Arafat's Embrace of Hamas
Jude Wanniski
August 26, 1997


Memo To: Anthony Lewis, The New York Times
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Your Monday, August 25, column

Congratulations on one of the best columns I’ve seen this year on the unraveling peace process in the Middle East. When I saw the front page photo in the August 21 Times of Yasir Arafat greeting Abdel Aziz al-Ratisi with a kiss, a leader of the Islamic militant organization, Hamas, I had no idea what to expect in the story that accompanied it, “Defying Israel, Arafat Embraces Islamic Militants,” by Joel Greenberg. Certainly what Greenberg wrote did not justify the headline. Your column Monday, “By the Sword,” provided an even better understanding of how the Israeli government, itself goaded by its militant nationalist and religious opponents of the Oslo agreement that began the peace process, has goaded Arafat and the Palestinians into the radical actions designed to rupture that process. The Times itself, in its official editorial statement, predictably condemns Arafat for embracing Hamas. But the Israel Lobby and its Amen corner at the Times cannot have it both ways. It has sharply criticized Arafat for not doing more to stop the kind of Palestinian terrorism that killed 14 people with a suicide bombing July 30 in a Jerusalem market. In your column, you point out what the whole world knows, except for the editorialists at the Times, that the Israeli terrorist who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 is succeeding in his aim of rupturing the peace process.

What would the Times have Arafat do in doing more to stop the violence? Arafat has condemned terrorism and condemned the July 30 suicide bombing. How could his equivalent here in the United States have done more to prevent Timothy McVeigh from blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City, after he decided to blow up innocent people as a statement against a government that incinerated innocent people at Waco? If Hamas was in fact behind the suicide bombing in Jerusalem, one would hope that Arafat would attempt to bring Hamas under greater control. As the Times reporter makes clear in his report, this seemed to be the reason why Arafat met with the Hamas leader last week. Yet the Israeli government immediately criticized the meeting as an embrace of terrorists. The Times account quotes a “close aide of Mr. Arafat” as rejecting the criticism: “None of the speakers advocated explosions or terrorism,” he said. “They all protested the Israeli policy that disregards the peace process. They agreed on a common policy of avoiding the dictation.” The Times’ Mr. Greenberg added: “The speakers, apparently following rules agreed upon in advance, did not call explicitly for violence against Israel, but instead urged ‘resistance,’ ‘confrontation,’ and ‘struggle’ against the Israeli ‘enemy.’”

What this tells me is that Arafat is doing everything he can to demonstrate his good faith, actually persuading the Hamas representatives to rein in their rhetoric. Yet the Times headline writer tells us “Arafat Defies Israel.” The man is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. The problem with an Israeli Lobby in the United States that serves only as an “Amen corner,” to use Pat Buchanan’s phrase, is that the Israeli hardliners know they can provoke terrorism against their own innocents and not have to answer for it. The so-called “religious leaders” on both sides of the Middle East holy war, the rabbis who call for apartheid and the muftis and imams who spew hatred and encourage suicide bombings, are in fact the men who are getting away with murder. That deserves a column in itself, Tony, but the one you served up yesterday was a breath of honest aid on the subject, for which I thank you and the Times.

August 25, 1997

"By the Sword"

The photograph of Yasir Arafat greeting an Islamic militant with an embrace evoked much outrage, in this country as in Israel. It was seen as another sign of Mr. Arafat's shortcomings as a leader, his failure to be a Mandela-like symbol of peace and reconciliation.

But the embrace was not a gesture isolated from recent events. It was a product of those events. And seen in that light, it signaled something much graver than Mr. Arafat's flaws. It showed us that the process started by the Oslo agreement has been undermined, perhaps fatally.

Oslo rested on the premise that Israelis and Palestinians had in common a profound interest in ending their conflict -- and that most of them would accept compromise and restraint as the price of peace. The agreement became possible when Yitzhak Rabin, a leader known for his toughness -- the man who during the intifada told Israeli soldiers to break Palestinian bones -- decided that peaceful compromise was better for Israel than unending military action.

Mr. Rabin brought most Israelis to believe in peace. And most Palestinians, too. Despite his well-known distaste for the man, he made Mr. Arafat a partner.

The assassination of Mr. Rabin in November 1995 set back those hopes far more severely than we realized at the time. Israelis did not have the same confidence in their security under his successor, Shimon Peres, and he sought to gain that confidence in ways that did much damage.

On Jan. 5, 1996, the Israeli secret service assassinated a Palestinian terrorist, Yahya Ayyash, known as the Engineer. The action must have been either approved by Mr. Peres or slipped by him as it would not have been by Mr. Rabin. Predictably, the consequences were severe.

Islamic militants said there would be retaliation. It began on Feb. 25, and it was devastating: four terrorist bombs that killed a total of 62 Israelis in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere. Israeli opponents of Oslo -- the nationalist and religious forces that oppose withdrawal from any occupied land -- railed against the peace agreement as a threat to Israeli security.

Later that spring the conflict with Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon heated up. When rockets landed in northern Israel, Mr. Peres ordered a grossly disproportionate response: air attacks, code-named Grapes of Wrath, that displaced 400,000 Lebanese civilians and killed more than 150.

The use of force did not save Mr. Peres's political skin. He lost to Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel's election -- and the deterioration of the peace process accelerated.

Mr. Netanyahu abandoned the Rabin principles of partnership and consultation with the Palestinians. Instead he took unilateral action designed to please the most right-wing elements in his coalition.

Against the advice of his own security chiefs, he opened an archaeological tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem that Muslims rightly or wrongly deemed an incursion. Riots followed. Last March he started a large Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem. Then he limited a scheduled troop withdrawal to a humiliating 2 percent of the West Bank.

After the recent suicide bombs in Jerusalem, Mr. Netanyahu imposed collective punishment on all Palestinians for the terrorist acts of an unknown few. He withheld tax money due to the Palestinian Authority. He had soldiers destroy Palestinian houses supposedly built without permits -- a terrible blow to middle-class families.

The punishments would not end, Mr. Netanyahu said, until Mr. Arafat "cracked down" on terrorists. Of course it was politically impossible for Mr. Arafat to yield to such a demand. His public wanted him to stand up to pressure from Israel and the United States, which supported the demand for a crackdown without any attention to Mr. Netanyahu's provocations and humiliations. Hence the embrace.

So the extremists are winning. Mr. Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, wanted to destroy the peace process, and he may well have succeeded. The Palestinian extremists have the same aim.

The process can only be rescued if the dominant partner, Israel, returns to Mr. Rabin's principles of restraint and consultation. Only a determined optimist could look at Mr. Netanyahu and his Government and see much hope of that. 

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company