabin is talking about allowing the PLO to take over responsibility for matters such as health, education, agriculture and tourism, while Israel retains control over security. Arafat, understandably, is not enthusiastic about this proposition. Still, it suits both parties to continue to give the impression that the agreement they concluded is working. Compare the determination of the British and Irish governments to uphold the fiction that the Downing Street Declaration of 15 December 1993 was a serious contribution to peace in Ireland.

Still, unlike the Downing Street Declaration, the Self-Government Interim Agreement does present some solid advantages, at least to Israel - though many, perhaps most, Israelis understandably find it hard to believe this. The most tangible advantage is that it relieves Israel of the almost intolerable burden of policing Gaza. The 'Gaza option', as it was called, had long attracted thoughtful Israelis. Jericho was thrown in as a sweetener, to induce Arafat to accept the option. It is true that Gaza, under Arafat's nominal control, will be used as a base for attacks on Israeli targets. So what? Even under Israel's nominal control, Gaza was used as a base for such attacks. The principal difference is that the most vulnerable of such targets, the Israeli troops engaged in policing Gaza, are now withdrawn.

There are also serious international advantages for Israel arising out of the Self-Government Interim Agreement, and even out of its revealed deficiencies. For more than 20 years now, Israel has been under heavy pressure to accord 'territory for peace'. European and American politicians and diplomats, academic think-tanks and media pundits, have been united in their insistence that the basic cause of trouble in the Middle East has been Israel's perverse refusal to cede territory. Specifically, Israel has been urged to hand over territory to the PLO in exchange for peace.

By yielding to this pressure, to an experimental degree, Israel has revealed that the premises on which the argument about territory for peace were based are not tenable. The PLO is not a collective entity with which anything can be negotiated. It is a loose association of discrepant factions, some of which will continue to regard themselves as still at war with Israel, whatever agreements may be signed on behalf of the PLO.

Arafat is accepted by the international community (aka the West) as speaking for the PLO, but this is an agreed fiction. Whatever he does represent - possibly no more than half of his own core organisation, Fatah - he is incapable of disciplining those who repudiate the agreement he has signed. Far from even trying to do so, he courts these elements, as when he publicly demands the release of the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

In short, Israel can hand over territory to the PLO, but the PLO cannot govern the territories handed over. Specifically, it cannot ensure that Israel gets peace in exchange for territory, because it cannot discipline those who want to continue to wage war. The illusory nature of negotiating 'territory for peace' with 'the PLO' is already conclusively demonstrated in Gaza and Jericho. Perhaps some of the pundits who have so long been urging this 'solution' will now acknowledge the error of their ways.

Not that 'territory for peace', in itself, is necessarily an illusion. It worked with Sadat's Egypt and could work with Assad's Syria. For it to work, Israel needs to have a partner that can deliver peace when it gets the territory. The PLO is not such a partner. Nor is Yasser Arafat, and whatever part of the PLO he still represents. The international community seems belatedly to be realising this. Nobody is rushing to release the promised funding for Arafat's Gaza.

As I said, there are advantages for Israel in all this. The debit side is that the failed peace process with Arafat is likely to delay what Israel most needs and can obtain: peace with Syria.

(Photograph omitted)