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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Israeli-Palestinian Confrontation: Toward a Divorce

Filed under: Al-Qaeda and Global Jihad, Hamas, Palestinians, Peace Process, Terrorism
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 2, No. 2      June 30, 2002  

  • Arafat exercised a willing suspension of control at the start of the intifada, allowing irregular forces to attack while formal security forces remained on the sidelines.
  • One of the major concepts of Oslo was that in the end there would be a strong, centralized Palestinian authority/ government. This concept is gone.
  • We are heading toward a system in the territories of at least two but probably up to four or more undeclared principalities, each controlled, as is the situation now, by a different local coalition.
  • The Saudi peace plan and the ideas presented by President Mubarak indicate that independent decision-making by the Palestinians is now at least questioned by these states.
  • Arafat was not interested in a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders at peace with Israel. It was never Arafat’s intention to end his political career as the president of a mini-Palestinian state, which he sees as a sovereign cage.
  • Arafat has a strategy dedicated to the Palestinian cause, not the Palestinian people, and Palestinians know it.
  • Arafat never saw Hamas as an adversary. For Arafat, Hamas is a partner.
  • No Palestinian believes that there will be meaningful reform as long as Arafat is in charge.
  • This war is about only one issue. It is not about settlements. It was never about occupation. It is about whether the Palestinian state is going to be born in peace — and for peace.


Arafat Issued the Orders


The chaotic situation today was consciously, deliberately, and intentionally introduced by Chairman Arafat, though it has extended beyond the time frame he originally conceived. I describe his actions as a willing suspension of control, first exercised on the night of September 28, 2000, when he issued the orders and instructions to his political leadership and the different commanders of the security agencies to embark upon this endeavor. The order for the formal security forces was to stick to the sidelines and allow the irregulars — what later came to be known as the national and Islamic forces, an alliance of Tanzim, Hamas, Jihad, and the Fronts — to do the job.

This policy is still being pursued to a great extent by whatever remains now of the Palestinian Authority. However, this chaotic situation at the outset was intended to create the false impression that this quasi-intifada was some sort of replay of the first intifada — an eruption of popular resentment — and not a direct challenge to Israel by the PA led by Chairman Arafat.



The United Palestinian Emirates


I call the situation “intifouda,” “fouda” in Arabic meaning anarchy, and many Palestinians agree with this description. The situation has turned the areas under Palestinian control into something more resembling the United Palestinian Emirates.

One of the major concepts of Oslo was that at the end of the road there would be a strong, centralized Palestinian authority/government. Somebody very strong was supposed to be controlling the Palestinian areas and making sure there was no terrorism. This concept is gone and will not be returning for a long time. What we have now is the diversion of authority and power from the central government into the different districts. Therefore, from now on, we will have coalitions forming on the ground, and they are already forming very rapidly, with a leadership that will at one point replace Arafat.

We are heading towards a system in the territories which will have at least two, but probably up to four or more, undeclared principalities, each controlled, as they are now, by a different local coalition, each cooperating in different degrees with the coalitions in the other areas. A central government is going to shape up, once we hopefully reach the exit to this intifada, and it is going to look much different from what was originally conceived in Oslo.



Independent Palestinian Decision-Making?


Another concept which was destroyed by the intifada is what is called in Arabic “Istiqlaliyat al-Qarar al-Falastini,” which means the complete and total independence of Palestinian decision-making on issues relating to Palestine. A companion Palestinian slogan was “no Arab wisayah,” which means “no Arab patronage, sponsorship, interference, intervention.” Arafat began his political career in 1958 by running on these slogans and denouncing the Arab world for betraying the Palestinians back in 1948. This is the essence of the Fatah movement, which in the late 1960s took control of the PLO.

From a historical perspective, we have reached a point very similar to one reached after the intifada of 1936-39, called by the Palestinians “The Great Arab Revolt.” At that time, the neighboring Arab states returned to the scene and made decisions on behalf of the Palestinians, whether they liked it or not. Today, the Saudi peace plan and, more importantly, the ideas presented recently by President Mubarak, and many other signals, indicate that this ethos of independent Palestinian decision-making is now being questioned. I compare the situation to 1939, at the end of that intifada, when the British killed 5,000 Palestinians, and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was exiled. The Arab states were then called in to pick up from there.



