BY EHUD OLMERT
Monday, September 15, 2003 12:01 a.m. EDT
JERUSALEM--It is with tragic irony--the kind that only the Middle East can produce--that Israel's cabinet has decided to expel Yasser Arafat so near the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo "peace" Accords.
As the latest American diplomatic initiative, the "road map," is derailed by a resumed wave of suicide bombings, we Israelis are painfully aware that we have achieved little in these 10 years of direct negotiations with the Palestinians. Indeed, in a week in which 15 of our families are mourning their murdered loved ones and scores of others are pacing our hospital wards awaiting news of the wounded, the promises of the ill-conceived Oslo process seem as far off as ever.
Thus, the cabinet concluded that Arafat's ongoing encouragement of terror and his obstructive machinations were preventing all progress in diplomatic negotiations. Although he was relegated to the sidelines, his malign shadow still hovered over the road map, leaving it no chance of advancing while the violence escalated. The cabinet understood that it was either Arafat or negotiations, and decided to vote in favor of the peace process. The timing of when exactly to remove the PLO leader is still under discussion and Israel's allies will undoubtedly be consulted in formulating a decision.
At the time of the now famous White House signing ceremony, I had just left national politics and was serving as the mayor of Jerusalem. Like most of my former Likud colleagues, then in the opposition, I was fearful of the swift diplomatic path the government of Yitzhak Rabin had embarked upon. Giving recognition to the terrorist PLO, turning over land to armed guerrillas and shaking Arafat's hand, seemed at best to be a perilous and naïve endeavor. In my own private conversations with the Labor party leaders, I expressed my serious concerns over the dangers the Oslo Accords would bring to Jerusalem and to Israel, the lives and security that were being gambled with. Yet they assured the Israeli public that the entire process was reversible; that if Arafat and the PLO did not live up to their obligations, Israel reserved the right to take the necessary measures against the Palestinian leadership and the Israel Defense Forces would re-enter the conceded territory. Arafat, the Israeli architects of Oslo insisted, would have no choice but to impose law and security in the Palestinian Authority or witness everything he had achieved for the Palestinians being destroyed.
I must confess, as ideologically opposed as I was to withdrawing from the disputed territory and negotiating with those with Jewish blood on their hands, I hoped in my heart that, despite the euphoria, the Israeli leadership had truly considered what it was doing and that an authentic regional peace agreement could be secured. The Oslo process wasn't the path I'd have led the country toward, but faced with a fait accompli we Israelis had no choice but to pray that the government showed wisdom in attempting it.
Sadly, we now have our answer. The decade of carnage and blood that Oslo ushered in is still erupting all around us. The disastrous assumption that Arafat would fight the terrorist organizations on our behalf was a gamble which has literally exploded in Israel's face. The continuous march of peace initiatives from Cairo to Sharm al-Sheik to Wye to the Red Sea, from Zinni to Mitchell to Tenet, haven't succeeded.
At the recent Red Sea Summit, in which I participated as a negotiator, we told our Palestinian counterparts that they had to choose between Hamas or us. They would have to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure or we would be forced to do it ourselves. It is apparent, after this new wave of suicide bombings, that the Palestinian leadership has cast its lot with the Islamic extremists.
On a national level, we can no longer allow ourselves to believe in the myth that the moderates on the Palestinian side will be capable of mustering the political power and military support necessary to assert control over the terrorist groups. The roving bands of militias and lack of central leadership has reduced the Palestinian Authority today into something resembling Lebanon at the height of its civil war.
Despite American and Israeli efforts to isolate Arafat, his malicious influence and control over the Palestinian leadership has not diminished in the least. His latest intrigues--the forced resignation of Mahmoud Abbas and the appointment as prime minister of his close associate, Ahmed Qureia--have once again struck a devastating blow to another peace effort. There is simply no pragmatic nor responsible Palestinian personality who can fill the leadership vacuum and confront Hamas and other terrorists.
The latest round of failed diplomacy has shown that an enduring peace agreement cannot be built on the rotten foundation that is the current regime. Palestinian leaders will neither dismantle the terrorist infrastructure nor allow anyone else to do it. The alleged line that separated the Fatah forces from Hamas and Islamic Jihad can no longer be claimed to exist. Arafat is the CEO of a full-fledged terrorist organization and no less a danger than the Islamic extremist leaders whom Israel has finally targeted. Today all sides of the Israeli political spectrum have drawn the same conclusion: Israel will have to destroy the Islamic terrorist groups along with Arafat's Fatah guerillas. There can be no short cuts when it comes to eradicating the terrorist groups. Goodwill gestures have repeatedly come back to haunt us and we must now be prepared to finish off the task. The U.S. and other responsible democratic nations, engaged in their own wars against terrorist organizations, are slowly understanding that only an unrelenting battle will secure victory against this tenacious enemy.
Oslo has taught us that there are no proxies to fight in our stead. If we are not prepared to undertake the task of dismantling the terrorist groups that infest the Palestinian Authority, our civilian population will continue to be targeted for murder. The first and foremost responsibility of our government is to remove the threat of Palestinian violence to our buses, cafés, schools and highways. Moreover, we have learned that to act with any mercy toward the perpetrators is to place our own civilian population in jeopardy.
If Palestinian voices of moderation are capable of rising up and making themselves heard over the extremist roar, all Israelis will be very willing to continue the path toward peace. But for the moment we will place our trust in our own ability to confront the terrorists directly. And as the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, approaches, tradition dictates that we review past mistakes and try sincerely to repent. The Oslo decade has shown us what is the incorrect and foolhardy way to try to make peace between Arabs and Jews. Armed with this new clarity, we can now attempt to rectify our errors--and set out down a safer, better-calculated road.
Mr. Olmert is the vice prime minister of Israel and former mayor of Jerusalem.