Editorial: The Man With The State In His Mouth

A new spectre haunts the halls of the Knesset. What if May 1999 comes and goes with no final agreement, and Yasser Arafat unilaterally proclaims a Palestinian state? The Israelis have made such a fuss over the matter, it seems to have impressed Arafat himself. The two big Hebrew dailies, Yediot Aharonot and Ma'ariv (accustomed to stumble over each other's wiretaps) devoted hefty chunks of their weekend supplements on June 19 to the scenarios that might result from such an announcement. This is what bored journalists do when a process is stuck. Arafat has found it politic, of late, to raise the possibility of such a move. There is, however, a problem. He's already proclaimed his state, remember? It was ten years ago, at the height of the Intifada, at a meeting of the Palestinian National Council in Algiers. When you have to announce such a historic occasion twice, it ought to make you wonder.

The truth is, Arafat didn't mean it ten years ago and doesn't today. After the event in Algiers, the Americans wouldn't let him into New York to address the General Assembly, so he met the UN in Geneva. There he repeated his momentous proclamation, but afterward, in the news conference, he declared the Palestinian national charter "caduc," and he went on to denounce terrorism. Thus Arafat spread beneficence in all directions. He appeased his fighting people of the Intifada by declaring a state. But he also winked toward Israel and the US. He forgot that both the charter and the armed struggle had brought him to the podium on which he stood.

Israelis fear such a one-sided declaration. Not that they oppose a Palestinian state. On the contrary, they have long since grown accustomed to the idea, and they have no problem with such an entity as long as it's a state in name only – within the legal framework of Oslo. If Arafat were to proclaim a state outside that framework, however, this would mean, for all sides, a step into the Dreadful Unknown. Oslo remains, all told, a convenient outcome for Israel. Its soldiers no longer chase children in the alleys of Gaza or Nablus. Palestinians maintain order instead. (That is why the army is anxious to keep the process going.) Oslo includes a tacit Palestinian consent to Israeli settlements, to Israel's hold on East Jerusalem, and to the permanent exclusion of the refugees. Economically, meanwhile, the Territories remain under Israel's thumb. It would be a shame to lose such a neat solution.

The Israelis need not fear. Arafat's threats are merely a stalling device. To declare a state would be to dig his own grave. First, he controls only 3% of the West Bank, the so-called Area A. Would Gaza, plus Area A, be his state? Or does he expect to wrest Area B (25% more) from Israel's army? Since his economy depends mainly on Israel, secondarily on the US and Europe (see the special report in this issue), how shall this new state survive? When Arafat decided to place himself under the American aegis, he gave up the possibility of independence. He did not play his people's cards well. In signing the first accords, he thought that the Labor Party would help him appease a hungry, disappointed population. He did not reckon on the rise of a right-wing government offering "Oslo minus." The ground, he now feels, is crumbling beneath him. The stagnation of the "peace process" saps his prestige. The popularity of Hamas, his rival, according to Israeli and Palestinian sources, has risen between 30 and 40 percent. Its leader, Sheik Yassin, is treated as persona grata all over the Arab world. Palestinians are disgusted with Arafat's regime of corruption (see Challenge # 45, as well as "Long Distance Calling," in this issue.) Such popular support as he receives today comes from patronage: he uses the money meant for public investment (infrastructure) to create make-work jobs. In desperation, therefore, he has picked up on the idea of proclaiming a state; it is a grotesque attempt to revive his national following. But Arafat, everyone knows, is a master of the empty declaration. Did he not vow to liberate Jerusalem – while laying the bricks for a parliament in the desert village of Abu Dis? Unfortunately, the secular Palestinian "opposition" groups are encouraging Arafat to declare a state. Instead of working to abolish the Oslo accords and build a new national leadership, they jump onto a bandwagon that the chief himself doesn't take seriously.

It is not declarations that make a state, but a combination of power and moral right. The Intifada united these elements. It could have achieved its aim eventually. But Arafat aborted the Intifada. He has foreclosed the possibilities it opened. The task of re-opening them will devolve upon those Palestinians who have learned the hard lessons of Oslo.