A leading Palestinian-American activist condemned Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and said Palestinians faced the prospect of civil war at a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington Tuesday.
Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine and former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told the standing room only audience that “the core issue is the occupation, but the question then is, how do you deal with that occupation, how do you bring it to an end.”
“A Palestinian civil war, or more accurately wars, is a matter of time if a drastic change in direction and leadership does not take place in the near future,” Asali said, given that “Palestinian political fragmentation has resulted from years of a harsh occupation policy.”
The speech was unusual in that prominent figures in the Palestinian and Arab-American communities in the United States have generally been hesitant to criticize or second-guess the Palestinian leadership, preferring expressions of solidarity to serious evaluation let alone outright criticism.
Asali said that “Edward Said and others have always been critical of the leadership, so this is not the first time that criticism, including sharp criticism of the leadership, has come from Palestinian-Americans.”
He added that “there is a certain urgency because of the impending withdrawal from Gaza and the need for the leadership to confront this issue at all levels to see to it that this succeeds. A serious withdrawal from the West Bank is not in the cards in the foreseeable future if Gaza becomes a fiasco in my view.”
Asali said Arafat was the founder of modern Palestine. “Credit for this achievement is forever due to him.”
“No position can be a greater accomplishment than this and it should suffice,” Asali said, suggesting that an honorable way for Arafat to step into a ceremonial post “like the Queen of Britain, without governing authority” should be found.
He said that in the past Arafat, “knew what the Palestinians wanted, but what they need now is a leader who understands not only the Palestinian people but also the world around them.”
Noting that it was Arafat’s 75th birthday, Asali said, “There is something sad about a 75-year-old man refusing to relinquish power.”
He said he was particularly disturbed to discover that the Palestinian Authority and leadership had “no plan whatsoever, nothing at all” to deal with the aftermath of a proposed Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, adding that such a withdrawal was “inevitable, it is going to happen in my judgment.”
Asked why any Palestinian would cooperate with an arrangement unilaterally imposed by Israel not agreed to through negotiations, Asali said that in his view, “like it or not this is going to happen, this will be the reality, now are we going to deal with it or not?”
He told the audience that, “A failed Gaza after the withdrawal, descending into chaos, extremism, or violent confrontations will put an end to the possibility of a West Bank withdrawal in the near future.”
The extremists in Israel will point to Gaza to explain to the world why Israel should not withdraw from the West Bank, he said. “In this case, rather than reacting to a catastrophe or event, the Palestinians can in fact exercise a measure of control over their own destiny by planning seriously for it.”
“The question for the Palestinians is not whether they negotiated this with us or not, but how do we plan to run this place when they withdraw,” Asali said.
“There are three disturbing possibilities after withdrawal: one is chaos; two is a takeover by extremists and uncompromising people; third is a series of persistent wars and civil conflicts.”
None of these are appealing, he said, “all are to be avoided by planning, and this planning has to be done by the Authority that is in charge now because nobody else is capable of doing it.”
Asali praised a new generation of Palestinian leaders, who he called “Young Turks,” these are “all graduates of the first Intifada and Israeli prisons.
“They are tentative and not very sure they can run the place,” he said. “They know the realities, they know the consequences of words said and of actions, and they want to save Palestine.”
“They’re serious people, and taking high sounding positions and playing to the theater is not part of their game anymore,” he said. “That’s very refreshing, I think.”
Some audience members criticized Asali, saying supporters of Israel would point to such criticism to justify Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral policies and refusal to negotiate.
Asali said that “Israel has been propping up Arafat in order not to negotiate, and I say Israel should be forced to negotiate on the principles of the ‘roadmap’ it already accepted.”
“It is much too convenient for Israel to decide that there is no partner and then do what it pleases. This is just unacceptable,” he said.