Israel’s True Intentions in Removing Arafat

It may be time–yet, then it may be too late–for Israel to confess to its true intentions in the Palestinian territories. The sustained and myopic focus on the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, has little to do with stopping “terrorism.” What removing Arafat will do is induce a Palestinian civil war and, by extension, give Israel a pretext for re-occupying the Palestinian territories. The campaign behind this strategy has been ongoing, but it has rapidly intensified since the U.S. military action in Afghanistan. As the U.S. focuses its efforts on Osama bin Laden, Israel appears to be making parallel moves against Arafat.

The collapse of the Camp David talks in July 2000 represented the initial steps in what has emerged as a sustained campaign directed at isolating and removing Arafat from power. The Palestinian leader himself was reluctant to attend the talks at Camp David because he knew the mood among Palestinians was unfavorable to doing so. Under intense pressure from Clinton, he did come to Camp David. Despite repeated American assurances that the Palestinian leader would not be held accountable for potential setbacks, that is exactly what happened. Arafat was personally singled out as the reason for the failure at Camp David. Only months later did American officials privy to the talks reveal that it was the Israeli delegation that stalled. However, by then the campaign against Arafat had already taken root and protests to the contrary fell on deaf ears.

When a new Palestinian uprising began in late September 2000, again Arafat was labeled as the instigator of the renewed violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Analogies were made that, like a faucet, Arafat could turn Palestinian violence on and off. The Israelis, by intensifying the focus on Arafat and Palestinian “violence,” were able to downplay Israel’s continuing military occupation and Palestinian disenchantment with military occupation and the peace process that had perpetuated the occupation. The more Israel focused on Arafat and Palestinian “violence,” the more Israel was able to obscure the brutal realities of its military occupation.

The shift in Israeli leadership from Ehud Barak to Ariel Sharon only intensified the campaign to isolate and remove Arafat as leader of the Palestinian Authority. The antagonism between Sharon and Arafat is not politically or militarily strategic; it’s personal, going back to his founding of Unit 101 to eliminate the Palestinian “fadayeen” in the early fifties, to his attempts to “pacify” Gaza in the late sixties, and culminating with the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, where the PLO was headquartered at the time.

What did appear to shift with the emergence of Sharon to power was the gradual substitution of Palestinian “violence” with Palestinian “terrorism.” Undoubtedly terrorism carries much more emotional weight than violence. If Barak was fighting a “war,” Sharon was fighting “terrorism.” As has been seen in the U.S. post-September 11, the rules of engagement and the bounds of legitimate military action regarding affected civilian populations become irrelevant.

By keeping the focus on Arafat and intensifying its focus through the new association of “terrorism,” Israel was able to further downplay the role of its military occupation and the new measures introduced to control the Palestinian population. In fact, Israeli actions in early spring 2001 clearly suggest that Israeli actions to “maintain security,” had a dual, longer-term, strategic purpose. First, the Israelis, by cordoning off the major Palestinian towns from each other and constructing a network of check points and trenches, were able to effectively isolate major segments of the Palestinian population from each other. The “power” of the Palestinian Authority was reduced to noncontiguous pockets of limited control.

Second, the Israelis began incursions into Palestinian-controlled territories, bulldozing areas of land bordering on jointly controlled Palestinian-Israeli territory. Again, the pretext was security; the Palestinian homes and territory were being used as a staging ground for attacks against Israelis. The effect, however, was that Israel created a convenient staging ground for itself should it find it perhaps necessary to launch a more sustained military attack in the future. The repeated incursions into the Palestinian-controlled territory had the additional effect of numbing the shock factor of such military action within international public opinion.

Third, the Israelis began a direct assault on Palestinian leaders. The first assassinations began as early as November 2000. After initial American and international pressure, they subsided briefly only to be renewed with greater intensity in the late spring. In August, after extensive reports of civilian deaths, again the assassinations came under international censorship. Then came September 11. The debate, like other political and ethical considerations, fell silent.

