June 6, 2002

June 6, 2002 | Testimony on Middle East

Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority: Credible Partners for Peace?

Testimony submitted to the Terrorism Oversight Panel of the House Armed Services Committee

The Bush Administration has dispatched CIA Director George Tenet to the Middle East to assess how to reform Palestinian intelligence and security agencies in order to make them more effective in fighting terrorism, rather than in supporting terrorism. It also has dispatched Assistant Secretary of State William Burns to the region to explore ways to create a more democratic Palestinian Authority. Both of these missions can be described as the triumph of hope over experience.

The problem is that as long as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat holds the reins of power, no amount of tinkering with institutional reforms is likely to produce the desired results: creating a Palestinian government that is willing and able to negotiate a lasting and stable peace with Israel.

Arafat remains what he has always been: a radical leader of a revolutionary movement that uses terrorism as a fundamental instrument of power. Unfortunately, he has not made the transition to statesman, as the Israelis gambled he would when they signed the 1993 Oslo peace accord. They vainly hoped that Arafat not only would renounce terrorism, but also would crack down on the terrorist operations of HAMAS, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and other radical Palestinian movements that rejected peace with Israel.

Instead, Arafat merely paid lip service to his Oslo commitments to fight terrorism. Since 1993, he half-heartedly has gone though the motions of clamping down on terrorism. From time to time, under intense international pressure, the Palestinian Authority would "arrest the usual suspects", only to turn them loose once again when international attention waned. This revolving door policy, a direct violation of the Oslo accords, greatly undermined Israeli trust in its ostensible "partner for peace" and raised serious doubts about Arafat's long term intentions.

Rather than prepare his people for peace, he has indoctrinated them for war. He has praised suicide bombers as "martyrs" and repeatedly has called for a jihad (holy war) to liberate Jerusalem. Arafat, the veteran terrorist, has created an environment in which terrorists flourish. The Palestinian Authority continues to educate Palestinian children to hate Israelis. Ideas have consequences.

The sad truth is that as long as Arafat remains the leader of the Palestinians, there is little chance of a genuine peace. He has a long history of terrorism, which he has used to cement his control over the Palestinians, to attack Israel, and to attack other Arabs.

Arafat also has a long history of violating his commitments to other Arab states, as well as to Israel. In 1970 Arafat led a Palestinian uprising against King Hussein's government in Jordan, despite his previous pledges to respect Jordanian sovereignty. When the Jordanian Army crushed Arafat's forces during "Black September," the defeated Palestinian leader moved his base of operations to Lebanon. Despite repeated promises to avoid involvement in Lebanon's internal politics, Arafat formed a "state within a state" in southern Lebanon and allied himself with radical Lebanese movements that helped to precipitate the 1975-1976 Lebanese civil war. Chronic cross-border Palestinian terrorism against Israel provoked two Israeli military interventions in Lebanon and resulted in the expulsion of Arafat's forces from Beirut in 1982.

Arafat was rescued from irrelevance by the Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which began the secret negotiations that evolved into the Oslo peace process in 1993. Rabin gambled that Arafat would be a dependable negotiating partner. But neither Rabin, nor his successors as Prime Minister, have been able to hold the slippery Arafat to make good on his commitments under the Oslo negotiating framework.

After Rabin was assassinated in 1995 and more than 60 Israelis were killed in a series of bloody bombings carried out by Palestinian Islamic militants in 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister on a platform of "peace and security." Under U.S. pressure, Netanyahu signed several interim agreements with Arafat that the Palestinians promptly violated. By the end of his term, Netanyahu refused to sign new agreements with the Palestinians until Arafat lived up to his old agreements.

Netanyahu's successor, Ehud Barak, led one of the most dovish governments in Israeli history. Yet even Barak was unable to negotiate a final settlement with Arafat. At the Camp David summit in July 2000, Arafat walked away from a deal that offered the Palestinians over 90 percent of the disputed territories and control over the Temple Mount, located in the heart of Jerusalem.

Arafat then reverted to the "war process" when he could not get everything he wanted out of the "peace process". He gave a green light to the intifada (uprising) in September 2000 and used the Palestinian Authority's radio and television broadcasts to incite violence against Israelis. The Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade, an offshoot of Arafat's Fatah faction, increasingly carried out suicide bombings, which formerly had been a tactic employed by Palestinian Islamic militants.

Arafat's destruction of the Oslo accords and intensifying Palestinian terrorism led to the early 2002 election of Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister. Sharon has toughened Israel's policy toward the Palestinians, but he remains open to a deal with them. Although vilified widely in the western press as "the bulldozer", Sharon is a pragmatic leader that could deliver on any peace agreement that he is able to negotiate. It was Sharon, after all, who uprooted the Israeli settlement of Yamit in the Sinai after the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Few doubt that Sharon could deliver on whatever concessions that he promised.

But Yasser Arafat is an extremely unreliable partner in peace negotiations. He has violated every agreement that he has negotiated with Israel. Arafat has never fulfilled his obligations under the 1993 Oslo Agreement to systematically and permanently clamp down on terrorism and the organizations that engage in it. In fact, members of Arafat's police force have been caught red-handed engaging in terrorist attacks against Israelis.

After a series of suicide bombings led Israel to raid Arafat's West Bank headquarters in operation "Defensive Shield," the Israeli Defense Forces discovered numerous documents that established that Arafat has been personally involved in the planning and execution of terrorist attacks. He encouraged them ideologically and ordered financial and logistical support for terrorist operations.

Arafat has lost all credibility as a negotiating partner for Israel. He has failed to make the transition from a terrorist leader to a statesman. The sad truth is that he wants a "peace process" but not peace.

The Oslo process has allowed him to consolidate his control over Palestinians and build a terrorist infrastructure in the "liberated" territories. Arafat is willing to go through the motions of negotiating but he is not willing to sign a final agreement, because that would force him to make hard concessions on the Palestinian "right of return" and other issues. Moreover, if Arafat did actually reach a final peace agreement he would be relegated to the status of the leader of the smallest Arab state and could no longer strut around the world stage as a self-appointed revolutionary and Arab champion.

Israel now is settling in for a long period of conflict that will only end if a new generation of Palestinian leaders comes to the conclusion that terrorism can not gain them a Palestinian state or improve the lives of the Palestinian people. There is little that the United States can do to rescue the Palestinians from their flawed leaders as long as they continue down the road of violence.

Arafat has had ample time to prove himself as a true partner for peace, but he has failed to do so. Largely due to Arafat's cynical policies, more terrorism and violence engulf Palestinians and Israelis now than they were in 1993 at the outset of the Oslo process. It should be clear that Arafat is part of the problem, not part of the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

James Phillips is a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy