The fatal flaw in Sharon's indictment of Arafat.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
May 7 2002 5:52 PM

Smoking Guns

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Does Yasser Arafat sponsor terrorism? Ariel Sharon has long said yes, and now he says he's got proof—actual documentary evidence. Though I haven't studied the documents, it wouldn't surprise me if Sharon is right. Where Sharon is wrong is in saying that sponsoring terrorism disqualifies Arafat as a negotiating partner. In fact, this isn't just wrong—it's in a certain sense backwards.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

For years, during waves of Palestinian terrorism, the question has been the same: Is Arafat unable to control terrorism or just unwilling? Sharon and other hawks have said he was unwilling, while many doves said he was unable.

Both positions have always lacked coherence. Doves called on Israel to negotiate with Arafat. Yet if Arafat is indeed powerless to stop terrorism, as they've claimed, what's the point of negotiating with him? Hawks said that, since Arafat was behind the terrorism, he could never be a "partner for peace." But what would be the point of cutting a deal with somebody who wasn't in a position to turn the terrorism off? The evidence Sharon says he now has in hand is, perversely, evidence that Arafat is a man worth doing business with.

Both hawks and doves would call this analysis simplistic. Both sides have long tried to iron out the paradoxes in their position.

Doves argued that if Arafat could deliver a state to the Palestinians his power would so grow that he'd then be able to rein in terrorism. And it's true that as circumstances change, his stature among Palestinians can grow. (Look what Sharon has done for it!) Still, if the huge wave of terrorism of the past year were completely beyond Arafat's influence, as some doves claimed, it would take an implausibly radical growth in his authority for him to end or greatly curtail the violence anytime soon.

Hawks, like doves, have failed to wholly resolve their contradictions. Granting that Arafat is by their own analysis the man who could end the terror, they've insisted that he'd never want to end Israel's suffering; he didn't favor a two-state solution, as he claimed, but was secretly bent on Israel's destruction. A key piece of supporting evidence—Arafat's rejection of Israel's offer at Camp David in the summer of 2000—has been widely accepted. But, as I've argued in these pages, this evidence just doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. Though we can't be sure Arafat wants a two-state deal, he has yet to be offered a deal so good that his reaction would settle the question.

Nor can you infer from any Arafat involvement in recent terrorism that he can't ever be trusted to carry out a deal. Obviously, terrorism violates the Oslo accords. But those accords, signed in 1993, have been effectively dead for awhile now. You could have a long argument about which side is more responsible for the unraveling of trust that spelled Oslo's doom. But in any event, by the time of the recent, intensive round of terrorism that Arafat allegedly abetted, both Israelis and Palestinians thought of themselves as being in a de facto war. When Israeli helicopters fired missiles at Palestinian cars, that didn't signify undying fidelity to the spirit of Oslo.

Might it turn out that, even years ago, Arafat was tacitly abetting terrorism? Wouldn't shock me—and he certainly wasn't taking huge political risks to shut it down. But to take that as a sign of some ideological, immutable drive to undermine Israel is to give Arafat more credit for vision than he deserves. I read him as someone who will do anything to stay in power and has very short time horizons; with Palestinians growing more radical, he has embraced or at least tolerated terrorism as a way of maintaining street cred, heedless of the long-term consequences. One goal of future peace maneuverings should be for America, Israel, and the Arab states to help create a context in which terrorism and Arafat's political interests no longer align. That's a depressingly stiff challenge, but the sort of evidence Sharon is now trumpeting doesn't mean it's undoable. (One approach: Give the Palestinians an ample enough state to de-radicalize them.)

A final fallback position for hawks is that, even if terrorists do sincerely want peace, it's a mistake to deal with them, because then you've rewarded terrorism. But this alleged principle is one Israel has violated repeatedly. Had it not been for years of terrorism, Israel would never have trotted out the Camp David concessions. For that matter, if it weren't for the more recent terrorism, Sharon wouldn't be making the meager offers he's outlining in Washington this week. There is probably no way to bring lasting peace to the Middle East without in some sense rewarding terrorism.

Obviously, Yasser Arafat's history (like Ariel Sharon's, actually) is one that doesn't fill the rational peacenik with optimism. Ideally, you would want the current Palestinian leader to be someone who inspires unwavering allegiance among Palestinians and who, once he makes a deal, will risk his very life to honor it. But it's long been clear that Arafat is lacking in both the power and character departments. The only question has been the exact balance of his deficiencies. In particular: Is he so devoid of power that, whatever his intentions, he couldn't crank down the terrorism significantly? A "yes" answer would be the best excuse for Sharon to break off communication with Arafat. But Sharon insists that new evidence points to "no"—and yet says that this evidence is all the more reason to break off communication.    

Sharon's position will probably prove effective. As a practical matter, the more blood Arafat can be shown to have on his hands, the harder the Bush administration will find it to push Israel toward the negotiating table. Still, let the record show that this won't make sense. If logic ruled the political universe (and if cows had wings ...), Sharon's new indictment against Arafat would, in some small measure, strengthen the indictment against Sharon.