MARCH 2003


How will a war on Iraq affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? From Yasser Arafat to the Labour party leader, Amran Mitzna, there is anxiety. Palestinians worry about a population 'transfer' - ethnic cleansing - despite assurances from the United States. Israelis worry about daily security and the worsening economic crisis.


ALONG rectangular table takes up almost the entire space that is the sitting room, reception hall, dining room, and office for the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA). At one end of the room, Yasser Arafat - pale, with drawn features, glasses perched on the end of his nose - is bent over a raised desk piled high with files and documents, marking translations from the Hebrew press with a red pen. Just outside the door armed soldiers and uniformed officers watch over his security. No soldiers are posted around the Muqata, the headquarters of the PA in Ramallah. Relentlessly pounded by Israeli artillery fire, what remains of the building is surrounded by rubble. Arafat, now 74, sometimes ventures among the ruins to "warm my old bones in the sun," as he says. The cramped quarters where he receives us have no windows, for fear that an artillery shell might be fired in his direction "by mistake or otherwise".

The war in Iraq and its consequences worry him. He reels off the threats hanging over the Palestinians: the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, targeted assassinations, near-nightly shelling, "transfer" (the Israeli euphemism for ethnic cleansing) (1), but he avoids alluding to his own fate. Nabil Shaath, the PA's foreign minister, tries to be reassuring. He says he got "definite assurances" in Washington that there will be no massive expulsions and that Arafat will not be deported. Arafat remarks that a particularly deadly attack in Israel could give Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, the pretext to "destroy the last vestiges of the PA, which is his ultimate objective". What matters, he adds, is that the PLO will survive, and he insists that this organ isation is "indestructible".

Surrounded by a number of his ministers and advisers, he counters the arguments of those who have demonised him. He pays an emotional tribute to Yitzhak Rabin, whom he calls "the only partner who really believed in an equitable peace". He demonstrates the absurdity of the three conditions set by the Sharon government for the resumption of negotiations - his replacement at the head of the PA, the "democratisation" of the PA, an end to all forms of violence. He lists the peace initiatives, secret and public, that he has taken over the past three decades, at the price of stormy debates and tensions and schisms within the PLO, starting with the exchange of letters in 1969-70 with General Moshe Dayan, at the time Israel's defence minister, and including the "crucial turning point" of June 1974, when he got the Palestinian movement to accept the idea of a Palestinian state on only a part of Mandatory Palestine. (He was, for more than 30 years, the originator and fierce defender of a settlement based on the existence of two states living in peace side by side.) He cited the secret contacts that he initiated, year after year, with Israeli political figures on the right and left. He recalled that it was at his initiative that the Palestinian National Council (PNC), meeting in Algiers in 1988, finally accepted UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, at the same time declaring that peace was henceforth the strategic objective of the PLO. After the conclusion of the Oslo agreements, he got the PNC to remove from the PLO charter all the clauses that called into question the existence of Israel.

But had he not discredited himself by his inflexibility at the Camp David summit in July 2000? His denial was categorical: "The Israelis did not make a generous offer as people have claimed. This is simply a huge lie. All you have to do is look at the crucial testimony of Robert Malley, President Clinton's adviser who was assigned to keep a detailed, hour by hour, account of the conference for the president." But Arafat was pleased about the progress during the January 2001 Taba negotiations based on the Clinton parameters, which were far more realistic than the Camp David proposals of Ehud Barak. "We had almost reached a final agreement, including the Jerusalem and refugee issues, and we would have signed it if Ariel Sharon had not been elected prime minister a few days later."

And what about his peace strategy? "There are three main documents that should form the basis of a final settlement," he says. "The Oslo declar ation of principles, President Clinton's param eters, and the commitment made by all the member states of the Arab League to fully normalise their relations with Israel after the establishment of a Palestinian state." In the meantime Arafat says he is entirely willing to reform the PA "in the interests of the Palestinian people". He is not against the appointment of a prime minister provided, as one of his advisers told us in an aside, "that his role is not reduced to greeting visiting dignitaries and delegations". But he acknowledges his powerlessness against terrorism: the Islamist movements responsible for the suicide attacks, which he has repeatedly condemned, are, he says, directed and financed by regional powers. He limited himself to naming Iran and the intermediary, Munir Makdah, a Palestinian living in Lebanon who has close relations with Ayatollah Khamenei, supreme guide of the Islamic Republic.

Arafat says he did everything in his power to persuade Hamas and Islamic Jihad to renounce violence: the strongarm tactics resulted in deaths and injuries, and all the negotiations failed but one, in December 2001, before Sharon unilaterally ended the ceasefire that had been observed by all Palestinian factions for six weeks. How could he be expected to impose or maintain order after the Israeli army had destroyed the PA's security apparatus, dismantled and disarmed its police forces, and reduced all the Palestinian prisons to ashes except the one in Jericho, now placed under the control of US and British inspectors? As for democratising the PA, as demanded by Palestinian opinion, Arafat says that Sharon is preventing him from carrying it out. The legis lative and presidential elections, on which any reform programme must be based, could not be held on 20 January as planned because of the continuing blockade imposed by the Israeli army. Sharon has also paralysed the existing institutions by preventing Palestinian officials from moving from one place to another and so from exercising their functions. The council of ministers and the legislative council, the only bodies capable of introducing reforms, have been able to meet only episodically since the intifada began.

