From the Chicago Tribune

Israel blocks path to peace

By Rashid Khalidi.

Rashid Khalidi is a professor of Middle East history at the University of Chicago

February 11, 2002

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came to Washington last week to persuade the Bush administration that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is irrelevant, and that the Israeli-U.S. boycott of him should be extended. Whatever the impact of his visit on U.S. policy, it should be said that this Israeli position regarding Arafat's irrelevance is considered ridiculous in Europe and everywhere else outside the Washington Beltway and Israel. The Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese and the Arab states know perfectly well that whatever they and others think of Arafat, the only possible objectives that could be served by trying to find alternative Palestinian leaders are a Palestinian civil war, an unenforceable agreement signed with people who have no legitimacy, or further delay in serious negotiations. The most likely of these to happen is the last.

These are of course Sharon's aims: he wants no agreement, delay suits him perfectly, and he wants to destroy the Palestinian Authority and any other possible basis for a real Palestinian state. Thus any of these outcomes serves his purposes. It is tragic that the shortsightedness and lack of vision of American officials allow him to get away with this charade.

Yasser Arafat has been allowing his deputies to talk to Sharon and to Israeli and American officials in spite of this campaign because, unlike Sharon, he really does want to negotiate. These individuals were engaged in such talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and others before Arafat was pinned down in Ramallah, so his being "punished" by Sharon has nothing to do with his willingness to allow his subordinates to negotiate.

This is yet another sad episode of Israel, with the U.S. pathetically following its lead, dictating to the Palestinians who can and cannot represent them. This disastrous course was followed from the 1970s through 1988, when Washington finally opened up a dialogue with the PLO, and again thereafter until the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin broke the taboo in 1993. This latest episode of a head-in-the-sand policy will only lead to more delay in serious negotiations, and more bloodshed, and the entire responsibility will be on the heads of the Israeli government, and its misguided friends in Washington, who refused to negotiate with the elected leader of the other side. Imagine what would happen if the Palestinians did the same on the basis of the perfectly reasonable objection that Israel's elected leader is objectionable to them because of his sordid past.

Of course there exists a serious Palestinian leadership crisis, and it is being exacerbated by Sharon's ham-fisted and transparent attempts to manipulate the situation, seconded by Israel's many influential Washington friends--Israeli Defense Minister Ben Eliezar said that Vice President Dick Cheney was more extreme than he was regarding Arafat. The recent European proposal for new Palestinian elections (which would involve Israeli withdrawals, the removal of its 80 permanent check points on West Bank and Gaza Strip roads, and the deployment of outside observers) is a serious and constructive attempt to resolve this crisis. Naturally, it was rejected by the United States, mainly because Sharon would not have it.

It must be stated that the individuals currently being courted by the U.S. and Israel have little or no independent legitimacy in Palestinian society. Ironically, Yasser Arafat's status has recently risen with his own people, after over five years of almost steady decline according to all the polls. He has rapidly gone from being very unpopular to being the object of sympathy and solidarity, not least because for a change he is sharing the imprisonment that has been the Palestinians' collective lot for so long. These individuals are all tainted by the universal criticisms of the PLO/PA for its corruption, its cronyism, and mainly its inept handling of peace negotiations, that allowed Israel to keep full control of everything important in the occupied territories for nearly 11 years.

Only a rapid end to the Israel's occupation, in a few months to become the longest in modern history, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel with a shared Jerusalem as its capital, and an equitable and mutually acceptable resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue that has festered for nearly 54 years will permanently resolve this problem. Anything that delays serious negotiations between the freely elected representatives of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples to achieve this end, including the ideas brought to Washington by Sharon, will only lead to more sorrow for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

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