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The Arafat Factor

Palestinian leader seen as wild card stymieing support for peace process in United States and Israel.


by James D. Besser

November 28, 2002 | 7:00 pm

According to a poll released last week by Americans for Peace Now (APN) and the Arab American Institute (AAI), U.S. Jews continue to support an active Mideast peace process and a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, despite two years of horrific terrorism and the bitter disappointment of a peace process turned sour.

The poll showed that a majority of Arab-Americans hold similar views, leading to suggestions by the two groups that U.S. attitudes about peace can be "exported" to a region that has known nothing but war.

But it's what the poll didn't ask that represents the wild card for pro-peace process groups: what about Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who still seems to think suicide bombers and rampaging gunmen are legitimate instruments of negotiation?

That dichotomy -- strong ongoing support for the idea of a negotiated settlement resulting in Palestinian statehood but overwhelming distrust of the current Palestinian leadership -- also defines the problem facing Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party's candidate for prime minister in the Jan. 28 Israeli election.

Amazingly, terror-battered Israelis still tell pollsters they want a negotiated settlement. However, Mitzna will have a hard time explaining how to reach a settlement while a treacherous Arafat still calls the shots in Ramallah.

Last week's numbers, compiled by pollster John Zogby, were striking, if incomplete. Of the U.S. Jews polled, 85 percent agreed that "Palestinians have a right to live in a secure and independent state of their own"; 95 percent of the Arab Americans said Israelis have the same right.

Add some details and the margins shrink, although the numbers still show a surprisingly durable belief in political negotiations.

A slim majority of Jews -- 52 percent -- said they would support "a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that included the establishment of an independent, secure Palestinian state alongside an independent, secure Israeli state; the evacuation of most settlements from the West Bank and Gaza; the establishment of a border roughly along the June 4, 1967, border; a Palestinian right of return only to a new Palestinian state, and establishing Jerusalem as the shared capital of both countries."

Thirty percent of the Jews opposed that proposition; 18 percent said they were "not sure." The poll also found 41 percent of the Jews blamed "mostly the Palestinians" for the breakdown in peace negotiations, but even more -- 42 percent -- blamed "both sides."

The poll revealed something else: An overwhelming proportion of U.S. Jews are pessimistic about Middle East peace -- about 75 percent -- and that pessimism points right back to the missing presence in the survey -- Arafat.

Zogby, AAI's president, said the pollsters wanted to avoid questions that would provoke hot-button responses. Presumably that also explains why Ariel Sharon, a reviled symbol to many Palestinians and their supporters, was omitted from survey questions.

However, Arafat's negative impact on Jewish public opinion cannot be overestimated. Many of the same U.S. Jews, who strongly support the idea of resumed negotiations and even back creation of a Palestinian state, no longer have any hope that Arafat is willing or able to cut a deal that would guarantee Israel's security.

APN hopes that its poll will help pro-peace groups gain traction with a Jewish public soured by the collapse of the Oslo process and the new, deadlier surge of Palestinian terrorism. However, the Arafat factor could be a major impediment. Peace groups that are perceived as advocating a return to Oslo-style negotiations with Arafat will not rally centrist U.S. Jews to their cause, despite strong underlying support for the idea of resumed negotiations.

The same dynamic will probably hold in the Israeli election. There is continuing support among voters for a return to negotiations and even for Palestinian statehood. However, throw Arafat into the mix and that support plummets. If Mitzna is seen as seeking a renewed embrace of Arafat, Israeli voters are likely to reject him in overwhelming numbers. And he won't do any better if he moves to the right and offers voters a "Likud-light" platform.

To a considerable degree, Mitzna's candidacy is hostage to Arafat; so is a struggling peace movement in this country that has strongly condemned the wave of Palestinian terror, but which has been unable to jettison its attachment to the embattled Palestinian leader as a legitimate peace partner.

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