Arafat has many opponents in the Legislative Council, the intelligentsia, and the higher echelons of the PLO. They criticise him, often publicly, for his authoritarianism, his stalling and delaying tactics, his political errors, and the corruption of his entourage. None the less, most of them have decided to support him in the present circumstances. As one commented, trying to explain the paradox: "You can't dismiss the captain of a sinking ship, but the time will come when Arafat will have to account for management of the PA and handling of the peace process. Clearly, Sharon does not want elections or reforms that would return Arafat to control - and there is no question that he would be re-elected hands down, even if by a smaller margin than the 88% of the vote he got in 1996 elections.

TRAVELLING the 60 kilometres from Ramallah to Tel Aviv is like going from hell to heaven. But this first impression is superficial. Most Israelis are full of anxiety about their future. Ariel Sharon, and before him Ehud Barak, succeeded in convincing them that a peace settlement with the Palestinians was impossible in the foreseeable future. "In these last elections," Dan Meridor, minister of strategic planning in the Sharon government, said, "the Israelis did not choose between war and peace. They voted for security." Meridor, who is in charge both of coordinating Israel's security agencies and of the Israeli-Palestinian file, acknowledges that "the Israelis rightly see Sharon as the most determined hawk in Israel".

But the former Labour minister, Yossi Beilin, one of the main architects of the Oslo agreement, emphasises the disarray of his compatriots as demonstrated by the massive boycott of the elections - a 32% abstention rate, the highest in Israel's history. In his view, the level of disenchantment with the political process rises to almost one in two voters when you add the 12% of votes that went to Shinui (the party of change), which based its campaign on secularisation of the state. In the current circumstances, according to Beilin and other observers, voting for a party that virtually ignores the major issue facing voters, the Arab-Israeli conflict, is tantamount to boycotting the polls. The peace activist and former member of parliament, Uri Avnery, wrote that the behaviour of Shinui reminded him of the orchestra on board the Titanic, which went on playing waltzes while the ship was sinking.

The fact that the right, including the religious parties, got two-thirds of the Knesset seats - an unprecedented majority since the establishment of the state - is only an illusion. Opinion polls show that most Israelis favour the peace strategy of the left: withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza (including almost all the Jewish settlements) on which would be created the Palestinian state. They see as unrealistic Sharon's proposal to hand a mere 40% of the occupied territories over to the Palestinians for a few non-contiguous Bantustans under Israeli control. "The right fancies that it can impose a settlement that would make the Palestinians the donkey to the Israeli horseman," said Amran Mitzna, who dismisses this strategy as doomed to failure.

Certainly, the Israelis are worried about terrorism. But they are far more worried about two other prospects. One is existential: given the demographic growth of the two communities (2), the Palestinians in about a decade will be the majority in that Greater Israel so dear to Ariel Sharon. The occupation and colonisation of the territories seized in 1967 would have turned into a nightmare. The other worry is about Israel's economic crisis, the most serious in half a century. Depressed since the outbreak of the intifada two years ago, Israel has been battered by a significant drop in foreign investments, the loss of the Arab markets, the collapse of tourism and hi-tech industries, and the enormous budget deficit caused by additional spending on the settlements and army. Hundreds of businesses have closed. The number of unemployed has swollen, while the government expects to lay off some 30,000 employees in the public sector and to reduce the salaries of other civil servants by 8%. Social tensions are on the rise. At least 1.5 million Israelis, including 500,000 children, about a quarter of the population, live below the poverty line, while mafia-style activities, corruption and speculation enrich the happy few. The Israeli paradise of the golden age of Oslo under Rabin is no more.

In the clear analysis of Dan Meridor: "We have no miraculous cure for the crisis, unless we manage to put an end to the intifada." Or, in Mitzna's realistic remark: "Sharon would do better to occupy himself with his countrymen rather than occupy the territory of the Palestinians." Yet Arafat and his PA have no other option but to persuade Israeli opinion that their demonis ation is baseless, and that it is therefore possible to return to the unfinished work at Taba, interrupted in 2001. If they succeed, the hawks of Jerusalem and Washington who obstructed the peace process will be forced to take notice.

Eric Rouleau is a journalist and a former French ambassador.

(1) See Amira Hass, "Israel: a new Palestinian diaspora," Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, February 2003.
(2) See Youssef Courbage, "Demographic stakes", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, April 1999. Niels Kadritzke is a journalist in Berlin

Translated by Linda Butler

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