“The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” quipped Israel’s late foreign minister, Abba Eban. “If Yasser Arafat does not allow Mr. Abu Mazen to form the cabinet he says he needs an opportunity of enormous importance will be lost and Arafat will have done it again,” Powell warned. Powell was right. The internal struggle between Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) is not about personalities or most specifically, about the future role of security official Colonel Muhammad Dahlan. It is about being pragmatic, opting for peace, accepting half a loaf and nurturing it. It is about choosing life over martyrdom.
Dahlan came of age watching Israel thrive. Like 80 percent of the Palestinians, he may not love the Jewish state, but he admires its government, a government accountable to the people and, hence, dependent on its ability to provide them opportunities for life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Arafat and his ilk came of political age admiring the Vietnamese willingness to sacrifice and convinced that the love of life is the Achilles heel of the West as a whole and Israel in particular. Thus, in early 1967, Arab analysts expressed their admiration not for the Vietnamese strategy or tactics, but for “their iron determination to fight and for their unusual willingness to withstand blows silently.” Then they bemoaned the Arab people’s “lack of response.” Today they condemn Iraqis for not being willing to fighting and dying enthusiastically for Saddam Hussein.
Arafat did not see the Olso agreement as an opportunity to improve the life of the Palestinian people but an opportunity to turn them into Vietnamese type long-suffering stoics. Hence, the death-glorifying, hate-spewing Palestinian Authority media, school books, and summer camps. In December 2002 the deputy commander of Arafat’s elite bodyguard unit, Force 17, Muhammad Dhamrah said: “We have prepared thousands, tens of thousands of martyrs in order to regain our land and for the return of the refugees.” Israelis are soft, Arafat repeatedly asserted. They are afraid of casualties, have a small population and can be demoralized by attacks against civilians. Sympathetic Western public opinion and monetary Arab support would provide the additional ingredients needed for success. Once Arafat concluded that he achieved all he could on the bargaining table, he turned to suicidal violence. It was the turn of the Palestinians to demonstrate that they, too, can take it. When the violence led to the election of Sharon and it became clear that the price for the continued violence was about to escalate, Arafat and his supporters argued that Sharon represented Israel’s last stand. Defeating Sharon meant defeating Israel and the way to do it is to convince the Israelis that even Sharon cannot provide them with security. Once they understand that, they will get on planes and boats and leave the country. Arafat and his fellow strategists forgot that Israelis, unlike the Americans in Vietnam, were fighting for their homeland.
Those Palestinian leaders who cared as much about the living, breathing Palestinians as about the idea of Palestine were horrified by the cost of the Intifada — most principally, Mahmoud Abbas, the architect of Oslo. As he told the heads of the “Popular Councils” of the Gaza Strip refugee camps in November 2002,
[The goal of] the Oslo [Accords] was to complete the peace process… [The completion] of the goal began with ‘Gaza and Jericho First’; it extended to the West Bank cities, and then reached 42% of the territory of the West Bank… under Palestinian control. We began the phase of building and obtaining capital and investors. The world began providing us with aid to help train us to build the homeland and to complete our way for full realization.
But what happened in the past two years… is the complete destruction of everything we built [under Oslo], and of what was built before. We are living below the poverty line in Gaza and the West Bank; our people are in a situation of loss, starvation, and suffering.
When we signed the Oslo Accords, no one [stood] with us. They told us then that we would need to ask the people, and ask the opinion of some of the Arab countries. You know the accusations directed against us. As a result of [Oslo] we returned to our cities and obtained some of the homeland and here, we are in it. The phenomenon of the lost Palestinian at the airport and at border [control] is over, and [now] he can return to his homeland if he wants. Between 250,000 and 300,000 people returned to the homeland. The refugee problem still exists, but at least the phenomenon of displacement has been ended by negotiations and peace. It was impossible to end it by war. We were involved in many wars and you know what the results were.
