It's time for him to go

After squandering a series of opportunities for peace, it's time for Yasser Arafat to step aside.

Published June 12, 2002 2:07PM (EDT)

Yasser Arafat should step aside. It is too late for him to reverse course and play the role of a Nelson Mandela, Gerry Adams or Menachem Begin -- all resistance leaders who originally employed violence but were able to seize historic opportunities for peace when they arose. Arafat should step aside, not because the cause of Palestinian statehood as defined in the Saudi proposal is wrong, but rather because his consistent failure to hold the moral high ground is an impediment to its realization.

The last promising moment of Arafat's leadership passed when he turned his back on the peace proposals of Israeli leader Ehud Barak, dooming the Oslo accords. Certainly, that proposal was less than what was needed for full Palestinian self-determination, but it was a major step -- and Arafat's failure to match Barak's courage has left madly spiraling violence as the only alternative.

Arafat has failed the ultimate test of a revolutionary leader, which is to take his people past the stage of violence to that of self-governance. He has lacked the integrity to challenge the desperation and temporary effectiveness of suicide bombings -- tactics that are ultimately suicidal not only for the individual but for the cause of Palestinian statehood. He has failed to encourage the committed and talented youth of Palestine to become honest administrators, tough negotiators and brave truth-tellers, and instead has sent them off to die as mute bomb-bearers.

Facing such a dominant army, those who are stateless can win only by proving their case in the court of world opinion. By embracing the self-immolation of his own people as their most reliable weapon, Arafat has failed miserably to do this. By surrendering to the agenda of the religious fanatics who have long opposed him, as well as the more secular crazies within his own political coalition, Arafat has sabotaged the hopes of moderate Israelis and Palestinians, and those who support them abroad.

Rebellion has a long, proud history -- in our country and elsewhere -- when fueled by the desire of regular citizens to pursue a normal life without abuse and threat.

A rebellion that feeds on the allure of martyrdom and the sacrifice of children, however, can find its end only in more pain and darkness.

That peace has failed is, of course, not solely the fault of Arafat. In a betrayal of its best instincts, the Israeli electorate also turned its back on Barak, embracing instead a bitter opponent of a dignified peace, Ariel Sharon, who has helped fulfill his own dismissive prophesies of doom by destroying the Palestinian Authority. Nor is the state-sanctioned violence of Israel morally superior to the violence of people who do not have tanks and planes with which to resist.

President Bush, who long ignored the plight of the Palestinians and allowed Arafat to be humiliated by invading Israeli troops in the past year, is belatedly looking for leaders in the rubble of the West Bank. And then there is the guilt of the Arab governments, which came so late with their acceptance of Israeli borders, which denied the Palestinians the investment capital that could have provided an optimistic economic alternative to a life rooted in the hopelessness of permanent refugee camps and which encouraged the flow of money to religious fanatics who debase Islam into a vehicle for endless war against nonbelievers.

Even Egypt, which did take major risks for its own peace, hasn't delivered for the Palestinians. I was in Egypt in the days after the 1967 Six-Day War and heard the cries for even more holy war. How depressing, then, to travel next to Gaza and see what a hellhole the Egyptians had made of life there for the Palestinians.

Though he may share the blame with a cast of thousands, Arafat must step off the stage. A new, moderate Palestinian leadership is desperately required, one that would include sensible leaders like Nabil Shaath, who survived the recent cabinet shake-up and who would hopefully renounce violence.

Absurd as it may sound and as difficult as it would be to switch gears, this is a time for passive resistance. This is a time for unarmed mothers and fathers to stand in front of tanks with prayer books and flowers in their hands, instead of proudly sacrificing their young to slaughter innocents.

By Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer is a syndicated columnist.

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