Release Date: August 5, 1997
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

Arafat Caught In The Middle

by Eric Margolis © 1997 Eric Margolis

TORONTO - Just when things can't get worse in the Mideast, they always do. This week Hamas suicide bombers killed 13 Jewish civilians, wounded 170, outraged the world. and further heightened growing Mideast tensions.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu demanded PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat crush Hamas or face both termination of the stalled peace talks, and Israeli Army reoccupation of areas now under Palestinian control. Until terror ends, Netanyahu warned, there will be no peace. President Clinton dutifully echoed Israel's warnings.

By contrast, Italy's President, Luigi Scalfaro, called Israel's new settlements in Arab Jerusalem `an act of war.' that had sparked the outrage. Israel's own president, the highly respected Ezer Weizman, blamed Netanyahu's expansionist policies for the bombings. Europeans said the fault lay with President Clinton for having given Netanyahu carte blanche to renege on the peace accords - the very accords the US had pledged to guarantee and enforce. Responding to domestic political pressure, Clinton reneged on US peace committments, allowed Netanyahu to openly violate the accords. and even rewarded Israel with additional military aid.

Israeli critics of Netanyahu claim he deliberately provoked Palestinian extremists by new settlements and further confiscation of Arab land, both blatant violations of the Oslo peace accords. Netanyahu's hidden aim, say critics, was to kill the accords, which he and Likud Party's extremists have bitterly opposed, by making them untenable.

Caught in the middle of this bloody mess, the miserable, Yasser Arafat, loved by few, damned by all. Netanyahu and Clinton blame him for allowing Hamas to operate. Washington threatens to cut the trickle of funding that keeps the PLO Authority alive. Yet while publically blasting Arafat, the Israelis and Americans keep secretly shoring him up, knowing any alternative will be far worse.

Last year, during an even deadlier round of suicide bombings, Arafat's police arrested 200 militants, but failed to break Hamas. Still, many Israelis are convinced Arafat is secretly using Hamas to bomb them into concessions.

Arafat's latest attempts to dismantle Hamas - with covert assistance from Israel, CIA and FBI - also failed. Israel couldn't eradicate Hamas, either, when it controlled the entire West Bank and Gaza. Current Israeli reprisals, including isolating the West Bank and Gaza, throw Palestinians out of work and play directly into Hamas hands. But frightened Israelis understandably demand action.

While Israel claims Arafat is too soft on Hamas, rights groups denounce his government for persistent abuses, including 42 recent cases of Palestinian prisoners being tortured or seriously abused by Arafat's security forces, and the deaths of 12 Palestinians in PLO custody over the past three years.

Last year, Arafat's PLO and Hamas supporters came within a trigger pull of open civil war. Arafat lives in fear of Hamas assassins. He would like to crush Hamas, but dares not. Hamas is too popular and powerful.

When Arafat signed the Oslo Accords with Israel's Labor government, Palestinians believed they would get their own state with its capital in East Jerusalem. Palestinians of the Diaspora believed they would have a right of return to their lost homes.

While paying lip service to the peace accords, Israel's Likud government set about undoing them. According to plans recently leaked to Israeli media, Netanyahu aims to return less than 25% of Arab territory seized by Israel in the 1967 War. `Security roads,' that Jews alone will be allowed to use, will surround, criss-cross, and separate the Arab enclaves. Israel will keep control of the Jordan River borders, Gaza's links with Egypt, and Golan. There will be no Palestinian state, no right of return. Jerusalem will be totally annexed by Israel. Jewish settlements and expropriation of Palestinian land and water will continue.

In other words, a cluster of helpless, crowded, isolated apartheid-style bantustans, providing cheap, docile labor to Israel - policed by the PLO. Furious Palestinians say they have been duped, and are turning to Hamas and other extremist groups.

Hamas denounces Arafat as a Quisling serving the interests of Israel and the US. Recent Israeli press allegations of a secret $250 million slush fund created for Arafat by Israel reinforce Hamas accusations that Arafat has sold out to Israel. Two other former Arab leaders, Sudan's Jaffar Nimieri, and Egypt's Anwar Sadat, reportedly took tens of millions in secret bribes from Israel's foreign backers. Perhaps Arafat too, whisper his enemies.

Last week, the Palestinian Legislative Council gave Arafat an ultimatum to dissolve his cabinet on grounds of massive corruption and fraud. This was a remarkable event, the first time to this writer's knowledge any group in the profoundly dishonest Arab World had the courage to accuse its government of pervasive corruption, and demand change.

Nearly bankrupt, plagued by corruption, human rights abuses, and internal dissent, squeezed between intransigent Israel and the bombers of Hamas, undermined by Jordan's 'brotherly' King Hussein and an ever-hostile Syria, Arafat's wobbly Palestinian Authority teeters on the brink of the abyss.

Without real power, money, allies, or soldiers, Arafat must rely on his wits and guile to stay in this deadly game, hoping to extract some benefits for his increasingly demoralized, desperate people. His prospects look poor.

Meanwhile, the extremists of Hamas and Likud keep feeding off each other. Innocent Jews and Arabs pay the price of this murderous synergy.

The Israel Labor Party's assassinated Yitzhak Rabin and courageous Shimon Peres had the only answer: forge ahead with the peace process at all costs. Trade land for peace. Allow a viable, dignified, minimally armed, Palestinian state. Physically separate angry Jews and Arabs until emotions cool.

Look at the alternatives: more stalemate, igniting a bloody, new `intifada. More bombings. A new Mideast war. Or, ultimately, ethnic cleansing by Israel of Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.

[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]

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