This past chol hamo’ed, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres announced that if Yasser Arafat were re-elected president of the Palestinian Authority, Israel would recognize him. That remark encapsulates much of what is wrong with Israeli foreign policy.
One can safely assume that Peres did not clear his statement with Prime Minister Sharon, who has repeatedly declared Arafat to be "irrelevant" to any hopes for peace with the Palestinians. His statement is yet one more example of Peres’ penchant for conducting an independent foreign policy, without regard or the views of the elected prime minister or the government. He is not content to offer his opinion to Sharon or to his Cabinet colleagues and then abide by the decisions reached, but reserves the right to express his disagreement publicly while remaining part of the government.
Not only has Peres refused to defend Israeli responses to Palestinian terrorism, with which he disagrees, but he has instructed Israeli consulates abroad to follow suit. Nor is this done sotto voce. Peres and the director-general of the Foreign Ministry Avi Gil have been known to offer their opinion to the foreign media that certain government actions are impossible to defend.
Just recently, Peres shared with Germany’s leading newspaper his opinion that Sharon is constitutionally incapable of making peace with the Palestinians, thereby throwing the onus for much of the past two years of violence on Israel.
The damage caused by the Israeli government’s inability to speak with one clear voice has been incalculable. Supporters of Israel have been confounded by the government’s failure to stay on message, while enemies have taken heart from the ammunition provided them by the Foreign Ministry. "Even your own foreign minister termed that action a terrible mistake," the latter are wont to say.
Compounding the damage caused by Peres’ independent foreign policy is the fact that he is almost invariably wrong on substance. He still cannot shake his belief that the Oslo process, for which he was awarded the Nobel prize, remains the best hope for peace, or that his co-Nobel laureate, Arafat, might still prove to be a partner for peace. Even after Arafat’s instigation of two years of warfare, in which more than 600 Israelis have been killed, even after the Achilles Lauro, even after all the documents showing Arafat’s authorization of direct payments to terrorists directly under his command, Peres cannot admit that he was duped into believing that Arafat made a strategic decision at Oslo to accept Israel’s existence.
As a consequence, he has consistently downplayed, and even suppressed, all evidence to the contrary. In response to nonstop incitement against Jews and Israel in the Palestinian media and schools, Peres repeatedly pronounced himself uninterested in what the Palestinians say, as if the messages being conveyed by Arafat to his people were matters of indifference. Meanwhile, Israel has been deprived of its most potent PR weapons by Peres’ efforts to suppress Israeli government reports detailing Palestinian violations of their undertakings under the Oslo Accords, as well as the rabid incitement against Israel.
By placing his stamp of approval on Arafat should he win the upcoming Palestinian presidential elections, Peres ironically offered Arafat new legitimacy at the very moment when his standing has never been lower among his own people. The Palestinian Legislative Council’s rejection of Arafat’s Cabinet in mid-September was but the most dramatic manifestation of the increasing disenchantment with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority among the Palestinians themselves.
Vociferous criticism of Arafat and his cronies is increasingly heard both in the Palestinian street and among those formerly close to the centers of power within the Palestinian Authority. Recognition that the rejection of Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David and igniting the violence with Israel has resulted only in misery for the Palestinians has come late to the Palestinians, but it has at last begun to dawn on many that Israelis will not simply fold up their tents and leave.
Despite the growing disenchantment with Arafat, there can be no question that he will be easily re-elected. No other potential candidate has one-tenth his name recognition. Given the lack of a serious opposition candidate and the fact that Arafat still controls all the organs of public information, there is no way that any candidate can mount a serious campaign against him in the short time remaining prior to a presidential election.
Yet Arafat’s winning a new presidential election no more signals that the Palestinian Authority is moving toward democracy than does his last election or the 99 percent of the vote regularly garnered by Hosni Mubarak in Egyptian elections. For Peres to suggest otherwise is to reveal that he fails to comprehend the vision of democratic Palestine laid out by President Bush in his June 24 speech.
That is hardly surprising given that Peres was unable to even watch the speech, so disgusted was he with the demands placed by Bush on the Palestinians as a condition of statehood. Peres’ expectations of the Palestinians and his demands upon them have always been minimal. And he correctly realized that Bush’s would delay, perhaps forever, a Palestinian state, the creation of which has become, in his mind, the ultimate vindication of the Oslo process.
President Bush, however, made clear that presidential elections without the other basic elements of democratic government would be meaningless. Thus he listed an independent judiciary, the devolution of power to local authorities and to the Palestinian legislature, freedom of press, speech and religion, and financial transparency and accountability in the handling of PA revenues as essential elements of an emergent Palestinian democracy.
It took the Allies years of direct rule of Germany and Japan after World War II to lay the groundwork for democratic government. And there is no reason to think that the process can go any faster with the Palestinians.
Whether the Palestinians can create the basic forms of democratic government remains to be seen. But what is certain is that if they do not there is no chance of creating a viable Palestine that will live in peace with Israel. For without all the elements laid out by President Bush, the Palestinian Authority will remain a one-man dictatorship. And dictatorships, as Natan Sharansky has frequently noted, always need an external enemy to distract their subjects from their own lack of freedom.
For Peres to accept anything less than full democratic reform is, then, but the latest in a long string of follies.