Monday, November 15, 2004

TEL AVIV — Israelis had few kind words to say about Yasser Arafat after his death last week, but criticism of the Palestinian leader was particularly acute among Israeli doves who believe he discredited peace activists in the eyes of the public.

Mordechai Kedar, an Israeli intelligence official turned peace activist, traveled to Gaza City in 1997 to meet Mr. Arafat with a delegation of Israeli left-wingers still optimistic about the chances for a settlement. This week, he dismissed Mr. Arafat as a political chameleon who switched identities depending on his audience.

“I consider myself a wounded dove. What he did was marginalize the whole Israeli left,” said Mr. Kedar, a fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

“As a political [movement], we exploded on the buses,” he said, referring to the suicide bombings against Israeli buses by Palestinian militants.

Israel was swept up in a euphoric optimism about the prospects for a “new Middle East” after Mr. Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Despite the bombing campaign of Hamas, left-wing politicians convinced the Israeli public that Mr. Arafat could deliver a final peace settlement.

But when violence erupted after the Palestinian leader walked out on the Camp David, Md., summit in 2000, Israeli doves were ridiculed as naive for offering what was considered overly generous concessions on Jerusalem and the issue of Palestinian refugees.

To be sure, peace activists say enormous damage was wrought from within when former Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared in 2001 that there was no Palestinian partner for peace. The Bush administration’s decision to boycott Mr. Arafat made it impossible for groups such as Peace Now to convince Israelis that they should negotiate with him.

Mr. Arafat ultimately bore much of the responsibility for discrediting the Israeli peace camp, said Yariv Oppenheimer, spokesman for Peace Now.

“He didn’t supply what he promised — an end to terror,” he said. “It’s not a feeling of betrayal, but a feeling of disappointment.”

The prospect of a new Palestinian government that is more acceptable as a peace partner is bringing cautious optimism to Peace Now.

“There’s a feeling that Arafat got the process bogged down. For the future, everyone feels relief, that there’s no reason not to talk to the Palestinians,” Mr. Oppenheimer said. “There’s a feeling of a new chance, even though no one knows if the future leadership will be more hostile.”

Yossi Beilin, leader of the left-wing Yachad Party, helped negotiate the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s. As a leading proponent of the 2003 Geneva Initiative peace proposal, he argued that Mr. Arafat could have delivered a peace accord if the Israeli and U.S. governments had not boycotted him.

Mr. Arafat was more complex than the black-and-white portrayals often presented in the Israeli press, Mr. Beilin said. But Mr. Arafat erred when he refused to halt the spiraling violence during the first two years of the Palestinian uprising, which began in September 2000.

“He didn’t plan it, but he didn’t prevent it,” Mr. Beilin said. “This was his biggest mistake, because he thought it would work. He became an enemy of the peace camp, because the peace camp was accused of trusting him.”

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