All Writings
September 14, 2003

Should Arafat Be Expelled?

The decision-in-principle by the Israeli security cabinet to expel Arafat, though fraught with tremendous risks, holds the promise for a dramatic change for the better in the peace process. But there is only one way Israel can possibly justify this action to the Palestinians and the global community. The Sharon government must be prepared to make the hard concessions that give the Palestinians a realistic hope that the occupation can soon end and so enable them to live in freedom and dignity side-by-side with Israel. Under such conditions, if–as Israel contends–Arafat is an obstacle to peace, his removal must produce it.

There are those who argue that Arafat is a legitimate elected leader of his people and, therefore, only they can determine his political fate. But, although this is a basic democratic principle, it does not offer irrevocable political immunity regardless of terrible misdeeds or crimes an elected official has committed. Surely, in Arafat's case, it can be argued that he is not accused of committing crimes against his people and has the right to resist the occupation by whatever means, including violence. From the Israeli perspective, however, he is a terrorist disguised in politicians' clothing. It is not simply his long history of terrorism against the Israelis. Rather, it is that he has not renounced this history. Since September 2000, he has joined forces with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are committed to Israel's destruction. Because of this, as the Israelis see it, Arafat has refused to rein in the two organizations, a requirement of the American-led peace plan, whose principles he has verbally accepted. And it is his unwillingness to transfer authority over the security forces to his prime ministers in order for them to deal effectively with terrorism that, according to this perspective, opens the door to more suicide bombings. These, the Israelis are now determined to end in one form or another. Such arguments explain why, in seeking his expulsion, the Israeli government has invoked article 51 of the U. N. Charter, giving member countries the right to defend themselves individually or collectively against armed attack.

The resignation of Mahmoud Abbas as prime minister in early September provided further impetus to Israel's decision-in-principle to expel Arafat. Although Mr. Abbas accused Israel of undermining his efforts, he did not exempt Arafat from responsibility. Arafat's refusal to give Mr. Abbas authority over the security forces was in effect a recipe for failure. Although Mr. Abbas himself did not want to use force against Hamas and Jihad, he did not have the security forces behind him to be able to exert pressure on them through any credible threat of the use of force.

Arafat exemplifies the Palestinian national movement. Almost single-handedly he thrust the Palestinian national cause onto the world's stage. He represents the heart and soul of the Palestinian people, their national identity, and their destiny. Yet he may have betrayed the cause for which he and the multitude of Palestinians stood –and so many died–since becoming PLO Chairman in 1965. Arafat, who led the Palestinian revolution first to the gates of Oslo, and then in summer 2000, to Camp David, misread history. Blind to reality, he never accepted Israel's right to exist. At Camp David, he rejected the peace plan offered by former President Clinton and Israel's Prime Minister Barak granting the Palestinians 95 percent of what they demand today. Next, instead of continuing the negotiation to achieve the historic accord that was within reach, Arafat chose violence. He aligned himself with the devil–in the form of Hamas and Jihad. He did not reach these decisions because he wanted to exact more concessions from Israel. The truth is that he did not want to reach any final agreement with Israel that made its existence a permanent reality and also left the Palestinians without any recourse for future claims. This explains why he also insisted on the right of return, knowing such a demand would be utterly unacceptable to Israel. In acting as he did at Camp David, Arafat held the Palestinian cause hostage to a personal scheme that has led to the present tragic dead end.

Arafat did not become the enemy of peace because he rejected the Camp David peace plan. He had every right to seek an improved deal–by continuing the negotiations. In choosing the path of violence, though, he betrayed his own people. The second Intifadah has brought nothing but chaos, destruction, depravation, and endless agony for his people. During the past three years the Palestinians have lost everything they built since 1993–their infrastructure, institutions, businesses, and virtual control over all the towns and cities under their jurisdiction. All they can hope for now is for a return to the conditions offered at Camp David. Instead of leading his people to accept the inevitability of coexistence, Arafat offered illusions and pipe dreams that have deepened the cycle of despair, destitution, and death.

It is all but certain that his expulsion will escalate the violence against Israel, while inciting it among various Palestinian factions and individuals fighting to fill the power vacuum. The international community will condemn the action, and Israel will be on the defensive, chastised by the U.N. and other international institutions. This initial burst of anger and violence will eventually subside, although Israel must brace itself for mounting, and potentially heavy, casualties on both sides.

The expulsion can not be an isolated action, something divorced from the political context in which it occurs. For it to be at all viable, Arafat's removal, based on his being an obstacle to peace, must produce immediate benefits for the average Palestinian. The Palestinian people have suffered more than their share. Israel must demonstrate its willingness to take real risks for peace such as dismantling all new outposts erected the past three years and freezing the expansion of existing settlements. These actions by themselves will send a clear signal about the peaceful intentions of the government. Obviously, easing the movement of people and goods and withdrawal from Palestinian cities must follow once overall security conditions for both sides are in place. Israel must also declare its willingness to negotiate without delay a comprehensive peace. Only if the government follows this path will it be in a position to quickly defuse international criticism. Even more importantly, it will prove to the Palestinian people that removing Arafat was not an excuse for stalling the peace process, but a way for both sides to move towards peace. Under these conditions the Bush administration might offer its tacit support which Israel needs before taking such a step that may have serious regional implications. At the same time, Hamas and Jihad must be put on notice to cease and desist from any violent activity or face destruction.

The situation today between Israel and the Palestinians is probably the worst that I have seen since I started to follow and write about the conflict more 30 years ago. I know that something dramatic must happen to stop this vicious and dehumanizing cycle of violence. If the expulsion of Arafat can bring about a sea change, I say, so be it. Still, there are immense obstacles to its achieving the desired outcome. Most critically, Sharon's right-wing coalition government is not likely to offer the sweeping concessions necessary to change the dynamic of the conflict following the expulsion. If it is carried out without these concessions, the whole situation will become even more grim and terrifying than it is today.