Will Israel kill Yasser Arafat?

What the foreign papers are saying.
Sept. 12 2003 4:05 PM

Death for Arafat?

Yasser Arafat was in the headlines again Friday, following Thursday's announcement by the Israeli Cabinet that they had decided, "in principle," to remove the Palestinian leader. This development followed close on the heels of the appointment of new Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (see Monday's "International Papers" column) and has prompted heated debate over the deteriorating peace process. Many worried that Sharon wouldn't be satisfied with exile and might assassinate Arafat. Governments around the globe, including the United States, European Union, South Africa, and India issued statements condemning the Israeli vote. Several Arab leaders warned that the move would lead to heavy bloodshed, and the Arab League announced that Israel would be declaring "war" on the peace process if it evicted Arafat.

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Papers in Israel had mixed reactions to the news. The Jerusalem Post covered both angles with an editorial and an opposing op-ed. The editorial, titled "Enough!" argued, "[W]e must kill Yasser Arafat, because the world leaves us no alternative." The piece went on to say that, just as Israeli hard-liners complain of being held to a double standard in the war on terror, "Arafat's survival, under our watchful eyes, is living testimony to our tolerance of that double standard." The second Post article said that the fight over Arafat betrayed an inherent contradiction in Israeli thinking. * If he is such an important figure to Palestinians, "his exile would lead to a complete breakdown of order in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," and if he is marginalized, "then clearly there is no reason to call for his ouster."

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz looked to the uncertain future, pointing out in an op-ed that Arafat's removal "would not help, and it might hurt: It is liable to completely destroy any chance for negotiations with any wing of the moderate Palestinian leadership." The prospect of continuing the peace process after forcibly ejecting the Palestinians' most popular leader led another Ha'aretz columnist to wonder what Sharon is thinking: "[D]oes anyone know what the Sharon vision is?" The author argued that Sharon's tenure has been a "failure of leadership from every standpoint," providing "neither peace nor security."

Regional Arab papers, unsurprisingly, had similar feelings about Sharon. An article in the Arab News, an English-language daily based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, said that even if Sharon "dropped dead tomorrow, another stick-wielding, hate-breathing, bunker-minded, hard-line nationalist would take his place." The article also predicted that President Bush will soon disengage from the peace process, because "Israel is too complex, too hot an issue for any US administration." Other op-eds recapitulated the recent history of the peace process and listed Israel's sins. One of them, in Dubai's Khaleej Times, noted that Israel's failure to release more prisoners and its continued construction of the "security wall" proved that "Israel has no genuine intent towards setting up the Palestinian state: how can a state be split up by a wall parting its land? It is not an archipelago."

Several papers also pointed out the economic risks of eliminating the titular head of the Palestinian Authority, since Israel would likely have to assume the full burden of running the occupied territories. The poverty caused by the occupation, civil unrest, and travel restrictions have left the territories economically stagnant. As a piece in Le Monde of France noted, "This burden would be insupportable for Israel's finances, which are already in disarray."

One has to look all the way to Japan to find critical distance on the issue: An op-ed in Asahi Shimbun suggested a less controversial way to change the Palestinian leadership. Noting that Arafat's term in office has expired, along with those of the legislators who were elected in 1996, the op-ed called for an election "to bring in a whole new leadership for the Palestinian Authority, with the prime minister's authority clearly specified in a new Constitution."

Correction, Sept. 15, 2003: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the Jerusalem Post ran two contradictory editorials on Arafat's potential expulsion.  In fact, one was an opposing op-ed. (Return to corrected sentence.)

Ed Finn is the director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English at Arizona State University.