Oslo's lesson

December 14, 2004|By Natan Sharansky

YASSER ARAFAT is dead. A so-called moderate is now chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Elections to choose a Palestinian Authority president are scheduled in the West Bank and Gaza for early January. Optimists see an opportunity for restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the possibility of a meaningful and comprehensive settlement of the conflict.

But whether this will really prove to be a positive turning point in the search for peace in the Middle East depends on whether we have learned from the failures of the past.

The Oslo process failed because the democratic world, including Israel, believed that peace could be made with a dictator. The central premise behind the negotiations was that if Mr. Arafat were given enough legitimacy, territory, weapons and money, he would use his power to fight terror and make peace with Israel.

That is why in the Oslo years the focus of the peace process was on strengthening Mr. Arafat in the hope that a "strong leader could make a strong peace."

Time and again, the PLO leader cleverly turned this attitude into a means of reneging on his commitments. After all, neither the United States nor Israel nor Europe would do anything to "weaken" him, or more extreme elements would come to power.

Unfortunately, little attention was paid to how Mr. Arafat ruled. Many who had been quick to criticize Israel's treatment of Palestinians fell silent when Mr. Arafat imposed a rule of fear on his own people. In fact, some saw the harsh and repressive nature of Mr. Arafat's regime as actually bolstering the prospects for peace.

According to this logic, Mr. Arafat would be able to fight terror organizations without his hands tied by the constraints of democratic rule. As former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin chillingly put it in the earliest days of Oslo, Mr. Arafat would fight terror "without a Supreme Court, without human rights organizations and without all sorts of bleeding-heart liberals."

Only weeks after Oslo began, when nearly all the world and most of Israel was drunk with the idea of peace, I argued that a Palestinian "fear society" would always pose a grave threat to Israel and would never prove a reliable peace partner. It was Andrei Sakharov, the foremost dissident in the Soviet Union, who taught me that regimes that do not respect the rights of their own people will not respect the rights of their neighbors.

The link between the nature of a regime and its external behavior is not always understood. Democratic leaders, whose power is ultimately dependent on popular support, are held accountable for failing to improve the lives of their citizens. Therefore, they have a powerful incentive to keep their societies peaceful and prosperous.

But the power of dictators is not dependent upon popular will. For them, staying in power is a function not of bettering the lives of their subjects but rather of controlling those lives. To justify the degree of repression necessary to sustain their illegitimate rule, dictators need to constantly mobilize their people against external enemies.

It is, therefore, not surprising that during the decade of the Oslo process, Mr. Arafat's PA used all the resources at its disposal to fan the flames of hatred against Israel. The media under his control incited the current generation of Palestinians against the Jewish state, and his PA-run schools ensured that the next generation would be even more poisoned with hate.

Even as negotiations were conducted and summits were held with a succession of Israeli prime ministers, the regime was crushing Palestinian civil society and creating an autonomy of terror.

Not only did the democratic world not raise its voice in protest, it actually did everything it could to strengthen the regime. The most egregious example occurred when Israel agreed, with the blessing of the free world, to transfer 20 percent of Palestinian value-added-tax revenues into Mr. Arafat's personal account. When I repeatedly protested against this transfer of public funds, I was told that if Mr. Arafat needed some pocket money to fight terrorism, it would be a small price to pay for our security.

In the post-Arafat era, the success of the peace process will hinge on whether the world finally focuses on what goes on inside Palestinian-controlled areas. Just as the democratic world did not care how Mr. Arafat ruled, it may not care how his successor rules. Indeed, we already hear those who argue that the biggest danger today is chaos in the Palestinian areas and who stress the need to quickly identify a Palestinian strongman who will keep order, enforce his will on extremists and forge a deal with Israel. If we heed this advice, we will only repeat the tragic mistake of Oslo.

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