April 4, 2002
JERUSALEM - Of all the powerful television images of the dreadful Passover-Easter week recently ended, perhaps the most insidious was that of Yasser Arafat, trapped in his office in Ramallah, his electric power shut off by the Israelis, vowing by candlelight never to surrender, to die a martyr rather than be exiled by his nemesis Ariel Sharon. Arafat did his best to look every bit the victim.
He appealed to the world to save him from the clutches of Zionist aggression, and even took a moment off from his own troubles to offer condolences to the British public upon the death of the Queen Mother. In case anyone was moved by his performance, let me offer a few images of my own. A couple of weeks before Passover, a Palestinian suicide bomber nearly blew up a café down the block from my Jerusalem home. Miraculously, his detonator failed and he was quickly captured.
My wife had finished her lunch at that very café 20 minutes before the killer arrived. That night, feigning normalcy, we went out to dinner with friends and left our son and daughter, 12 and 10, at home with our large German shepherd and a pizza. When we returned we found the kids huddled in our bed with baseball bats. "Self-defense," said my son, brandishing the Louisville Slugger that I bought him at the bat factory in Kentucky.
I begin with that poignant domestic scene, rather than gruesome images of the many suicide bombings that did not fail, to make an important point. This is not about a competition of victimhood. Both sides have suffered tremendously. Of course there is no comparing my kids on a quiet block in Jerusalem with terrified Palestinian children in Bethlehem, just a few miles down the road, peeking out the window at an Israeli tank.
But at the same time, neither can one allow the heart-rending images of Palestinian suffering - italicized by the high drama of defiant gunmen holed up in the Church of Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus - to obscure the fact that the week of Passover marked the zenith of a terrorist war upon Israeli men, women and children, and that Israel finally struck back hard, as any other nation would do. By the time the week-long holiday ended the number of people murdered at the Passover Seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya had risen to 26. Rescue workers found blood-spattered Seder prayer books and ritual foods - the detritus of a classic pogrom.
Fifteen more Israelis died at the Matza restaurant in Haifa, a business managed by Arab citizens of Israel but blown up nonetheless by the Palestinians. The big difference between such terrorism and Israeli military action - need one say it yet again? - is that when Israeli soldiers kill innocent civilians, they do not do so intentionally, with carefully calculated premeditation.
As it happens, I have advocated the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 and continue to do so. Like virtually all of my friends and colleagues here in Israel I was a staunch supporter of Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo peace process he led, and of Ehud Barak's bold land-for-peace initiative at Camp David two years ago.
I'm also aware that a great many Palestinians were deeply skeptical of the Barak-Clinton move, given the fact that Israeli settlements, and humiliating restrictions on Palestinian mobility, had remained in place through the Oslo process. I realize too what Ariel Sharon, architect of the Lebanon War, represents to Palestinians.
But what's harder for a rational person to fathom is why Arafat decided to elect him. Because by launching the violent Intifada, instead of continuing to negotiate, Arafat ensured that a wounded Israel would draw on its most primal impulse, that of self-preservation, and choose a fierce warrior as its leader.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan put the matter very clearly several long weeks ago when he warned the Palestinians that terrorism was "making Israelis believe that it is their existence as a state, and not the occupation, that is being opposed." Which brings us back to Arafat's lair in Ramallah. Some years back, during the palmy Oslo days, I ran into a Scandinavian diplomat at a cocktail party.
The man knew Arafat well, and asked me to guess what the Palestinian leader kept in his breast pocket. I confessed I was stumped. An old folded map? The key to a house in Jaffa? No, came the answer: A mirror. Obsessed with his revolutionary image - the military fatigues, grizzly beard, kaffiyeh headdress folded just so, he checks it regularly. For many people - not least himself - Arafat is a symbol, a grotesque variation on the Queen Mother.
Competing Palestinian militias and terror units, whose beef is often as much with Arafat's administration as it is with the Israelis, continue to utilize him as a convenient figurehead. European leftists, for whom the Palestinians are the grand cause du jour, have flocked to his side. Indeed several dozen such folks managed on Easter Sunday to enter his Ramallah compound, providing their brave hero with a human shield.
But hold a bright mirror to Arafat and this is what you see: A devious lifelong terrorist, incapable of making the transition from chaos-sower to statesman, a coward who would rather die than run a democratic country. Papers that the Israelis seized last week in Ramallah documented beyond doubt the direct link between his Palestinian Authority and the suicide bombers he has cynically pretended to deplore.
Arafat has murdered the peace process, and now, in an act of obscene chutzpah - like the parricide in the old joke who throws himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he's an orphan - cries out for the sympathy of the world. "The Palestinian people deserve peace," declared President Bush last week, as he signaled America's scaled-up involvement.
"They deserve a government that respects human rights, a government that focuses on their needs rather than feeding their resentments." My heart too goes out to our Palestinian neighbors of good will, with whom I continue to believe my children will one day live in peace. Arafat, the charlatan of Ramallah, has trampled his people's best interests, and deserves nothing but disdain - and early retirement that is long overdue.
This article originally appeared as an op-ed in the Orange County Register