Yasir Arafat, a True Peacemaker
Jude Wanniski
November 7, 2004


Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Sorry, I like the guy

You have to understand that Yasir Arafat has been almost demonized by the American political establishment almost to the degree they have done a number on Saddam Hussein. Both men were considered good guys in Washington as long as they were acting on behalf of perceived U.S. interests, but as the world turned in another direction they were thrown to the U.S. media wolves. Now apparently on his death bed, Arafat has even less opportunity to defend himself. The New York Times yesterday devoted a lead editorial to blasting him for refusing to agree to the peace plan offered him at Camp David by President Clinton in 2000. Boo on the Times! Here is a memo on the margin I wrote about the alleged "peace plan," which the Times can not dispute, but which it prefers to ignore.

With Arafat now in a Paris hospital on life support, it is fairly obvious that his time as the Palestinian leader is over. The Islamic news network, Al Jazeera asked me for my thoughts. Here is what I wrote, which appeared on the network's english website yesterday:

Before Arafat's eternal rest
by Jude Wanniski
Friday 05 November

On hearing of the reported death of Yasir Arafat during his first post-election press conference, President Bush said his first thought was "God bless his soul".

It was a terse, proper response for the president. As a private American citizen, I would have added: "He was a good man, greatly unappreciated in my country, especially in the last years of his life."

Here are my first thoughts.

Ever since he shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on 13 September 1993, I have been an admirer of Yasir Arafat. It was Rabin's decision to secretly negotiate with Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which led to the Oslo Accords of that year, giving hope to the prospect of at long last reaching a settlement between Arabs and Israelis.

It was no surprise to me that a year later he and Rabin were awarded the Prize for Peace by the Nobel Committee "to honour a political act which called for great courage on both sides" and to "serve as an encouragement to all the Israelis and Palestinians who are endeavouring to establish lasting peace in the region".

What remains a surprise to me is that Arafat seemed to have lost his standing as a peacemaker even though there was nothing tangible to warrant that decline.

From my standpoint, he had been admirable in doing the best he could with the cards stacked against him in Washington and Tel Aviv, yet was treated like a pariah among the leaders of the Arab world.

We all know that Arafat had been a "terrorist" foot soldier in his early PLO days, but from 1974 when he became head of its political department, the record is clear that he did direct his energies to political persuasion and diplomacy instead of confrontation and terror.

Now, 30 years later and a decade after winning the Nobel Peace prize, he seems closer to his eternal rest than ever, having practically been a prisoner of the Israel government in his compound at Ram Allah during these last years.

Obviously, the ascension of Ariel Sharon as prime minister in the spring of 2001 was the reason the American people had been told repeatedly that Arafat had no "credibility" as a negotiator.

This is because the Jewish political establishment in the United States has made it a practice to back the wishes of whichever party is in power in Israel, Labour or Likud.

When Labour was in power, with Rabin or Shimon Peres or with Ehud Barak, there was not only gentlemanly discourse with Arafat that advanced the peace process in the region.

The practice of unity among American Jews saw to it that Arafat was then treated with respect in the two major political parties in America and in the major news media.

All that ended because of Sharon's personal animosity towards Arafat, a burning hatred I've rarely observed of one political leader of another.

When Sharon said he would not negotiate with Arafat under any circumstance, it did not matter to the American political community that Arafat was the chosen, elected leader of the Palestinian Authority.

It did not matter that he was still beloved by the Arab masses, if not the Arab heads of state. It is the nature of the American political process at this point in time that because Sharon wanted Arafat discredited, even demonised, that's the way it would be.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations spoke with one voice to both President Bush and the Republicans and Senator Kerry and the Democrats.

The Jewish leaders may be divided on every other political issue before the American people, but when it comes to Israel's wishes, they get their way because they have enormous power.

It may seem strange to supporters of the Palestinian cause that President Bush would receive Ariel Sharon in the Oval Office every few months during the last three years and not once even contact Yasir Arafat. It is even more amazing to me that practically every American I know believes Arafat has been the stumbling block to the peace process.

The reason is that President Clinton, who in 1993 helped nudge Yitzhak Rabin towards Oslo and the peace process, in his last months in office was so eager to nail down a settlement that he tried to get Arafat to swallow a half-baked plan. Out of pique, Clinton spread the word that Arafat walked away from Camp David even though Ehud Barak had offered him 95% of what he wanted.

Most Americans are still unaware that Arafat did not "walk away", but instead arranged to continue negotiations with the Israelis away from Camp David, at Taba in Egypt, away from the spotlight.

In six days, the plan was almost fully baked, so much so that after suspending for the Israeli elections, the two sides issued a joint statement that read in part: "The Israeli and Palestinian delegations conducted during the last six days serious, deep and practical talks with the aim of reaching a permanent and stable agreement between the two parties.

"The Taba talks were unprecedented in their positive atmosphere and expression of mutual willingness to meet the national, security and existential needs of each side. Given the circumstances and time constraints, it proved impossible to reach understandings on all issues, despite the substantial progress that was achieved in each of the issues discussed. The sides declare that they have never been closer to reaching an agreement and it is thus our shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged with the resumption of negotiations following the Israeli elections ...

"[I]n light of the significant progress in narrowing the differences between the sides, the two sides are convinced that in a short period of time and given an intensive effort and the acknowledgment of the essential and urgent nature of reaching an agreement, it will be possible to bridge the differences remaining and attain a permanent settlement of peace between them. In this respect, the two sides are confident that they can begin and move forward in this process at the earliest practical opportunity."
As it happened, of course, the election turned Barak out, in favour of Sharon. Not only did the Likud prime minister not resume the Taba talks, he scrapped the whole idea of talks, reflecting the fact that Likud officially opposes the very idea of a Palestinian state.

I personally can at least imagine that if Taba had resumed and concluded under Labour's auspices, a primary motive for the suicide bombing on 9-11 later that year would have been removed and perhaps the Twin Towers would still be standing.

These are thoughts that come naturally to anyone who knew how serious Yasir Arafat had been in a search for peace. The thoughts do not come to most Americans for the reasons I mentioned above, but still I wonder why they did not occur to the leaders of the Arab League.

An Arab-American I know tells me it is because unlike the Arab masses, who loved Arafat and now worry over his grave illness, the leaders all have their own fish to fry with Washington and Arafat's faithfulness to his goals often became a hindrance to theirs.

If so, perhaps if Arafat's passes away at this crucial moment he will have handed his last gift to the Palestinian people. He can no longer be an excuse in Tel Aviv or Washington or in the Arab League to delay yet again the realisation of his lifelong dream of a Palestinian state.

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Jude Wanniski is a former associate editor of The Wall Street Journal, expert on supply-side economics and founder of Polyconomics, which helps to interpret the impact of political events on financial markets.

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