Can You Really Make Peace with Somebody Like Arafat?





Ms. Klinghoffer is senior associate scholar at the Political Science department at Rutgers University, Camden, and the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East.

Can a leopard change its spots? That is the question confronting states under attack from radical forces seeking their demise. "No" has been the traditional answer. It's either you or the leopard. "Yes" has been the novel liberal one. The trick is to give the leopard reason enough to change, a stake in your coexistence. Hence the phenomenon called a peace process. Appeasement seeks to satiate the leopard; the peace process seeks to turn him into a herbivore.

In the Middle East, Yassir Arafat is the leopard whose spots the Israeli Labor government tried to change. In 1991, the first Bush administration used the leverage it gained by its victory in the Gulf War to organize the Madrid peace conference. For the first time it brought together Israel and the Arab states around the same table. West Bank and Gaza Palestinians were represented as part of the Jordanian delegation. The Likud government had insisted that Israel could not be asked to negotiate with those who sought its destruction, and its position was strengthened by Arafat's support of Saddam Hussein.

Things changed after Labor, headed by Rabin, took over the Israeli government and the Democrats headed by Clinton took over the American one. Saddam Hussein stayed put, and Arafat proved just as successful in stalling the post-Madrid negotiation. In 1993 an impatient Rabin was convinced by Peres and Beilin to try changing Arafat's spots by giving him a fiefdom to run. Making Arafat responsible for the lives of actual Palestinians was to provide Israel with both sticks and carrots. The sticks would range from economic sanctions to the threat of retaliation against areas under his control, and the carrots would include the promise of more land, an entry to the international halls of power and, ultimately, to an opportunity to emerge as the Palestinian George Washington. The experiment failed miserably. But why?

In a recent op-ed NYT piece, Lisa Anderson blames the poor example of Arab governance, the international community, and the paucity of the stake Israel gave the Palestinians. Others blame the intractable ethnic and religious aspects of the conflict, Israeli settlements, the subsequent elections of Likud prime ministers, and the fact that Arafat is no Mandela. In short, everybody accepts the assumption that the peace process was an effective way to get the leopard to change his spots despite evidence to the contrary. Arafat's and his lieutenants repeatedly made speeches in Arabic calling for anti-Israeli jihad, delayed for years amending the PLO charter calling for the destruction of Israel, explained that they had not given up the hope of liberating all of Palestine (including Israel), argued that the Oslo peace process was but a Trojan horse designed to undermine Israel, published maps which did not include the state of Israel and taught blatant anti-Semitism in Palestinian schools. Taking notice of the Palestinian Authority's transgressions was seen as either uncouth, or as war mongering. Indeed, it seemed that Israel, the U.S. and the entire international community were so invested in the success of the peace process that there was nothing Arafat could do to jeopardize it. Thus, regardless of the difficulties experienced by Israelis and Palestinians, the Oslo peace process became a model to be followed. One of the places following the model was Colombia.

Colombia's leftist guerrilla organizations, like the Palestinian ones, have been around since the 1960s. The two largest ones are the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). To simplify matters, I will focus on FARC. In 1998, following a series of secret meetings in Costa Rica and Mexico City begun under his predecessor, the newly elected President Andre Pastrana formally recognized the political status of FARC, evacuated his troops from five southern districts the size of Switzerland (commonly called "despeje"), and granted immunity to three negotiators chosen by FARC.

