Death, delusion and democracy

That Yasser Arafat's death is seen as sign of optimism shows how catastrophic the conflict in the Middle East has become

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So the death of Yasser Arafat is a great new opportunity for the Palestinians, is it? The man who personified the Palestinian struggle - "Mr Palestine" - is dead. So things can only get better for the Palestinians. Death means democracy. Death means statehood. That the final demise of the corrupt old guerrilla leader should be a sign of optimism demonstrates just how catastrophic the conflict in the Middle East has now become. It's a bit like Fallujah. The more we destroy it, the crueller we are, the brighter the chances of Iraqi democracy. The more successful we are, the worse things are going to get. That's what George Bush said on Friday: that violence will increase as Iraqi elections grow closer - a total mind warp since the more violent Iraq becomes, the less the chances of any election ever being held.

So the death of Yasser Arafat is a great new opportunity for the Palestinians, is it? The man who personified the Palestinian struggle - "Mr Palestine" - is dead. So things can only get better for the Palestinians. Death means democracy. Death means statehood. That the final demise of the corrupt old guerrilla leader should be a sign of optimism demonstrates just how catastrophic the conflict in the Middle East has now become. It's a bit like Fallujah. The more we destroy it, the crueller we are, the brighter the chances of Iraqi democracy. The more successful we are, the worse things are going to get. That's what George Bush said on Friday: that violence will increase as Iraqi elections grow closer - a total mind warp since the more violent Iraq becomes, the less the chances of any election ever being held.

Note how Bush could not even bring himself to mention Arafat's name. It's the same old agenda. The Palestinians have to have a democracy. They have to prove themselves; they - not the Israelis - have to show that they are a worthy "negotiating partner". And any new leader - the colourless Ahmad Qureia or the equally colourless and undemocratic Abu Mazen - must "control his own people". That was what Arafat failed to do even though he thought his job was to represent his own people, which is what democracy is supposed to be all about.

It's worth noting how this narrative has been written. The Israelis, with their continued occupation, their continued illegal construction of colonies for Jews and Jews only on Arab land, their air strikes and helicopter executions and live-fire shooting at stone-throwing children, are not part of this equation. They are just innocently waiting to find a new "negotiating partner" now that Arafat is in his grave. Ariel Sharon, held "personally responsible" for the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre by the Kahan commission report, remains, in George Bush's words, "a man of peace". No one asks whether he can control his own army. Or whether he can control his own settlers. He wants to close down the colonies in Gaza - even though his spokesman has told us that this will put Palestinian statehood into "formaldehyde".

So let's just take a look back at those tragic years of the Oslo accord. In 1993, we are supposed to believe, the Palestinians were offered statehood and a capital in Jerusalem if they accepted the right of Israel to exist. Oslo said nothing of the kind. It did set down a complex system of Israeli withdrawals from occupied Palestinian land and a timetable that the Israelis were supposed to meet. We all knew that any failure to do so would humiliate Arafat - and make him less able to "control" his own people.

And what happened? It's important, at this supposedly "optimistic" moment, to reflect on the facts of the previous "peace process" in which Europe as well as the United States spent so much time, energy and - in the EU's case - money. Under the Oslo agreement, the occupied West Bank would be divided into three zones. Zone A would come under exclusive Palestinian control, Zone B under Israeli military occupation in participation with the Palestinian Authority, and Zone C under total Israeli occupation. In the West Bank, Zone A comprised only 1.1 per cent of the land whereas in Gaza - overpopulated, rebellious, insurrectionary - almost all the territory was to come under Arafat's control. He, after all, was to be the policeman of Gaza. Zone C in the West Bank comprised 60 per cent of the land, which allowed Israel to continue the rapid expansion of settlements on Arab land.

But a detailed investigation shows that not a single one of these withdrawal agreements was honoured by the Israelis. And in the meantime, the number of settlers illegally living on Palestinians' land rose after Oslo from 80,000 to 150,000 - even though the Israelis, as well as the Palestinians, were forbidden from taking "unilateral steps" under the terms of the agreement. The Palestinians saw this, not without reason, as proof of bad faith.

Since facts are sometimes elusive in the Middle East, let's remind ourselves of what happened after Oslo. The Oslo II (Taba) agreement, concluded by Yitzhak Rabin in September 1995 - the month before he was assassinated - promised three Israeli withdrawals: from Zone A (under Palestinian control), Zone B (under Israeli military occupation in co-operation with the Palestinians) and Zone C (exclusive Israeli occupation). These were to be completed by October 1997. Final-status agreement covering Jerusalem, refugees, water and settlements were to have been completed by October 1999, by which time the occupation was supposed to have ended. In January 1997, however, a handful of Jewish settlers were granted 20 per cent of Hebron, despite Israel's obligation under Oslo to leave all West Bank towns. By October 1998, a year late, Israel had not carried out the Taba accords.

The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, negotiated a new agreement at Wye River, dividing the second redeployment promised at Taba into two phases - but he only honoured the first of them. Netanyahu had promised to reduce the percentage of West Bank land under exclusively Israeli occupation from 72 per cent to 59 per cent, transferring 41 per cent of the West Bank to Zones A and B. But at Sharm el-Sheikh in 1999, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, reneged on the agreement Netanyahu had made at Wye River, fragmenting the latter's two phases into three, the first of which would transfer 7 per cent from Zone C to Zone B. All implementation of the agreements stopped there.

When Arafat finally went to Camp David to meet Barak, he was allegedly offered 95 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza but turned it down and went to war with the second intifada. A study of the maps, however, shows that - with the exclusion of Jerusalem and its extended boundaries, with the exclusion of existing major Jewish colonies and with the inclusion of an Israeli cordon sanitaire, Arafat was offered nearer to 64 per cent of the 22 per cent of mandate Palestine that was left to him. Then a new explosion of Palestinian suicide bombings, usually aimed at Israeli civilians, destroyed Israel's patience with Arafat. Sharon, who had provoked the second intifada by strolling on to the Temple Mount with a thousand policeman, decided that Arafat was a Bin Laden-style "terrorist" and all further contact ended.

This is not to excuse the PLO or Arafat himself. His arrogance and corruption, and his little dictatorship - initially encouraged by the Israelis and Americans who lent Arafat their CIA boys to "train" the Palestinian security services - ensured that no democracy could thrive in "Palestine". And I suspect that while he personally disapproved of suicide bombings, Arafat cynically realised that they had their uses; they proved that Sharon could not provide Israel with the security he promised at his election, at least until he built the new wall - which is stealing further Palestinian land. But that was only one side of the story - and last week Bush and Blair went back to the old game of seeing only the other side. The Palestinians - the victims of 39 years of occupation - must prove themselves worthy of peace with their occupiers. The death of their leader is therefore billed as a glorious occasion that provides hope. All this is part of the self-delusion of Bush and Blair. The reality is that the outlook in the Middle East is bleaker than ever.

Oh yes, and - since we'd be asking this question today if Sharon had gone to meet his maker in an equally mysterious way - just what did Arafat die of?

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