No Mini-State at Peace with Israel


A basic tenet of the Oslo accord was the assumption that the Palestinian partner, Arafat, was/is interested in a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, at peace with Israel. It was never Arafat’s intention to end his political career as the president of a mini-Palestinian state, which he sees as a sovereign cage. This existed only in the fairy tales that Israelis and others were telling themselves. I don’t know anyone from Arafat’s closest entourage who believes in this.

The main fault in the Oslo Agreement was not the concept of seeing Israel’s strategic interest, as I do, in the creation of a Palestinian state. The main fault of Oslo was in assuming it was indispensable, as they thought at the time, to start the process by bringing in seven brigades of the Fatah and the PA Liberation Army and having Arafat on the scene right from the start.

Three scenes sum up the problem. The first is during the summer of 1993 when Rabin sends his own men to Oslo. Joel Singer, the attorney, tells Abu Ala that Arafat is to get Gaza and Jericho, a crucial foothold in the West Bank. Abu Ala calls Arafat in Tunis and Arafat says to a few people around him, “We have a deal.”

Twenty years earlier, Arafat had entered Lebanon according to the Cairo agreement with the Lebanese chief of staff, General Bustani, which allowed the PLO to have some armed personnel in the refugee camps and on the slopes of Mt. Hermon — a very limited agreement. Arafat said, “We entered Lebanon through that crack in the wall, the Cairo agreement, and I ended up as Governor-General of Beirut.” Arafat continued: “We are entering Palestine through this crack in the wall, Gaza-Jericho, and we will see where it leads.”

The second scene is of Arafat arriving in peace and euphoria for the start of the implementation of Oslo. He comes to Rafah terminal in Gaza, and a young Israeli soldier turns to another and says: “Gee, I didn’t know Arafat was so tall.” Arafat arrived in a Mercedes and his kaffiyah was scraping the ceiling of the car. You have to be an NBA player for that to happen. It turned out that Arafat was sitting on somebody whom he was smuggling in — Jihad Amarin — and Mamduh Nofal, the former military commander of the Democratic Front, was hiding in the trunk. They also had a few kalashnikov rifles and night-vision equipment in the car.

The third scene is more recent. A senior European, who is very close to Arafat and regarded by the Palestinians as a friend, visited the chairman and said to him: “You have had hundreds of casualties by now. If you allow this to go on, there will be many more. Isn’t it a shame?” Arafat replied: “They are all martyrs.” In other words, “We can take it.”

This sequence tells a story that is much more powerful than any expectations we might have had. Politically, I grew up in the Labor Party, but I did not believe for a fleeting moment that there was a chance that Arafat would perceive Oslo in the sense that it was perceived by many Israelis.

Arafat has a strategy dedicated to the Palestinian cause, not to the Palestinian people, and Palestinians know it. He is locked onto the objective; everything that serves that objective is fine. Agreement with Israel? Twice a day, no problem, as long as he does not have to become the undertaker of what he sees as basic, legitimate Palestinian rights. A deal with Israel, yes. An end to conflict, never.



Relations with Hamas


Arafat does not see Hamas as a rival or as an adversary. He never did. For Arafat, Hamas is a partner, which he keeps as a junior partner. Arafat’s legacy is the combined structure that he allowed to emerge during the intifada, an informal alliance, and now formal, among his own Fatah faction, Hamas, and the rest.

Arafat’s most recent speeches reflect how deeply versed he is in Islamic tradition. Arafat grew up in the Moslem Brotherhood. He was expelled from Egypt by President Nasser in 1957 as a Moslem Brotherhood activist, together with the late Abu Jihad. It is this combination of his brand of nationalism and Islamic nationalism that he allowed to become the political culture of the PA during the intifada. Therefore, on the face of it, tensions between the different segments of society have been reduced.

I believe that once we move toward an exit from the intifada, we will see a dramatic reduction in the popularity of Hamas, in their room to maneuver, in the way they conduct themselves. I do not see a situation where Hamas will opt for a clash, for a confrontation with the Palestinian Authority, whoever is on top. They will challenge policies and try to force their agenda, of course, but they will not try to topple the Palestinian Authority itself.



Failures of the Quasi-Intifada


I would describe what happened after Arafat issued his instructions on the night of September 28, 2000, as a “quasi-intifada” because in many ways it lacks a popular dimension. It remains the effort of certain mobilized groups and has not become a popular uprising. For example, the Palestinian countryside, with 300 villages in the West Bank, is suffering badly but has not really become a part of it. Had they done so in the same way they did in the first intifada a decade ago, the situation of Israeli settlers and movement on the roads in the West Bank would be entirely different than it is today.