None of the Israeli tactics have reduced Palestinian “violence” or increased Israeli security. In fact, they have had the opposite effect. The tightened Israeli control around the Palestinian towns has paralyzed the Palestinian economy, creating an increasingly desperate population. The military incursions have undermined the Palestinian Authority’s power to protect Palestinian land or lives, and have systematically erased the diplomatic gains from Oslo. The Israeli assassinations of Palestinian leaders have emboldened to a new breed of Palestinian youths, who draw parallels from the Israeli action, which to the youths, legitimizes reciprocal retribution.

What these Israeli tactics have done is perpetuated the cycle of violence. However, when viewed from the perspective of the ongoing campaign to hold Arafat responsible, all violence–whether Palestinian or Israeli–becomes associated with him. This is the beauty of an effective media campaign. So long as one can control perceptions through intensify and downplay techniques, the reality of the situation on the ground is meaningless. It is the perception that matters: Arafat is responsible for the violence.

The reality on the ground is that Arafat does not and cannot control Palestinian suicide bombers or attacks against Israelis. Both are the direct result of the continued Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories. So long as the Israeli occupation continues, Palestinians will persist in their efforts to end that occupation, by whatever means. Israeli settlers and soldiers are particularly vulnerable to continued Palestinian attacks because they are viewed as the means and instruments of the Israeli occupation.

If the Israeli tactics have intensified Palestinian resistance, they have further undermined the Palestinian Authority’s ability to control the Palestinian population. Logistically, militarily, politically, and economically, the Palestinian Authority cannot protect the Palestinian population or lands. That loss of the ability to protect–by the governing authority of a people–translates into a loss of legitimacy. Every time the Israelis attack and the Palestinian Authority is unable to respond in the interests of the Palestinian people, the authority loses legitimacy.

This assessment of Arafat’s ability to control the Palestinian population and stop Palestinian “violence,” has been spelled out specifically and repeatedly in intelligence analysis throughout the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. Jane’s Intelligence Digest, one of the premiere military intelligence sources, stated unequivocally “As JID has warned for months, Arafat will not be able to deliver because he does not control the situation on the ground” (“Middle East Peace?” June 15, 2001).

If Arafat is not able to “control the violence,” why is there continued pressure on him to do so? If one looks at the campaign strategically, the end result is the same. So long as Arafat is perceived as being responsible for the violence, pressure can be placed on him to stop the violence.

If Arafat does yield to Israeli and American pressure to arrest all Palestinian militants (who are perceived by the Palestinian population as legitimately resisting Israeli occupation) Arafat will be removed from power and a Palestinian civil war will likely ensue. However, if Arafat does not arrest all militants, Israel can continue and even intensify its tactics against the Palestinians, eventually removing the Palestinian leaders themselves. Again, the result would be a state of internal instability that parallels a civil war, requiring Israel to move into the territories.

Ideally, for the Israelis and the U.S., it is preferable that the Palestinian leader be removed through an internal rebellion from his own people than if Israel is “forced” to remove him. However, if Arafat does not go against his own people, Israel will claim that because Arafat is doing nothing to stop Palestinian attacks that Israel has no choice but to protect its own security; Israel must remove Arafat. Either way, Arafat is removed from power, resulting in a state of instability that gives Israel the pretext for reoccupying the Palestinian territories to insure Israel’s security.

Thus far, Arafat has yielded to the pressures of his own Palestinian constituency rather than those from the U.S. and Israel. Israel is now facing the least desirable option of removing Arafat itself. However, the current American attacks in Afghanistan and focus on bringing bin Laden to justice have provided an emotional climate for Israel to not only take such action but also legitimize it.

In Israel’s assassination policy of targeting Palestinian “leaders,” the distinction between Palestinian “leaders” and “leadership” is strategic. Once it becomes acceptable to systematically target and assassinate Palestinian leaders associated with “terrorism”–in the name of Israeli security–the leap to targeting and assassinating the Palestinian leadership, i.e. Arafat, is not that difficult to make. In recent days, that leap has been made.

The comments of Sharon and Bush over the weekend in the “war on terrorism” are not seemingly and uncannily similar; they are identical. Neither envisions an immediate end to terrorism, but both have clearly identified the source and actions needed to fight terrorism. For Bush, it is Osama bin Laden. For Sharon, it is Yasser Arafat. And, as Bush also indicated, the sooner the better.