The best bet for peace - Arafat

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 12:00am

The United States has done it again. Its veto of the United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Israel not to remove Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat reiterates the US' determination not to allow Israel to be brought within the discipline of international law - at a time when even some Israeli air force pilots are repudiating their government's strategy of selective assassination.

Always present, the US concern for Israel is especially marked in the run-up to an American presidential election. As former US president Harry Truman explained when reneging on Franklin D. Roosevelt's pledge of a Palestinian homeland, he had to answer to hundreds of thousands of people who were anxious for the success of Zionism but he did not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among his constituents.

But the lone superpower has a wider constituency than presidential voters. American isolation there was exposed again when the UN General Assembly took up the thwarted security council resolution. Only the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Israel supported the US.

Of course, Israel's security must be guaranteed. Of course, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade militants would deserve rigorous punishment if they persisted in terrorism after Israel vacates its legally and morally indefensible occupation of Arab land, which provokes retaliatory violence.

President George W. Bush has a tremendous opportunity to reaffirm that the US is a force for political democracy and economic justice by breaking this cycle of death and doing right to a wronged people. Success in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would enormously help his mission in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Instead of dismissing Mr Arafat as a failed leader who should be removed, Mr Bush should recognise him as the 'legitimate leader' who 'embodies [the] Palestinian identity and national aspirations', to quote UN envoy to the Middle East Terje Toed-Larsen.

In adversity, Mr Arafat regained much of the popularity he had lost in power. Palestinians honoured him even more for standing firm when subjected to the continuous torture of blaring loudspeakers and blazing arc lamps in his gutted headquarters, with water and electricity cut off and key aides incarcerated. The probable objective was to reduce him to a nonentity by targeting loyalists and pressuring the populace.

Already, 75 per cent of Palestinians live below the poverty level. The US Agency for International Development says that 30 per cent of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition and 21 per cent from acute malnutrition. Anaemia afflicts 45 per cent of the young and 48 per cent of women of childbearing age. Nearly a third of the Palestinians depend on food handouts. Not one of 300 households surveyed in the West Bank town of Nablus had potable water. Thanks to Israeli curfews, the Palestinian health authorities operate at 30 per cent capacity. Poor sanitation warns of communicable diseases.

Israel's proposed 360km security fence, biting deep into the West Bank to protect 200,000 Jewish squatters, threatens the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian villages by cutting them off from their land. Even Mr Bush calls it a problem. The US might make a token cut in its US$9 billion loan guarantee to bail out Israel's recession-hit economy.

Mr Arafat did not launch the intifada (uprising) that forced Israel to the negotiating table. Palestinian radicals and intellectuals like the late Professor Edward Said accuse him of selling out. He cannot tackle the terrorists without risking civil war. Were Mr Arafat to be murdered, as Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted may happen, it would make him a martyr. Others, less prepared to compromise, would take his place. The Palestinians would give short shrift to a Bantustan-type puppet chieftain imposed by the US and Israel.

Mr Arafat is the best bet for a lasting solution. Instead of sidelining him, the US should strengthen his hand so that he can show his people that he has won a just peace. That means withdrawal from the territories - the Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, east Jerusalem and the West Bank - that Israel seized in 1967. Whether or not a Palestine is ever conceded sovereignty, there will be no peace in the Middle East as long as Israel is allowed to enjoy the fruits of conquest.

Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author