By Bret Stephens, June 26, 2007.
Bill Clinton did it. Yasser Arafat did it. So did George W. Bush, Yitzhak Rabin,
Hosni Mubarak, Ariel Sharon, Al-Jazeera and the BBC. The list of culprits in the
whodunit called “Who Killed Palestine?” is neither short nor mutually exclusive.
But since future historians are bound to ask the question, let’s get a head start
by suggesting some answers.
And make no mistake – Palestine has always been a notional place, a field of
dreams belonging only to those who know how to keep it.
Israelis have held on to their state because they were able to develop the
political, military and economic institutions that a state requires to survive,
beginning with its monopoly on the use of legitimate force. In its nearly 14
years as an autonomous entity, the PA has succeeded in none of that, despite
being on the receiving end of unprecedented international good will and
Hamas’s seizure of the Gaza Strip this month – and the consequent division of
the PA into two hostile, geographically distinct camps – is only the latest in a
chain of events set in motion when Israel agreed, in September 1993, to accept
Arafat and the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian
Arafat was determined to use Gaza and the West Bank as a staging ground for
attacks against Israel, and he said so publicly and repeatedly:
“O Haifa, O Jerusalem, you are returning, you are returning” (1995);
“We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and
population explosion” (1996);
“With blood and spirit we will redeem you, Palestine” (1997).
With equal determination, the Clinton administration and the Israeli
governments of Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak treated Arafat’s remarks
as only so much rhetorical bluster. Mr. Clinton desperately wanted a Nobel
Peace Prize; Israelis wanted out of the occupation business at almost any cost.
Neither had as its primary aim the creation of a respectable Palestinian
Later, after the second intifada had erupted in all its suicidal frenzy, former U.S.
negotiator Dennis Ross would admit the Clinton administration became too
obsessed with process at the expense of substance. He should give himself
more credit. The decision to legitimize Arafat was Israel’s, not America’s; once
he was brought inside the proverbial tent he was bound to put a match to it.
Still, the Clinton administration elevated Arafat like no other leader of the
The global media also did their bit in Arafat’s elevation.
Successive generations of Jerusalem bureau chiefs developed a
conveniently even-handed narrative pitting moderates on both sides against
extremists on both sides – a narrative in which Arafat was a ‘moderate’ and
Ariel Sharon was an ‘extremist’.
When Mr. Sharon took his famous walk on the Temple Mount in
September 2000, it was easy to cast him as the villain and Palestinian rioters –
and, later, suicide bombers -as the justifiably aggrieved.
Arafat’s global popularity reached its apogee in the spring of 2002, exactly at
the same time the civilian Israeli death toll from terrorism reached its height.
Yet what served Arafat’s interests well served Palestinian interests poorly.
Arafat learned from his experience with Mr. Clinton that one could bamboozle
an American president and not pay a price.
George W. Bush took a different view and effectively shut the Palestinians out
of his agenda. Arafat learned from the “international community” that no one
would look too closely at where its foreign aid was spent. But a reputation for
theft has been the undoing of Fatah.
Arafat thought he could harness the religious power of “martyrdom” to his
political ends. But at the core of every suicide bombing is an act of
self-destruction, and a nation that celebrates the former inevitably courts the
Above all, Arafat equated territory with power. But what the experience of an
unoccupied Gaza Strip has shown is the Palestinians’ unfitness for political
There are no Jewish settlers to blame for Gaza’s plight anymore. The Israeli
right, which came to detest Mr. Sharon for pulling out of the Strip, might
reconsider…. Nothing has so completely soured the world on the idea of a
Palestinian state as the experience of it.
What does this mean for the future? At yesterday’s summit in Egypt, Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian
King Abdullah threw rose petals at Mr. Abbas’s feet.
But the potentates of the Middle East will not midwife into existence a
state the chief political movement of which has claims to both democratic and
Islamist legitimacy. The U.S. and Israel will never bless Hamastan (even if the
EU and the U.N. come around to it) and they can only do so much for the
feckless Mr. Abbas.
“Palestine,” as we know it today, will revert to what it was – shadowland
between Israel and its neighbors – and Palestinians, as we know them today,
will revert to who they were: Arabs.
Whether there might have been a better outcome is anyone’s guess. But the
dream that was Palestine is finally dead.