Arafat and Peres after the bombs

February 28, 1996|By Robert O. Freedman

THE HAMAS terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Ashkelon pose serious challenges for both Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. If these challenges are not met, Mr. Peres' election chances may be endangered, and Mr. Arafat's hopes of establishing an independent Palestinian state may be dashed.

Mr. Arafat appears to face the greater challenge. Unless he cracks down on Hamas, the Israeli opposition coalition of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and Rafael Eitan's Tsomet party may win the May 29 election. Then the peace process would almost certainly stop. The Palestinians would be frozen in the semi-autonomy granted last September by the second Oslo interim agreement.

Further, if Mr. Arafat doesn't suppress Hamas, the $2.5 billion promised to the Palestinian authority from the United States and Western Europe may be held up and the foreign investments the Palestinians so desperately need for economic development may dry up.

But can Mr. Arafat crack down on Hamas? He has the moral authority to undertake the job, having been overwhelmingly elected as their leader by the Palestinians on January 20, and he has a clear majority in the newly elected Palestinian legislature.

No longer a revolutionary

For his entire career, however, he has sought to maintain the maximum degree of Palestinian unity, which he saw as necessary to achieve his people's goals. Now, however, Mr. Arafat is no longer the head of a revolutionary movement, but of a state in the making. At a similar point in Israeli history, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion cracked down on the Irgun and LEHI opposition movements. If he is to prove as successful as Ben Gurion, Mr. Arafat must follow that example with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And he must convene the Palestine National Council to change those clauses of its charter calling for Israel's destruction.

Mr. Peres faces his own challenges. Simply proclaiming that ''Terrorism won't stop the peace process'' will not relieve the anxiety of Israelis who feel vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

One option is to close off the West Bank and Gaza and prevent Palestinians from working in Israel between now and the election. Another is to delay Israel's partial withdrawal, scheduled for next month, from Hebron. Or Mr. Peres might delay the start of planned May negotiations on the future of Jerusalem, the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza, final borders, refugees, security and water issues.

Any of these options would demonstrate his toughness and perhaps help Mr. Peres in the election campaign, but the peace process would be delayed, if not damaged. The sooner Mr. Arafat cracks down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the more rapidly he revokes the objectionable articles of the Palestinian charter, the less pressure there will be on Mr. Peres to exercise these options and the better the chances for the peace process to move ahead.

Robert O. Freedman is professor of political science and acting president of Baltimore Hebrew University.

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