The Jerusalem region, with 300,000 Arabs, has not offered one good day of intifada since September 2000. Almost all of the incidents in the city came from either Ramallah or Bethlehem.

The student body, tens of thousands of Palestinians in colleges and universities, has largely stayed out of the current intifada, except for those in the chemical laboratory of Najah University trying to produce explosives. Akram Haniyye, an important Arafat advisor, wrote an article in despair entitled, “Where are the students?” in a variant of Arafat’s popular mobilization slogan “Where are the millions?”

Arafat had also hoped to ignite the situation and create some sort of bloodbath in the territories that would spill over into the Arab world. There is bitterness in Arafat’s circle about how the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and even the Syrians have conducted themselves. President Mubarak appeared on the popular television show “Good Morning Egypt” to say that “no one — read Arafat — will be allowed to fight to the last Egyptian soldier.”

Thus, without a popular component, to quote a very important Palestinian friend of mine, “The intifada has committed suicide through suicide bombings.”



Prospects for Reform


The nomination of Gen. Yahya to the position of interior minister is not going to bring a change. Arafat is in a position to hijack any reform efforts made in response to the widespread call for reform from within Palestinian society. Arafat still controls the game, and no coalition is powerful enough to establish itself in his courtyard.

Therefore, no Palestinian believes there will be any meaningful reform as long as Arafat is in charge. But Arafat will not become the Queen Mother or become like Israel’s president, with his picture hanging from every wall but no one asking him for instructions or money.



Arafat and Succession


I believe in the absolute necessity of the “Muftization” of Arafat, referring to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The concerns about the repercussions and tumultuous reaction there will be to the deportation of Arafat and a few others with him are much exaggerated. I think we missed an opportunity with the Karine A incident to deport Arafat. In many ways Arafat’s finger is on our trigger, and whatever the cabinet did not want to approve yesterday, they will have to approve the day after.

I envision a short period after his expulsion when Arafat will be running around wherever he can go, but I think the focus of attention will switch here. Arafat’s prestige has hit bottom and I don’t think it can recover.

Arafat does not have a successor — he has many successors. He and Barghouti, for example share a basically similar approach. But it is my impression that most of the people we are talking about are much more pragmatic, are willing to adjust to limitations, to the balance of forces, to pressure from outside. I see more Arab intervention coming, which can provide a basis for different day-to-day policies pursued by the new coalitions.

Today, the single most important Palestinian decision-making body is not the Palestinian legislative council, but rather the central committee of Fatah, which is not part of the PA. This is why Dahlan and Tanzim want elections in Fatah. Among the 15 remaining Fatah central committee members, for quite a while Arafat has often been in a minority with two others on major political issues.



The Central Issue


The Palestinian “right of return” is the central issue. A mini-state is not the central issue and it never was. You will not find a Palestinian leadership that will be willing to accept any of the formulas currently being discussed as a solution to this problem. The Palestinian national movement is about the right of return; it is not about the West Bank and Gaza. Israel will have to be more flexible, not in the sense of allowing more refugees, but in the sense of arriving at a more vague and creative formula that allows for a long period of time to deal with this issue.





This is the moment that an Israeli government should add some political offer to whatever is being done militarily. A good formula would be to say that Israel is willing to go back to the “gates of Camp David,” knowing and emphasizing that we have a different narrative about what has happened and that there are consequences to the developments of the two years that have passed since our delegations left Camp David.

At the end of the day, it is crucial to explain to both the Israeli and Palestinian publics, and sooner rather than later, that we are talking about a two-state concept. But what does a two-state solution mean? According to my reading, it means two governments in the same country. We are mixed together with each other; hence, the importance of very close cooperation.

This war is only about one issue. It is not about settlements. It was never about occupation. It is about whether the Palestinian state is going to be born in peace and for peace, or whether it will be some sort of runaway state that is allowed to come into being without resolving the conflict with Israel, in order to maintain a state of fluctuating hostility.

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Ehud Ya’ari serves as the Middle East commentator for Israel’s Channel 2 Television. An associate editor of the Jerusalem Report, Ya’ari is the author of eight books on the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is an associate of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on the author’s presentation to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on June 17, 2002.