By Uri Avnery, the founder of the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom and a former member of the Israeli Knesset. A longer version of this article appears at Gush-shalom.org (THE GUARDIAN, 31/01/07):
‘If Arafat were alive…» One hears this phrase increasingly often in conversations with Palestinians, and also with Israelis and foreigners. «If Arafat were alive, what’s happening now in Gaza wouldn’t be happening…» «If Arafat were alive, we would have somebody to talk with…» «If Arafat were alive, Islamic fundamentalism would not have won among the Palestinians and would have lost some force in the neighbouring countries!»
In the meantime, the unanswered questions come up again: how did Yasser Arafat die? Was he murdered?
On the way back from Arafat’s funeral in 2004, I ran into Jamal Zahalka, a member of the Israeli Knesset. I asked him if he believed that Arafat was murdered. Zahalka, a doctor of pharmacology, answered «Yes!» without hesitation. That was my feeling too. But a hunch is not proof. It is only a product of intuition, common sense and experience.
Recently we got a kind of confirmation. Just before he died last month, Uri Dan, Ariel Sharon’s loyal mouthpiece for almost 50 years, published a book in France. It includes a report of a conversation Sharon told him about, with President Bush. Sharon asked for permission to kill Arafat and Bush gave it to him, with the proviso that it must be done undetectably. When Dan asked Sharon whether it had been carried out, Sharon answered: «It’s better not to talk about that.» Dan took this as confirmation.
The secret services of many countries have poisons that are all but undetectable. Ten years ago, Mossad tried to kill Khaled Mashal, the Hamas leader, in broad daylight on a thoroughfare in Amman. He was saved only when the Israeli government was compelled to provide the antidote to the poison it had used. Viktor Yushchenko, the president of Ukraine, was poisoned and saved only when the symptoms were identified by experts in time.
Is there proof Arafat was murdered by Israeli or other agents? No, there is none. This week I again ran into Zahalka, and both of us concluded that the suspicion is growing stronger, together with the conviction that Arafat’s absence is felt now more than ever.
If Arafat were alive, there would be a clear address for negotiations with the Palestinian people. The claimed absence of such an address is the Israeli government’s official pretext for its refusal to start peace talks. It is no use talking to Mahmoud Abbas, because he is unable to impose his will on Palestinians. He has no power. And we couldn’t possibly talk to the Hamas government, because it belongs to Bush’s «axis of evil».
«When two quarrel, the third laughs,» as the proverb goes. When an Arab hits an Arab – whether in Baghdad, Gaza or Beirut – the government of Israel and its commentators in the media are glowing. When Arabs are fighting each other, that is good for us. This is a good strategy in war, which states have followed since the beginning of history. The question is: is this a good strategy when one wants to achieve peace? If – and it is a big if – the Israeli government desired peace, it would adopt the opposite strategy.
There is no chance of making peace with Abbas, nor would it have any value, without the full support of Hamas. But even a Fatah-Hamas partnership would not be broad enough to ensure a peaceful future for Israel. It would need the support of the whole Arab world. There lies the immense importance of the «Arab peace initiative» adopted by the Arab League in Beirut in 2002. Only a united Palestinian leadership, which enjoys the backing of the entire Arab world, can carry out such a revolutionary, historic undertaking. Not only should we not object to it, but we should demand it.
The terms of the Arab initiative are the same as those set out by Arafat in the 70s: a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, whose border is the Green Line (pre-1967 borders) and whose capital is East Jerusalem; the dismantling of the settlements; and an «agreed upon» solution of the refugee problem. Unofficially, Arafat also agreed to swaps of territory. There is practically no Palestinian, indeed no Arab, who would agree to less. It would leave the Palestinians a mere 22% of historic Palestine.
This can be achieved, provided Palestinians are united and the Arab world is united. That means getting the agreement of Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and also Iran, which, of course, is not Arab. Therefore, if one wants peace, one will not rejoice in the face of the bloodshed in Gaza and Lebanon. We have nothing to laugh about when Arab hits Arab. And, of course, if Arafat were alive, everything would be much easier.