- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

The drama over whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would allow Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to leave his room er, make that his house arrest in the Palestinian town of Ramallah turned out to be quite a cliff hanger.
Mr. Arafat, of course, had been grounded by the Israeli government since before Christmas, as punishment for the apparently never-ending series of Palestinian suicide bombers killing Israeli civilians. The question was whether this was now the time for him to be sprung from his cushy confinement. It did not mean that Mr. Arafat, figuratively speaking, has cleaned his room or picked his clothes off the floor. No, indeed. Day after day, the attacks just keep coming, apparently regardless of whether Israel retaliates, a lot or a little or not at all.
How the U.S. government, under these circumstances, could even contemplate placing pressure on Israel to let Mr. Arafat leave for the purpose of attending the Arab League summit in Beirut is beyond me. American emissaries, most recently Vice President Richard Cheney, are trooping to Israel again, hoping to extract promises from Israel in a pattern distressingly familiar from the first Bush administration. Mr. Cheney, Hamlet-like, has been in a dither over whether to meet with Mr. Arafat.
Were Americans routinely blown up in our streets by terrorists, surely the message from the U.S. government would not be one of leniency and understanding. Just ask the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters of Afghanistan. So, why do we keep expecting forgiveness from Israel? Sometimes, surely, the Israelis must be thinking about us, "with friends like these, who needs enemies"?
But the Israelis do, of course, have real enemies and count on them to make the most of Mr. Arafat's non-appearance at the summit. Mr. Cheney was certainly correct when he said on Sunday that, "If Arafat is not there, the concern is that he will become the focus the fact that he is not there." There's no doubt about the symbolism of his absence, though apparently Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak found himself otherwise detained as well. The rest of the Arab leaders will be there, while Mr. Arafat will be staring out from a television screen, as if beaming in from outer space or prison.
When the Israeli government finally gave into the American demands, they did it with the caveat that they might well not allow him to return again. Facing that prospect, Mr. Arafat decided that caution was the better part of valor and decided to stay home for a bit of video conferencing.
But Mr. Arafat probably won't be missing much. If there's something new in the Saudi proposal of "land for peace," it is hard to find. Anyone whose head is not spinning from an overwhelming sense of deja vu has not followed the course of Middle East negotiations for, say, the past 30 years.
Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's bright idea is that the Arab countries will magnanimously grant Israel "normalized relations," whatever that means, in return for a few small items that would be the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and Jerusalem, which would become the capital of a Palestinian state.
No one wants to renounce the right of return for the Palestinians still kept in miserable refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and other Arab countries, refugees whose lives are calculatedly being ruined by their status as bargaining chips by their leadership. In the course of the 20th century, millions of people have been displaced and had to accept starting anew, sometimes with the help of compensation or international aid, sometimes not. Spending your life in a refugee camp waiting for the impossible to happen is a terrible waste.
Surely, it is well understood by the Bush administration and by the Arab countries that attacked Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973 that Israel could never agree to these demands without compromising its security and possibly its national existence which just won't happen.
Were the Arab leaders meeting in Beirut today serious about advancing the cause of peace, they would make Israel an offer that contained tangible as opposed to intangible concessions. Let Syria say, "We'll compromise on the Golan Heights." Or Saudi Arabia say "We will finance the resettlement of refugee Palestinians in an Arab country of their choice out of our voluminous oil funds." Or let Mr. Arafat from his video phone offer to demonstrate that he can stop the suicide bombers, thereby making himself a viable negotiating partner for Israel.
Time and again, Israelis have shown they are willing to negotiate, but who can blame them if they need more than words at this point?


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