If we Israelis had had a leader like the Palestinian Authority’s Yasser Arafat, the state of Israel would never have come into being. Why? Because the test of a leader does not lie in his being swept up in his people’s dreams; it lies in his pragmatic ability to accept what can be achieved. It is better to realize part of the dream than nothing. And that can be accomplished only by a leader of great stature, with the strength to lead his people into the realms of reality and not succumb to the unrealistic wishes of the majority.
There were some among us who dreamed of a Greater Israel stretching from the Euphrates to the Nile, while others aspired to an Israel that would be a client state of the Soviet Union. Fortunately, the country’s leader was David Ben-Gurion. Far from being receptive to the ideas of the extremists, he fought them tooth and nail: “I do what the nation needs, not what the nation wants.”
Ben-Gurion did not yield to the moods of the street; he accepted what was achievable, without the West Bank, without the Gaza Strip, without the Old City of Jerusalem, without the Western Wall or Hebron or Rachel’s Tomb. In his place, Arafat would have put his foot down, and to this day Israel would have been languishing under his leadership as a frustrated nation with world sympathy but without a state.
The state of Palestine could have been established in 1948 alongside Israel, on the basis of the United Nations’ partition plan. But the Palestinian leaders of that time wanted all or nothing and remained with nothing when the Arab states invaded Israel. They created the refugee problem, took the territories for themselves and somehow forgot along the way that the Palestinians were owed a state. It sounds absurd, but it was only with the conquest of those same territories by Israel in 1967 that the Palestinians were able to demand them as the site of their future state.
The subject is leadership and leaders and their responsibility for what has happened, is happening and will happen. The Oslo accords represented a leadership breakthrough. The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat agreed to partition the country. Rabin the hawk shelved the dream of ruling the territories. He clashed with the settlers and began to prepare himself for the painful concessions to follow, and for that he paid with his life.
Arafat, in contrast, instead of taking advantage of the historic moment in order to prepare his people for compromises and for a reality in which not all their dreams would come true, returned to Gaza bearing militant messages and inflamed the masses with his battle cry: In blood and fire we will establish a state with Jerusalem as its capital. The Nobel Peace laureate, who undertook in writing to resolve all disputes by means of negotiations, did not doff his military uniform.
Instead of preparing the ground for conciliation, he wasted the seven years since Oslo inciting opinion against Israel and the Jews and instilling false hopes in his people. On the question of the right of return, for example, he allowed a series of murderous terrorist attacks against Israel, savaged his friend Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and brought the right wing to power in Israel, thereby bringing the peace process to a halt with his own hands. Enthralled by fantasies of Salah a-Din, he shot himself in the foot again and again — or, more precisely, the foot of the Palestinian people.
The accuracy of Abba Eban’s quip that Arafat has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity was shown again when Arafat, the prisoner of his own rhetoric, rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s initiative to reach a permanent settlement and an end to the conflict here and now. The far-reaching concessions that Barak proposed at Camp David last year — including the division of Jerusalem, which shocked large sections of the Israeli public — did not satisfy Arafat. Immediately after the summit meeting, he visited 37 world capitals and upon his return gave the green light for a military confrontation to be launched against Israel. By doing so he turned the public that had supported the process against the settlement and against the major concessions, and brought closer Barak’s fall to Ariel Sharon, Bibi Netanyahu and the right wing.
By his time-wasting and his sponsorship of violence, Arafat brought Barak, now at his lowest point in the polls, to a situation in which his only prospect against Sharon lies in one of three scenarios: He gets an agreement; he crushes the Palestinian Authority (as the army would like); or he leaves the bloody work to Sharon. There is no middle ground. If Arafat’s “yes” to U.S. President Bill Clinton does not entail readiness for compromises and an awakening from dreams, and if the old “all or nothing” attitude remains, we will once more see the serial misser leading his people, in blood and fire, years backward.
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