It is important to note the obvious differences between the two conflicts. There are no religious or ethnic differences between FARC and the Colombian government. Colombia is not surrounded by hostile pro-FARC neighbors (though Chavez's election in Venezuela did provide FARC with a most useful ally). Settlements are not an issue, and neither are borders. Moreover, Pastrana, the architect of the peace process, was neither assassinated nor replaced by a leader opposed to the process. Still, the process failed miserably and it did so for the same reason the Israeli-Palestinian one did. FARC, too, refused to give up its radical spots and saw the "despeje" as a useful Trojan horse. It is true that, unlike in Israel, the inability of the Colombian army to control the country led to the rise of the brutal paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). However, on November 30, 2001 after being designated by Washington as a terrorist organization, the AUC announced that it understood that in the wake of September 11 its past policies were no longer viable. Therefore, it said it would no longer carry out massacres of civilians or kidnappings and would respect the rights of all combatants in Colombia's civil war. FARC made no similar reassessment. Instead, it not only continued its unholy alliance with the drug lords but also went on with its systematic destruction of Colombia's economic infrastructure in order to bring about the downfall of the state.

On February 20, 2002 President Pastrana, the conservative La Nacion writes, did a sudden "about face and tired of attacks and insults against his administration, decided to go after the enemy in his lair." He ended the peace process and embarked on a military campaign to take back the "despeje" he had ceded to FARC three years ago. "This new step," the Colombian centrist magazine Semana noted, "moves Colombians into terra incognita. The majority felt that negotiations in the midst of war were a farce, and that there was not much difference between so-called 'real war' and what they had been living with for the past three years. "

Refusing to face reality, a source close to the group of facilitator countries told Liberal Proceso: "Never had a truce agreement been so close. FARC didn't expect such a firm reaction from Pastrana. They thought what they were doing was another strategy to gain a better position at the negotiation table. FARC's wave of terrorism took legitimacy away from the process, and the president had no other option but to call off the talks." The argument bears an eerie resemblance to words often uttered in connection to the defunct Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Arafat it is argued turned down Barak's offer at Camp David and Clinton's offer at Taba and embarked on a terror campaign, to improve his bargaining position, not because he wished to destroy Israel. As doubtful as this reasoning may be in the case of the Palestinian Authority, it is even more improbable in the case of FARC. After all, by February 2002 FARC knew that Palestinian terrorism had led Israelis to conclude that Arafat was no peace partner and they elected his mortal enemy, Ariel Sharon.

Most Colombians and Israelis concluded that the attempt to deradicalize mortal enemies by giving them a piece of the pie failed. After 9/11, many Americans tend to agree. So when Sharon and Pastrana come to Washington to ask for American help, they are now met at least with understanding. The Bush administration, unlike the European governments, realizes that mortal enemies have to be defeated on the battlefield.

On May 9, 2002 the front page of the New York Times included reports describing the consequences of both peace processes: A Palestinian suicide bomber killed 16 in a Rishon Lezion pool hall, and a FARC rocket killed 117, people including 40 children, hiding in a Bella Vista church. Much has been written about the divergent views held by American and Europeans about the Middle East. Less is written about their divergent views about Colombia. So I was surprised to read the Associated Press report that Colombians were angry at the European refusal to do what Washington did and designate FARC as a terrorist organization. "The whole country is offended by the attitude of the Europeans," protested Columbian actor Ricardo Obregon. "How would they like it if guerrillas blew up Pont Neuf [a famous landmark bridge in Paris]?"

British foreign minister Jack Straw argues that the divergence lies in the contrast between the post Cold War European feelings of invulnerability and the post 9/11 American feelings of vulnerability. Some blame the liberal-left romantic attachment to Palestinian and Latin American revolutionaries. There is probably some truth to both views. Still, it should not be forgotten that lacking an effective fighting force, Europeans are more wedded than Americans to the efficacy of soft power. Be that as it may, the collapse of the Colombian and Israel attempts to change the spots of their leopards does not bode well for Sri Lanka's recent attempt to change the stripes of the Tamil Tigers. Indeed, it is time to rethink the entire process.


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Pierre S. Troublion - 5/17/2002

After his latest waffle on elections, Arafat is shredding what little credibility he has left as a one-time Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient. Sharon, on the other hand, has never even pretended to be a peace maker (except in Dubya's fantasy world).
They should both resign and the sooner the better - for their peoples and for the American taxpayers.