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Arafat's Legacy

Clifford D. May, The Washington Times
Aug. 17, 2001

It takes time for newspapers to turn yellow and for memories to fade. But some Americans sympathetic to Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat are not waiting. They have launched an ambitious public relations campaign designed to revise the still-fresh history of the "peace process" of 2000.

What happened last year is actually pretty simple: Under intense pressure from Bill Clinton, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Mr. Arafat a deal more generous - and, for Israel, more risky - than anyone expected any Israeli leader ever to propose.

Had Mr. Arafat reached out to shake Mr. Barak's hand, he would today be the leader of an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian nation, in possession of 97 percent of the West Bank and with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Instead, Mr. Arafat not only turned Mr. Barak down - he launched a round of lethal violence in response, a round of violence that continues to this day.

Fueled by frustration and fear of escalating terrorism, Israeli voters threw Mr. Barak out of office and turned to the tough former general, Ariel Sharon, to protect and defend them in what was certain to be a dangerous period.

Their fears were realized quickly as a wave of suicide bombings and other terrorist acts swept across the nation, followed quickly by Israeli reprisals and countermeasures that also increased the level violence. Today, the peace process is dead, and so are far too many Israelis and Palestinians. Hope for peace has been shattered.

But in an expanding range of newspapers, magazines and broadcasts, Mr. Arafat's allies, including some of those who took part in last year's failed negotiations, are now arguing that's not really the way it happened. They're claiming that Mr. Barak's offer was not really so generous, and that it is really unfair for Mr. Arafat to shoulder the blame for the collapse of the negotiations and the carnage that has followed.

(Such arguments have appeared, for example, in the New York Review of Books, The Washington Post and on National Public Radio. A recent front-page piece in the New York Times was headlined: "Many Now Agree That All the Parties, Not Just Arafat, Were to Blame." Which prompted Times columnist William Safire to take the extraordinary step of criticizing his own newspaper. "Count me," he said, "among the many who do not agree that the blame for current hostilities can be so soothingly divvied up.")

Dennis Ross, the former U.S. ambassador for Middle East Affairs who led last year's Camp David negotiations, also has dismissed the revisionist argument, affirming that Mr. Barak's offers were "unprecedented" but that, in the end, Mr. Arafat was "not personally capable of doing a deal."

As Mr. Barak himself recently wrote, at Camp David, Mr. Arafat understood that "the moment of truth had come." But faced with this historic opportunity, Mr. Barak added with disappointment, Mr. Arafat made a conscious decision not to achieve "a permanent peace for his people."

A difficult question remains: Why did Mr. Arafat say no? Mr. Barak concludes that Mr. Arafat "proved not to possess the foresight and courage of President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt."

But surely Mr. Arafat also understands that Mr. Sadat paid for his "foresight and courage" with his life. And, perhaps equally important, Mr. Arafat recognizes that in no Arab nation is Mr. Sadat today a hero. In no Muslim land is Mr. Sadat's portrait admired.

It has been said by many that Mr. Clinton pushed so hard for peace last year because he was seeking a legacy. But Mr. Arafat, too, seeks a legacy. Mr. Arafat knows that a Palestinian leader who makes peace with Israel on terms that leave Israel a secure nation, recognized and living in peace with the Arab world, will not be a hero in his own land, and may not even have long to live.

Given that, does it not make sense to suppose that Mr. Arafat decided he would be better off positioning himself not as a Palestinian Sadat, but rather as a Palestinian Moses - leading his people to the promised land but not into the promised land?

Let some successor compromise with "the Zionist entity" (as too many Palestinians still refer to Israel). Let some future PLO leader assert that peace is sweeter than victory. Let someone else accept for his people and for all time the reality of living side by side with a Jewish state.

If that comes even close to Mr. Arafat's view of the situation, the concessions that Mr. Clinton pushed for and Mr. Barak offered were a terrible miscalculation. If that approximates Mr. Arafat's thinking, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Barak did Mr. Arafat no favor by forcing him to choose - once and for all - between the two conflicting roles he had so successfully juggled in the past: peacemaker abroad and leader of the holy war against Israel at home.

In the end, however, Mr. Arafat was made to choose. And no amount of revisionist history can change that decision - or what is happening today to Israelis and Palestinians as a consequence of his decision.