- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

The passing of Yasser Arafat brought to mind the first times I met Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.

I first met Mr. Rabin in 1981. The then-former prime minister detailed his vision of an eventual peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He envisaged a Palestinian state living at peace with Israel, according to U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which called for the return of territories gained in the 1967 war. He believed the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians would support such an approach.

The biggest obstacle, Mr. Rabin felt, was the absence of credible Palestinian negotiating partners. He said that Israelis frequently talked to Palestinians who agreed with this approach, but these people had no real following. On the other hand, if a major Palestinian was willing to negotiate with Israel, he feared the Palestine Liberation Organization would likely kill him.

Mr. Rabin concluded, at the time, that only the PLO could negotiate and deliver peace. But before Israel would talk to it, the PLO must first end the use of violence against Israel, accept Israel’s right to exist and alter its covenant to reflect these changes. Then Mr. Rabin laughed and added that if the PLO took these actions, they would no longer be the PLO. A few months after he concluded the agreement with Mr. Arafat on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, I was able to remind Mr. Rabin of his earlier analysis. He responded that Mr. Arafat now had the opportunity to prove that the PLO was no longer the PLO.

I first met Mr. Arafat in Tunis in January 1994 when he was preparing to go to Gaza and assume leadership of the new Palestinian Authority. Among other matters, we discussed George Washington, who had led a movement of national liberation and then became a great leader of a new country. Mr. Arafat certainly knew how to use violence to further his goals, but could he also help establish a country for the betterment of his people? Could he establish a non-corrupt, transparent economy? Would the new Palestinian Authority provide needed social services? Unfortunately, Mr. Arafat proved inept at governing.

Tragically, he also failed as a peace negotiator. Those on the other side repeatedly lost confidence in his honesty, to the point of questioning whether Mr. Arafat would honor agreements he signed. For example, days after signing an agreement in Cairo in May 1994, Mr. Arafat privately labeled it the “al-Khudaibiya agreement,” which referred to a pact the prophet Mohammed tore up after only two years and then attacked the Qureishites, with whom he had just signed this pact for peace.

Mr. Arafat continuously missed opportunities to make peace. When Shimon Peres became prime minister after Mr. Rabin’s assassination, he hoped to negotiate with Mr. Arafat, but Palestinians pre-empted talks with bus bombings in 1996 that not only ended any potential peace opening but also contributed to Mr. Peres’ defeat in his bid for re-election.

Mr. Arafat turned down a comprehensive peace offer made by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and then tried to deflect criticism by releasing false maps of what had been offered. Whether he initiated the second intifada in September 2000 is open for debate, but he certainly used this violence to deflect criticism from his failures.

Mr. Arafat was the symbol of Palestinian nationalism and his persona will be hard to replace. He was the only one who could have moved the cause of peace forward — if he had chosen this path. Mr. Arafat’s passing will answer the key question: Was he, as an individual, the major obstacle to peace, as he was labeled by the Bush administration, or did he represent broader Palestinian rejection of a negotiated settlement with Israel? If he was the major obstacle, then the incoming Bush administration has an unprecedented opportunity to re-engage the Israelis and Palestinians in the search for peace.

If it is the latter, however, then our new administration’s obligation is all the more urgent, for it will be up to the Bush administration to work with Israelis and those moderate Palestinians who appear poised to take over in order to prevent further chaos and violence.

The initial Palestinian response to the end of the Arafat era was to name Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his predecessor Mahmoud Abbas as temporary leaders. Although neither can match Mr. Arafat’s stature or charisma, both would be acceptable partners in future negotiations. Their biggest challenges will be gaining support from more radical Palestinian groups and ending anti-Israeli terrorism. Palestinian elections might enable them to solidify moderate leadership necessary to govern and also have credibility in future negotiations.

Israel and the new Bush administration will also face major challenges. If new Palestinian leadership can establish its legitimacy, much will depend on how the Israeli government will deal with future peace negotiations. It will also be important to see if the Bush administration undertakes to restore America’s role as the principal mediator for peace, which British Prime Minister Tony Blair advocated in his congratulatory remarks to the president, calling it “the single most pressing political challenge in our world today.”

Ralph Nurnberger teaches international relations at Georgetown University and is senior partner in Nurnberger & Associates in Washington, DC.

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