"Ultimately, there isn't a military solution"

An American expert on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis says that a political solution must be reached -- but he isn't optimistic.

Published December 4, 2001 8:44PM (EST)

With many Israelis calling for Yasser Arafat to be ousted after the worst terrorist attacks in Israel in five years, key questions about the Palestinian leader assume urgent significance. How much control does he wield over radical elements? Who might replace him? And how can the peace process be restarted?

Mark Tessler is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan and the author of "A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," a scrupulously objective and comprehensive account that was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994. He has lived and done extensive field research in both Israel and the Arab world, including the West Bank and Gaza. He spoke to Salon from his Ann Arbor office.

After the latest terrorist attacks, Israel told Arafat to crack down on the terrorists or else. How much control does Arafat have over the radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad elements in the West Bank and Gaza?

It's hard to know. I have to give kind of a nonanswer: He has some degree of control, but it's difficult to know how much. What can be said is that his credibility is way down with a lot of the Palestinians, the people who came with him from Tunis [where the PLO was headquartered after being forced out of Beirut], the younger generation. This is both because of the corruption and authoritarianism in the Palestinian Authority and because, rightly or wrongly, a lot of Palestinians feel that there really isn't a peace process, that they have gained nothing. For Arafat to be able to stop the violence, he's got to be able to show some progress.

What do you think of Israel's position that until there's a complete cessation of violence for a week, there can be no peace talks?

It gives the terrorists a veto power over the peace process, doesn't it?

There's increasing talk among Israelis about getting rid of Arafat, echoed by some pro-Israel Americans. In today's New York Times, William Safire wrote that a civil war among Palestinians is necessary, one that would either result in Arafat vanquishing the terrorists or being vanquished.

Getting rid of Arafat, however it's accomplished, won't accomplish much. I don't have any great admiration for Arafat at this point, but I don't see anybody coming along behind him who will work with Israel the way they want them to. There aren't going to be people coming to the fore who will be more acceptable to Israel than Arafat.

We have to stop the violence and get back to the bargaining table. I don't want to make it sound like I'm defending these attacks. They're horrific and indefensible. But there has to be a political solution. Today probably isn't the day to talk about it, with emotions running so high. I have a lot of friends in Israel. But ultimately, there isn't a military solution. Both sides have very legitimate concerns, and we have to somehow get back to negotiating. I don't have any answers as to how to do that. Maybe some version of the Mitchell plan [which called for the Palestinians to stop terror attacks and called for the Israelis to stop building settlements]. But it's hard to be anything but pessimistic right now.

Do you think the U.S. should put pressure on Sharon to take concrete steps, like stopping the settlements?

I don't think it'll be productive to push Sharon. Maybe if the situation calms down enough. But I don't know how the two sides can go about rebuilding trust. After Camp David, the Israelis say, we made you a serious offer. The Palestinians say, your idea of a serious offer is to talk and talk while you keep building settlements. The fact is, since Oslo in '93 [when serious negotiations began between Israel and the Palestinians], relations between them have mostly gone downhill. And although both sides have benefited to some degree from the peace process, Israel has benefited more -- from facts on the ground, settlements.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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