Realizing the failure of the Palestinian strategy, Dahlan sought to use 9/11 as a respectable way out. He wrote a memo to Arafat recommending that the Authority leave the Intifada behind it. He argued that “the Intifada is the means, not the purpose.” Arafat announced, “I am against terrorism” but to Dahlan disappointment, Arafat did not have “the courage” to confront the extremist in his midst. Palestinian analysts, he complained, were divided between those who argue that the Palestinian can take more and those who blame them for having collapsed. “Both are wrong,” Dahlan insisted, “the people can suffer if its sacrifice will be politically rewarded.” It will be rewarded if the its leadership demonstrates the ability to compromise demonstrated by Israel’s founder David Ben Gurion. As Dahlan told the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, Ben Gurion was “the most important statesman in the history of Israel” because he “agreed to the establishment of a state without Jerusalem, just in order to establish an entity and then strengthen it. He agreed to resolution 181, made the decision, and announced, the establishment of Israel, even though many Israelis objected to that.”
Amongst those objecting were doves that did not trust Israeli ability to withstand the onslaught of the Arab armies posed to attack the fledging state the moment it announced its creation. David Ben Gurion kicked their leader, Chaim Weizmann, upstairs, by making him Israel’s first president. Much more difficult to deal with were the hawks since they had their own guerrilla forces. It was a mere few years after the Holocaust. Still, David Ben Gurion did not flinch. He steadfastly opposed terror (see my article “Jewish Terrorism“) and disregarding the howls of their supporters, he disbanded both the right wing (Etzel and Lehi) and left-wing (Palmach) militias. Israel was to have a single army operating under a single command even if it meant ordering 19-year-old Yitzhak Rabin to organize an attack on a ship carrying much-needed weapons. As he had told a closed meeting of the political committee of the Zionist Congress:
We cannot tolerate the existence of organized groups wishing to conduct war in the name of the people in the manner, place and time of their choosing. That cannot be tolerated even without reference to the question of murder (his name for terror) . That means that there must be strict national discipline. Discipline — is not a popular or comfortable word, especially for Jews, because of positive instincts. Jews — are free people who do not like boot camp type order. Our movement is one of the freest movements and it should stay so. However, when we go to war, there must be iron discipline even within the freest, most democratic and liberal nation.
To follow in his footsteps, Dahlan wants to disband not only Hamas and Islamic Jihad but also Fatah’s Al Aksa brigades. The recent Al Aksa suicide bombing in Kfar Saba was in part that militia’s response to Dahlan’s appointment as the head of internal security. There are some reports indicating that Arafat promised the Al Aksa brigades Nablus commander that his funding will not be affected by the creation of the new government. Clearly, Yasser Arafat is no Chaim Weizmann. But a unified quartet position bolstered by Arab states had successfully forced Arafat’s hand once and can do so again. As a fruitful peace process clearly depends significantly on limiting Arafat’s mischief making. And limiting Arafat’s mischief making will depend on insuring that every penny they send to the Palestinian Authority is addressed to Salam Fayyad, Mahmoud Abbas’s new finance minister. Empowering Dahlan to create a unified Palestinian force depends on vocal international rejection of all Palestinian violence and affirmation of Israel’s right for a muscular self defense. Dahlan must be able to argue that terror undermines progress towards statehood. How else can he justify cracking down on the various terrorist Palestinian terrorist organizations? In short, the ball is in the court of all those clamoring for a solution to Arab-Israeli conflict. Let’s see if they can stay the course. After all, a multilateral success on this thorny issue would provide an excellent vehicle for international fence mending and rehabilitating Colin Powell’s tarnished reputation.
— Judith Apter Klinghoffer is senior research associate in the department of political science at Rutgers University. Klinghoffer is the author of Vietnam, Jews, and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences and co-author of International Citizens’ Tribunals: Mobilizing Public opinion to advance Human Rights. She has a weblog at the History News Network.