The Arafat complex
Sharon's obsession with sidelining Arafat knows no bounds, writes, Ibrahim Nafie
Ariel Sharon and his ministers are in the grips of an "Arafat complex". Through its affiliate political parties and the press the government has sought to disseminate the notion that Arafat is the major obstacle to the implementation of the roadmap, that he has relations with Palestinian resistance organisations on Washington's list of terrorist groups and, more recently, that Arafat is deliberately attempting to undermine the work of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). From all corners of the Israeli government comes the incessant chant: Arafat must go if Israel is to move ahead with the roadmap.
The Sharon government inherited this refrain from its predecessor. During Camp David II, in July 2000, Arafat withstood enormous pressure from Tel Aviv and Washington and, as members of the US delegation there revealed later, succeeded in evading the trap laid for him. For this success Arafat earned the enmity of the US administration, which advised commencing the search for a new Palestinian leadership and gave its blessing to the military action unleashed by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak against the PA. Since that time calls to bypass, oust or expel Arafat have grown increasingly strident.
However, for Sharon and the ultra conservatives in his government, the issue runs deeper, and is far more personal. They harbour a deep-seated hatred for the person of Arafat and a lingering resentment of the historic role of this symbol of the Palestinian cause. After coming to power in February 2001 Sharon declared he would work to either kill or expel Arafat and that he regretted that he had not done so during the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982. During the Israeli incursions into PA territories he revived this ambition, but was held in check by Arab and Western intervention.
Today his government's obsession with marginalising or expelling Arafat has reached new heights. Having capitalised on the post-11 September anti-terrorist alarm and the build-up to the war in Iraq, it has begun to play on two other developments: divisions within the EU and inter-Palestinian divisions.
The EU has split sharply over policy towards the Middle East with one side, in which rank Spain and Italy, favouring close coordination with the US and the other, championed by Germany and France, advocating an independent policy more in tune with EU interests. During the US-Iraq crisis this divide became particularly acute and its effects continue to be felt. For Israel these tensions have been fortuitous, and it began to lash out at those EU governments and organisations that departed from the American line, with a special focus on their dealings with Arafat. Israeli officials will refuse to meet with any European or EU official who meets with Arafat, the Sharon government threatened.
European reactions to this threat varied. Spanish officials, for example, chose to meet with Arafat only after their official visits to Israel had ended, while Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi set the pattern for Italian officials by refusing to meet with Arafat altogether. Not so Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, who insisted upon an official meeting with Arafat and who, when Sharon and his Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom responded that in that case they were not free to meet with the Irish foreign minister, declared that he would much rather see Arafat anyway.
The EU, in general, takes a view that Sharon finds inimical. It holds that Arafat is the legitimately elected president of the Palestinian people and cannot, therefore, be shunted aside or ignored. This stance was made abundantly clear to Washington in the last meeting held between Bush and EU representatives before the end of Greece's chairmanship of the EU. The EU delegation rejected US demands that its representatives boycott Arafat and refused to regard Hamas and Islamic Jihad as terrorist organisations.
Greatly disconcerted by such independent thinking, Israel welcomed Italy's chairmanship of the EU as an opportunity it might use. Although Italy has a history of impartiality on the Middle East conflict its current prime minister has departed from this tradition. The policy shift was encapsulated in a recent statement by Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini in which he said: "One of Italy's priorities in its chairmanship of the EU is to strengthen the position of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Concern for the role of President Arafat, or meeting with him, should not overshadow this priority."
Israel, with Washington's assistance, has obviously managed to recruit Berlusconi in its campaign against Arafat.
This development does not bode well. The EU has long adhered to its principles with regard to the Palestinian cause and other Middle Eastern issues. It would be no exaggeration to say that its independence from Washington has enabled us all to subdue tensions that could have otherwise have rocked Europe's relations with the Arab and Islamic world, and perhaps the relations between east and west. Certainly France, Germany and Belgium, for example, are to be commended for stances that put paid to the attempts of extremists in the east and west to fabricate cultural and religious clashes. We can only hope that the EU will reassert its principles and not allow its current chair to commandeer policy, all the more so as Berlusconi has admitted that he is not that well acquainted with events and conditions in the Arab world.
Israel and the US have also intensified pressure on individual European governments. Belgium has been singled out for a particularly strong dose of arm twisting from Washington, which has been pushing Brussels to repeal its Law of Universal Jurisdiction. Passed in 1993, the law empowered Belgian courts to prosecute persons accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Some 30 cases have been lodged against international officials, among them Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his role in the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla, and President Bush for invading Iraq without a Security Council mandate. The law has also triggered panic among Israeli generals, worried that they could be apprehended, if they went to Belgium, for war crimes committed against Palestinian civilians in Jenin, Nablus and other Palestinian cities.
Washington has indicated that, if Belgium does not repeal that law, it will not send officials to Brussels for NATO talks and would withhold further funding for the new NATO headquarters building. Some EU members lent their weight to the American demand as, of course, did Israel, which objected to the appointment of Marc Otte, formerly Belgian ambassador to Israel from 1992-1996, as the EU's special envoy to the Middle East. Eventually Belgium caved in and revised the law.
Israel's second tack in its plan to eliminate Arafat has been to allege that the Palestinian president is obstructing the work of his prime minister. Aware that the Sharon government would play on differences between Arafat and Abu Mazen to support this charge, Egypt has gone to great lengths to help clear the air between the two Palestinian leaders. We hope that they will continue to rise above petty differences and deprive Israel of a ruse that could easily be turned against other Palestinian leaders.
It is no news that the Arabs are the butt of a vicious campaign being waged by Israel and the Zionist lobby in the US and Europe. We must act decisively to counter this onslaught, as Egypt did last week when it learned of a petition being circulated in the US Congress, already signed by 26 senators, calling upon Egypt to cease all contacts with Arafat. Cairo reacted quickly, instructing its ambassador in Washington, Hussein Fahmy, to meet with the congressmen and explain to them how vital Egypt's role was in generating a climate conducive to the implementation of the roadmap and of PA reforms. Had it not been for Egyptian diplomacy, he stressed, Abu Mazen would not have been made Palestinian prime minister and he would not have been able to reach understandings with the Palestinian factions over a truce in fulfillment of the pledge to restore calm.
The Arabs are at a very delicate juncture, which compels us to work together constructively in the face of mounting pressures. There are numerous factors that can work in our favour. Above all, many European countries still hold that the Palestinians must be granted their full rights, including the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and they still recognise Arafat as the legitimate president of the Palestinian people. This position was made clear by British Foreign Minister Jack Straw in his meeting with Sharon. In response to Sharon's request that London sever its relations with Arafat in order to support Mahmoud Abbas, Straw responded: "Britain will maintain its contacts with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat as long as it believes this will be useful." Also, according to a Foreign Office official, Straw informed Sharon that the British position was in keeping with that of the EU, which is that it will continue to deal with Arafat in his capacity as the democratically elected Palestinian president.
Nevertheless, if the Arabs are to take proper advantage of such positions and deflect Israeli stratagems they must do more than merely posture before the media while sitting back to watch the interplay between the US, the EU and Israel unfold. At this point it is essential for us to act concertedly, availing ourselves of all possible diplomatic channels, to support the Palestinian people and their leadership, above all their president, Yasser Arafat.