- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

As I was going up the stair

I met a man who wasn’t there.

He wasn’t there again today.

I wish, I wish he’d stay away.

Hughes Mearns

As still another Mideast summit gets under way, and still more empty smiles and tentative handshakes are exchanged, you can almost feel the particularly hopeless air that Hopeful Developments always engender in the Middle East.

It’s a heavy, familiar atmosphere, the kind that hangs over the funerals of the young. It’s the air of nursing homes, hospital wards, insane asylums and Mideast peace negotiations.

It’s the practiced air of a formal futility. It swirls around like grit, mixed with fine specks of blood. And once again still another American president prepares to walk into this slowly swirling sirocco, like a stranger in a strange land.

So what’s the point of a Mideast summit besides photo-ops? Well, simple decency demands such a gesture. Let’s pretend that peace has a chance, that man is still homo sapiens — the reasoning species. Doesn’t all reality in human affairs begin with role-playing? If we pretend we’re better than we are, who knows, we might grow accustomed to the role.

Already there is an unfamiliar stirring in the dead air that might be mistaken for hope.

The hope has nothing to do with the substance of the negotiations themselves. Any peace plan would work if both sides trusted each other; none will so long as each deeply distrusts the other, and they do.

The hope springs not from the wary, minimal gestures being made by both sides but from the historic context in which the talks are taking place. They come in the wake of the American and Allied victory in Iraq.

It’s no coincidence that the last peace plan that looked as if it had a chance (and only looked that way) came in the wake of the American victory in the first Gulf war when George Bush the elder was president. Now George Bush the younger is, and the air has been cleared again, or at least it seems clearer, and the mirage has appeared again. Maybe this time it will solidify. Maybe.

Mideast summits are, like Dr. Johnson’s definition of second marriages, a victory of hope over experience. If peace does stand a chance now, it will not be because of the presence of any new factor. It will be because an old one is conspicuously absent from these proceedings: Yasser Arafat.

What’s hopeful about these negotiations is who isn’t taking part in them. Some people can light up a whole room by not entering it. Such is Yasser Arafat’s charisma. But like any plague, his influence may still seep in. The man who isn’t there refuses to stay completely away. He has already managed to delay a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian premiers, if only for a day. Let’s hope his other efforts will prove as fleeting. They will certainly prove as persistent.

Yasser Arafat’s whole career has been that of a guerrilla chieftain, and he seeks to prolong it. That means prolonging war. That’s all he knows. He thrives on crisis, not calm. Peace is his enemy, trouble his natural habitat.

It does seems strange, and hopeful, to have Yasser Arafat making trouble from the sidelines this time, instead of center stage. Some of us have grown old writing about a Middle East in which he was always present, like a garbage pail that is never emptied over the years but just sits there, accepted.

At last the one power that both sides can trust, or at least the one power that both sides must pretend to trust, has caught on. The United States, cast in the role of honest broker, is snubbing the old terrorist, trying to isolate him, and disinfect the proceedings. (Naturally the French foreign minister, the insufferable Dominique de Villepin, has just paid Mr. Arafat a formal visit. It’s as though the French are so nostalgic for Saddam Hussein they’ll court whatever Arab despot is available at the moment, however minor or sordid.)

It’s not clear whether Washington’s half-quarantine, half-excommunication, whole snub of Mr. Arafat will work. His understudy, Mahmoud Abbas, is scarcely the Palestinian people’s choice. He lacks the requisite fanaticism, eloquence and self-dramatizing flair. He may have the same duplicity, but he seems to lack the death wish that has characterized Palestinian diplomacy since there’s been such a thing.

Whether this Mahmoud Abbas, a k a Abu Mazen, is real or just a cardboard figure behind which the same old Yasser Arafat lurks has yet to be determined. Even if the Palestinians’ new premier means what he says about stopping suicide attacks on Israelis, can he? And is he really trying to stop them, or just pleading with the killers to lay off until the Palestinians get a sovereign state of their own — from which they can raid Israel with impunity?

The new voice at this summit may be Mahmoud Abbas’, but the hands are still the hands of Yasser Arafat. Sometimes even the words are.

The most encouraging thing about the summit is that Mr. Arafat won’t be attending it; the most discouraging thing about it is that he may be there by proxy.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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