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Bush is right to call for Arafat’s replacement

TUESDAY, JUNE 25, 2002 — There’s a broader message behind George W. Bush’s speech yesterday calling for the removal of Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat. It’s that dictators who suppress the rights of their own people don’t merit the support of the United States.

When the September 11 attacks took place last year, there was much clucking from some quarters in the US and especially in Europe that America had somehow reaped a just reward for its own "arrogant" foreign policies since the end of World War II. Of course, some of these critics were referring to US support for Israel — which I’ll get to in a moment. But many referred to the American habit of propping up dictators and despots wherever US interests could most easily be served by them. You can make a long list of these people, tracing all the way back to the Cold War era — Fulgencio Batista of Cuba, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, the shah of Iran. The rationale behind backing people like this has been attributed to President Franklin Roosevelt, who once said that one of Somoza’s ancestors — also a Nicaraguan autocrat — "is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch."

In case nobody has noticed, since September 11 the Bush administration has been breaking from this time-honored tradition in US foreign policy. True, Bush has tried to curry favor with Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf and has lobbied Saudi crown prince Abdullah. But America also insisted on strictly democratic procedures for choosing Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, who was elected by secret ballot.

Now Bush is calling upon the Palestinians to embrace democracy. It can be argued that Palestinians voted Arafat into office in democratic elections. But that was seven years ago, before Arafat instituted what is more or less a police state in the Palestinian Authority. Amnesty International has repeatedly tried to draw attention to Arafat’s mistreatment of his own people since his election in 1995. The chairman has established 11 separate police forces — many of them with the help of the US government.

Once Arafat’s grip on power was cemented within the Palestinian Authority — and his men promptly commenced building villas on the Mediterranean Sea — his regime introduced a school curriculum rich in hatred of Jews for Palestinian youths to feast on. Jihad, jihad, jihad became the mantra. Not the best educational system for preparing young people to live in a world of laptops and international commerce, but exactly right for maintaining a dictatorship.

It’s important to remember that Israel is not blameless in this predicament. Then–prime minister Yitzhak Rabin — who, along with Shimon Peres and Arafat, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 — believed that Arafat would crack down on Palestinian militants on Israel’s behalf. In other words, the thinking behind the 1993 Oslo Accords was that Arafat’s police forces would replace Israel’s in the West Bank and Gaza and that peace would somehow take hold. At the time many — including myself — believed the experiment would work. But almost a decade of intensifying hate has proved at least one point: peace cannot be made with dictators.

Critics of President Bush’s speech will surely argue that the US must do just as much to pressure Israel into removing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. It’s true, as his critics charge, that Sharon has a military background and that he failed to safeguard the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, where the Lebanese Phalange slaughtered Palestinians, in 1982. But these acts are a far cry from Arafat’s direct involvement in planning and funding terrorist acts that have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians. These can be traced back all the way to the 1972 Munich Olympics, where terrorists killed 11 Israelis, to this past March’s Passover bombing in Netanya, where 19 Israeli civilians died. Critics blame Sharon for igniting the Palestinian wave of violence that began in October 2000 by setting foot on the Temple Mount — despite the fact that several of Arafat’s lieutenants have stated for the record that the campaign of violence was pre-planned. Finally, Sharon’s leadership rests on the votes of Israeli voters. He must continually woo the dovish members of his cabinet, Peres and Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer, who criticized their prime minister just this week. Sharon doesn’t have his opponents strung up and hung in public squares — where many of Arafat’s critics often find themselves.

Middle East peace came a little step closer yesterday. No longer will the US maintain the fiction that a thug like Arafat is a peacemaker. How far this impulse in US foreign policy will go is unclear. If it extends logically, it will apply next to Saddam Hussein of Iraq, with whom the US was all too willing to play ball in the 1980s. Clearly, the Saudis — no grist for the next Joseph Ellis study — cannot be happy with their man in the White House.

US foreign policy now faces the important test of making sure that the State Department applies the Bush doctrine consistently. No more Somozas, Batistas, or Arafats anywhere — and that includes South America and Africa.

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Issue Date: June 25, 2002
"Today's Jolt" archives: 2002  2001

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