October 13, 2000
MISREADING THE MIDDLE EAST
Hercules' labors in the augean stables was a picnic compared to the task today of clearing away the distortions and falsehoods under which the real facts in the Middle East are obscured. It is almost impossible to get an accurate view as to what is taking place in the Holy Land from most of the news sources or U.S. editorial pages, where logic is built on misinformed assumptions. The consensus line being advanced, from The Wall Street Journal, to The Washington Post, to The New York Times, is that the killing and violence in Israel and Palestine is the work of that bloody "little terrorist," Yasir Arafat. This is "Arafat's war." The argument is that Israel bent over backward to accommodate Palestinian demands, with Prime Minister Ehud Barak making unprecedented offers to Yasir Arafat that he coldly rejected. Taking this line, the reported Israeli "concessions" have been summed up by NYT Foreign Affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman: "...more than 90% of the West Bank for a Palestinian state, a partial resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem and Palestinian sovereignty over the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City." These various sources then go on to indict Arafat as being intransigent and unreasonable, rejecting the compromises, storming out of the "peace partnership" and going on to incite riots and attacks on Israel. This supposedly proves Arafat always had a hidden agenda -- the destruction of the state of Israel. None of this is even remotely accurate. With up to 200,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza in defiance of United Nations' resolutions for example, Arafat had to reject any offer that did not address that problem in any way. These settlers are heavily armed, most are well-trained, and a sizable number are fiercely wedded to the notion that "liberated" Judea and Samaria belong to Israel. The concession demanded from Arafat was that he make this de facto situation a de jure one. Barak offered a "partial resolution" of the refugee problem? Look closely and you will find Israel merely offered to open discussion on the possibility of partial resolution of a problem that dates from 1948 and that involves more than 4 million Palestinian refugees. Moreover, Israel would consider repatriating refugees only to the West Bank, but not to Israel proper.
As for "Palestinian sovereignty over the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City," there is no Barak offer to allow Palestine sovereignty over East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. Where former Israeli Defense Minister and current Likud Party chairman Ariel Sharon makes that claim, he does not offer political sovereignty at all, only a legalistic formulation for allowing Islamic institutions to continue to administer Muslim holy sites. Arafat, on the other hand, made a dramatic concession, moving from his position of exclusive Palestinian authority over the Temple Mount to transferring sovereignty over Temple Mount to a committee of the UN security council and Islamic organizations. Palestine would have jurisdiction over the site and be custodian of the holy sites. If accepted, Arafat would have satisfied most of the world's Islamic religious leaders, enabling Barak and Arafat to then move to the question of what to do with Jerusalem itself. The major media for the most part ignored this offer, which was summarily rejected.
President Bill Clinton, who began as an "honest broker"in the "peace process," did not help when, out of frustration with Arafat walking out on a meager offer he could never accept, became an Israeli advocate, denouncing Arafat for rejecting Barak's "generous offer" and blaming him for the collapse of the peace process. At that point, the U.S. lost all credibility as an honest broker and Arafat had no incentive to return to peace negotiations in which the odds were stacked against him by a de facto Israeli-U.S. bloc. At the moment, with Clinton in true lame-duck status as President, it is extremely difficult to see how he could revive the peace process.
If one were to simply reduce this to finding a "culprit," Israel's Likud leader Ariel Sharon would best fit the bill. His visit, accompanied by a thousand troops, to the Haram al-Sharif on Sept. 28, was clearly a deliberate provocation, the straw that broke the camel's back for Barak and the peace process. In signaling an insistence that the al-Aska and Dome of the Rock mosques would always be under Israel's sovereignty and control, Sharon managed to turn an issue of serious dispute between Palestinians and Israelis into an escalation of anti-Israeli sentiment and rage throughout the entire Arab and Muslim world. Within Israel itself, even the Israeli Arabs -- one-fifth of the population -- responded with outrage to that affront. Israeli extremists have long characterized the Israeli Arabs as a fifth column and have called for their physical expulsion from Israel, despite the fact that this population had remained loyal or at least neutral toward Israel over the years. All that has changed now.
With our presidential elections weeks away, the peace process is dead, despite efforts by Madeleine Albright, the UN, or President Clinton to resurrect it. The best we can expect is a Mideast summit that results in a call for a regional cease-fire. The area will remain tense, volatile and prone to outbursts of killing and violence, but all Arab leaders have a stake in keeping mass sentiment against Israel from spilling over into a mass movement against Israel -- a movement that would increasingly view existing regimes as unsatisfactory. This simmering development can be seen already, even in Muslim countries that are not Arab.
How will Clinton respond to the terrorist attack and killing of U.S. sailors in Yemen? He has already bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, a training barracks in Afghanistan, various infrastructural targets in Iraq, etc. Who even is the culprit? Where might Osama bin-Laden -- proverbial mastermind of every anti-U.S. terrorist attack -- be hiding? What effect might Clinton's response have on Gore's prospects at the polls? If he picks the "wrong" target, what might happen to Mideast oil pipelines as a consequence? Clearly, the administration is clueless as to how to proceed, and U.S. Mideast policy is in shambles. The hue and cry from misinformed politicians here about "Arafat's War" represents a mindset that believes that Arafat can somehow turn terrorist activity on and off, when political terrorism almost always results from frustrated individuals who have given up on their government's efforts -- similar to the vigilantes of our Old West who took matters into their own hands. The terrorism in Yemen reminds us how easy it would be for a terrorist tugboat to come floating into one of our harbors and blow up a city instead of just an office building. With our major news media almost dysfunctional on the Middle East, the TV talk shows still excepted, it becomes that much harder to head off an escalation of conflict that comes with misinformation and half-truths.