Why Israel Needs Arafat


The New York Times, February 7, 1988


There is now universal agreement that the uprising in the West Bank and Gaza was not initiated by the Palestine Liberation Organization. Many Americans are hoping that an alternative leadership is emerging. The implicit assumptions are that Yasir Arafat is not interested in a permanent peace settlement and that the cause of peace would be better served by some alternative leadership. Neither assumption is correct.

            While Mr. Arafat remains secure as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, he is facing challenges to his leadership. For now, it is not serious, but this can change. The challenge is coming not from more moderate Palestinians but from radicals. If it succeeds, it will bring deep tragedy for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.

            In the course of the uprising, a clandestine radio station has emerged. It is called Radio al-Quds (Jerusalem), “The Station of the Liberation of the Land and the Man.” It is extremely popular with the Palestinians. A favorite feature is a young boy who gives technical information about the best way to throw a rock and use a slingshot.

            Another voice has also been heard, that of Ahmad Jibril, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command.

            Here are some excerpts: “I greet the heroes who taught the world how the will triumphs over the U.S.-Zionist machine of repression.” And, “We will not allow anyone to compromise over the Palestinian cause.” And, “What is taken by force cannot be retaken except by force.” And, “The uprising slogan is the return to the homeland…There will be no compromises.”

            The station carried a message to Hanna Sinyurah and Fayiz Abu Rahmah, Palestinians who met with the Secretary of State George P. Shultz. It called them “figures seeking to abort the popular uprising and to subjugate it to Zionism.” It warned them “of the consequences of persisting in their feverish endeavors.”

            In the Middle East, such warnings should not be taken lightly. Yet it must be remembered that Mr. Sinyurah and Mr. Rahmah went to Washington with Mr. Arafat’s blessing. They were in touch with him by telephone.

            Mr. Arafat appears to understand the limits and dangers of the uprising. He has spoken of the “stone as a jewel.” He has issued orders that no one is to resort to guns.

            We have demonized Mr. Arafat for so long that we are unable to see the obvious. For years, he has been trying to world out a negotiated settlement with Israel. He accepts the principle of “exchanging land for peace.” He has offered to accept United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 if America accepts the principle of Palestinian self-determination. He has said, “You can’t eliminate the Palestinians, just like you can’t get rid of Israel.”

            The recent scurry toward elections on the West Bank, a proposal now backed by the Reagan Administration and endorsed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, shows that Israel cannot cope with anarchy. It desperately needs an authoritative leadership it can negotiate with, someone who can get the Palestinian teenagers to cool it. Mr. Arafat remains the only person who commands sufficient allegiance among the Palestinians to carry that off.

            There is very little time. Mr. Arafat was right: For the Palestinians, the stone is a jewel. But it is also a fragile tactic. It is impossible that the Palestinians struggle will remain at that level indefinitely. Sooner or later, Israeli soldiers will be killed; Jewish settlers and their children will be harmed. Two weeks ago, a fire bomb was thrown against a school bus; fortunately, it didn’t go off.

            As escalation of the violence will play into the hands both of the Ahmad Jibrils and the Israeli hardliners, such as Meir Kanahe, Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Shamir. What they all have in common is that they oppose any compromise.

            Mr. Arafat is no saint. He is not without blame, but he has been telling the world that he wants to make peace with Israel. He will not fly to Jerusalem, but he is willing to go hand in hand to the conference table. Someone had better take his hand before it is too late.