All the existential problems of the State of Israel are now merging into one question: What to do with Yasser Arafat?
Who doesn't deal with this? Ministers and taxi-drivers, professors and fruit vendors, reserve generals and flight attendants, members of the Knesset and top models, settlers and TV entertainers, columnists and owners of market stands. Everybody who thinks that he is somebody contributes his bit to the national debate about the right way to get rid of this obstacle.
Ma'ariv newspaper, for example, published yesterday in its weekly supplement a cover-story containing a real scoop. A document titled "State of Israel / General Security Service / Top Secret" begins with the words: "Following the events in the 'territories', the question arises anew: Is Arafat a factor that helps in the solution of the historic conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people or is he a leader who constitutes an obstacle to this solution, and his policy and actions create a serious threat (emphasized) to the security of Israel." And the answer: "The person (emphasized) Arafat is a severe threat to the security of the state. The damage caused by his disappearing will be small compared to the damage caused by his being there."
Up to now, four ways of solving the problem have been publicly announced by ministers and journalists:
And what will happen after that? To this, too, several answer are given:
There is a mental illness called "paranoia vera". A person victim to it takes a totally unreal assumption ("The world is a cube" or "Everybody is out to kill me") and builds on it a perfectly logical system. The very perfection of the logic is a symptom of the disease. The more encompassing the system, the more severe the disease.
The crazy assumption that lies at the base of our special paranoia is the denial of the occupation. If there is no occupation, there is no war of liberation of the occupied. If there is no war of liberation, there is no national uprising. And if there is no national uprising, then it must be terror. Clearly somebody must be directing this terror. Who can that be? Arafat, of course.
If a person is stricken with paranopia, he has to be helped to fight it. After all, he is not to blame. But if this particular patient has a mighty army, and if he infects it with his illness, he is dangerous to himself and to others. A responsible psychiatrist would commit him to an institution.
But here, the whole political establishment (including the opposition), the General Staff of the army, the Mossad and the Security Service have all been infected with this illness. It affects their reasoning processes and creates a perfect - oh, how perfect! - system of conclusions.
It is enough to look at the annals of liberation struggles in the last hundred years in order to see that all the means used against them were useless, and that many of them were counterproductive.
In the Congo, Belgian agents killed Lumumba, and in Palestine the British killed Abraham Stern. The French in Algeria imprisoned Ben Bella; the British in India did the same to Ghandi, in Palestine to Moshe Sharett and his colleagues, in Kenya to Kenyatta; the whites in South Africa imprisoned Mandela. The British in Palestinian exiled the Arab leadership to the Seychelles and Yitzhaq Shamir to Kenya; the French in Morocco exiled Muhammad V. The list is long. Well, did it help?
The government and the army need a lot of arrogance, stupidity and ignorance in order to believe that an occupied people wi,ll change its leadership by orders of the occupier. The natural inclination of a people fighting for their liberty is to unite behind the attacked leader. The more the occupier vilifies and persecutes the leader, the more popular he becomes with his own people. See: Arafat.
If Israel murders Arafat, directly or through agents, he will become a romantic legend, rather like Che Gevara. The Palestinians will react, of course, by electing a more extreme fighter. Neither Nabil Sha'ath nor Abu Ala will take over; its far more likely to be tough fighters from the ranks. In the name of the murdered leader, who will become a symbol for generations to come, they will do things compared to which everything that has been done until now will pale.
(Obviously, some of the inventors of this idea do not ignore this possibility, but, on the contrary, hope that it will be the outcome. They believe that the hostilities will reach such atrocious levels that it will finally make the mass-expulsion of the Palestinians from the whole country possible. The result will be Armageddon.)
Experience shows that an imprisoned leader does not lose his influence, rather, the opposite is true. He becomes the center of all his people's aspirations. He directs the struggle from prison. This is even truer for an exiled leader. Not to mention the Arab, Muslim and international reaction. Throughout the world, the popularity of the exiled leader will rise.
Like every secret political police, our Security Service adapts it assessments to the presumed wishes of the political boss. Probably it bases them on reports of collaborators and the stories of tortured prisoners. Not a good basis for political assessments.
But why go far? Our own experience is enough. It was Ariel Sharon (yes, the same) who once found a patent medicine for all our ills in the occupied territories: he appointed a new Palestinian leadership, called "village leagues". They were so ridiculous that the Palestinians did not even bother to kill them. They were laughed out of court and disappeared.
After that, Sharon (yes, yes, the very same) appointed a leadership for Lebanon. He took a local ruffian, Bashir Jumayel, and made him President of Lebanon. When he was killed, Sharon elected his brother instead and made an official peace treaty with him, with a lot of articles and sub-articles, that established an official peace between Israel and Lebanon for generations. You don't remember? Don't be upset, nobody does.
I don't know how to cure this paranoia. To do so, our patient has to recognize basic facts: That there is a historic conflict between two peoples, that there is an occupation and a war of liberation. The Palestinian people are led, now more than ever, by Yasser Arafat. He is there, and one might say: fortunately for us.
One can respect or hate Arafat - it does not change the fact that he is the only person - now and in the foreseeable future - capable of both making a decision and convincing his people to accept it. For that, one has to be a leader with moral and political authority in the eyes of his people. Arafat has it, and nobody else has.
In today's Israel, hating Arafat has become a fad, common to both right and left. It's easier to hate Arafat than to come to grips with the basic facts of the conflict. Everything is dragged down to the personal level. If so, let's have a look at the man.
Arafat decided at the end of 1973 that the Palestinian national interest demands a peace agreement with Israel. I know this, because at the time I maintained, together with others, the first contacts with the PLO leadership. At that time, Shimon Peres was still busy with establishing settlements in the middle of the West Bank (Kedumim), and Yitzhaq Rabin in deepening the occupation. Arafat prepared his people, step by step, cautiously and resolutely, for the change that led to Oslo. He was several steps in advance of his people, and was always compelled (like Ben Gurion with us) to take the courageous decisions alone. But he never wished (or could) impose them on his people. His way of doing it was by the old Arab method of Idjmah - the discussion goes on until the last person in the tent is convinced.
Of course, he used all the means in the arsenal of a weak and oppressed people: diplomacy, violence, ruses, propaganda, plots. Much like us. That was his duty, as a leader of a people on the way to liberation.
A leading Egyptian thinker once told me: "If there were no Arafat, it would have been necessary to invent him." Fortunately, he is there. We shall find no other.
Uri Avnery is a peace activist and former member of the Israeli Knesset. ,