April 14, 2003


The Next to Go: Yasir Arafat (DAVID MAKOVSKY, 4/14/03, NY Times)
It has become de rigueur in Europe and the Arab world to proclaim that the problem in the Middle East is that the Bush administration is not "engaged" in restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Yet the United States has been engaged in important ways, and hopeful signs are now coming from Israel and the Palestinians. To exploit this moment, the European and Arab states themselves must now also become engaged.

While everyone was focused on Iraq, some promising developments have occurred. First, Yasir Arafat was forced to accept Salam Fayyad, a highly respected veteran of the International Monetary Fund, as the Palestinian Authority finance minister. Then last month, reformers in the Palestine Legislative Council, over Mr. Arafat's fierce objections, ratified the moderate Mahmoud Abbas (widely known as Abu Mazen) as the Palestinians' first prime minister.

These changes did not happen in a vacuum. First, Israel's resolve not to capitulate to violence became clear. Hopes that it would pull out of the West Bank as a result of suicide bombs were dashed when the army went house to house to round up militants last spring.

Second, last June President Bush made clear that Washington would no longer view Mr. Arafat as a legitimate interlocutor. Faced with Mr. Arafat's calls for Palestinian "martyrdom," Mr. Bush insisted on working with "leaders not compromised by terror."

Finally, because Mr. Arafat's legitimacy at home rested in part on his influence abroad, the American move to isolate him aided his domestic critics. Mr. Arafat could no longer deflect domestic complaints about corruption in his regime, authoritarian-style leadership and a general dearth of good governance. Polls of Palestinians started to show a desire to end the violence of recent years, which had not led to progress. Ironically, it was the American position, read by some as a lack of "engagement," that emboldened the authority's Legislative Council, until now largely toothless, to push reform. Breaking from past practice, even the European Union and United Nations envoys threatened to disengage, securing the promotions of Mr. Fayyad and Mr. Abbas.

In fact, Mr. Arafat predeceased Saddam Hussein, as, contrary to the Times's contemptuous dismissals, Mr. Bush proved it possible to remove an unpopular leader mainly by force of rhetoric, though the other two important factors were Israeli military pressure and a Palestinian populace that appears to have already determined that its political future, oddly enough, must more closely resemble the Israeli model than that of their fellow Arabs. The moment is ripe in Palestine for statehood and, in ways that it may not be elsewhere, for a rather representative and relatively free state at that. Good of the Times to notice what's been going on. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 14, 2003 10:17 AM
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