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Jewish Journal

The Occupier

by Rob Eshman

November 18, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Yasser, it's not like we hardly knew ye. We knew ye all too well.

All week I've watched as diplomats torture language to come up with something decent to say about this man.

Imagine the nicest thing anybody could say at your funeral is, "Well, now that he is dead, there is a chance things will get better."

With the exception of Kofi Annan, the pope, Nelson Mandela and the odd European prime minister, no one had anything much nicer to say than that -- even the Palestinians.

Over the years I have spoken with many Palestinians close to the peace process. They saw Arafat as an obstacle, a relic at best, a conniving, thieving, quixotic and cruel dictator at worst. And that from members of his negotiating teams -- and the Arabs.

"I do not care at all whether he remains unconscious," Egyptian columnist Anwar Wagdi wrote on Nov. 6, according to a memri.org translation. "I will not forget, as long as I live, how Arafat jumped for joy, dancing, singing ... as soon as he learned of the death of the late Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat."

Wagdi wrote what every Arab leader knows: Arafat's incessant flashing of his two fingers was "a traditional sign of victory, a victory that never was...."

Here's what the man did do: he placed the Palestinian cause front and center on the world stage, and managed to keep it there. After the Six-Day War, he provided the world a very different image of Israel than the positive one it deserved. He called Israel an occupier, a pariah, an apartheid racist state -- and the international community has to a great extent come to accept Israel on Arafat's terms.

And he proved the utility of terror to a new generation. Terror has been with humankind since time immemorial, but Arafat was its modern poster boy. His decision to walk away from the offer President Clinton and then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak put on the table at Camp David and instead support the second intifada was a brutal declaration of war. It was a war against civilians, and it was a war of choice.

For those of us who thought the evidence supported Clinton and Barak in their contention that Arafat could be a partner for a peaceful political settlement, that event locked the Palestinian leader's legacy firmly in our mind. At The Journal, we ran a cover caricature of Arafat sitting down for dinner, taking a sharp knife and fork to the dove of peace as his mouth dripped blood. Never have we received such angry reaction to a cover: from the right, for bringing Arafat into their homes; from the left, for demeaning a "peace partner." All I could tell the right was that this man was a reality we Jews had to face. All I could tell the left was, "Karine A." That was the name of the ship Israelis intercepted in December 2002 laden with munitions and headed for Palestinian terrorists. Arafat knew.

As former Secretary of State Colin Powell said at the time, "It's a pretty big smoking gun."

People can change, when they want to or when they have to. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who swore that every inch of Gaza was as critical to Israel as Tel Aviv, realized his folly and has taken a bold step toward ending it. The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose initial policy was to break the bones of young Palestinian protesters, saw a chance for peace through Oslo and reached out to shake Arafat's hand. Neither of these men relished taking those steps, but they put their people's best interest first. As the (conservatively) estimated $1 billion in Arafat's bank accounts proves, Arafat's favorite Palestinian cause was himself.

As diplomats break their teeth to praise Arafat, they have hastened to add that now Israel will not have Arafat as an "excuse" to stall any peace process -- as if Arafat's constant return to the methods of terror, his Stalinist control over the apparatus of government and free expression in the territories and his proven duplicity in international negotiations were not good enough reasons for holding out until a new Palestinian leadership emerged. Arafat was a roadblock to Palestinian well-being. Now, with him gone, there is one occupation down, one to go.

Israel's greatest challenge now is not to award Arafat a posthumous victory. Journalist Yossi Klein HaLevy, in a speech at B'nai David-Judea last week, said that every time Arafat rejected a major opportunity for compromise -- which was every time -- the next round of negotiations offered him less. True, but Israel's options are also narrowing. The demographic clock keeps ticking, and Sharon must continue to take bold and thoughtful steps, unilateral if need be, to ensure a secure Jewish state next to a stable Palestinian one.

The alternative will be one state: a violent, chaotic nation with a besieged Jewish minority, ruled by some Arab tyrant. In short, Arafat's dream come true.

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