When I began Harvard in the fall of '89, the Soviet Union was still referred to as "The Evil Empire," South African democracy was an oxymoron, the Berlin Wall was still a wall and Palestinian resistance to Israel's presence in Gaza and the West Bank was at an all-time high.
Four years later, the United States is helping to rebuild the Russian economy, white rule in South Africa is on the verge of extinction and chunks of the Berlin Wall are now sold in souvenir shops.
Last week, almost as an encore, Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) signed a declaration of principles declaring mutual recognition and laying the foundation for eventual peace.
Americans unaware of recent events might have been excused for thinking that the photos from the White House lawn were part of some weird Monty Python sketch. Yasser Arafat, whose most recent political allegiance was with Saddam Hussein, being hugged by Bill Clinton? Yitzhak Rabin, who as Minister of Defense six years ago initiated Israel's hard-line response to the Intifadah, shaking Arafat's hand? It all seemed a bit unreal, as if Godot had suddenly appeared to Vladimir and Estragon.
The premise of Samuel Beckett's play is that Godot never arrives--an analogy that until recently seemed particularly apt for the Middle East. Now, however, Rabin and Arafat must deal with a situation that demands more than just endless talk.
Arafat's last practical experience as the ruler of anything was in the refugee camps of Lebanon before the 1982 Israeli invasion. Some of his opponents argue that Arafat's prolonged exile in Tunis has left him detached from the day to day problems faced by Palestinians still living in the West Bank and Gaza. The Intifadah, a significant force behind Israel's decision to negotiate with the P.L.O., began locally and spontaneously--not as a strategy handed down from the leaders of the P.L.O. And as the P.L.O.'s financial resources dwindled in the aftermath of its support of Saddam Hussein, it was forced to severely cut back its aid programs in the territories, further fueling local resentment.
That resentment has been capitalized on to a huge extent by Hamas, a radical Islamic fundamentalist organization that utterly rejects the principles agreed upon last week. Hamas (which has links to Islamic fundamentalist organizations in Egypt and throughout the Middle East) has successfully built a strong core of supporters throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas candidates have beaten P.L.O. candidates in local city elections within the territories and are rapidly amassing the kind of financial resources that once characterized the P.L.O.
In an ironic twist, it was the threat of Hamas that in some measure persuaded both the P.L.O. and the Israeli government to come down to brass tacks in Norway--the P.L.O. because it had everything to lose under an ascendant Hamas and Israel because Hamas made even the P.L.O. look moderate. Hamas remains a threat, however--both in its influence among Palestinians and in its volatile nature. It has nothing to lose by trying to violently disrupt the peace process and everything to gain. Viewed in this light, Jericho was a brilliant choice for a P.L.O. capital--it is practically the only town of any size in the West Bank without a heavy Hamas presence.
But if the first major challenge to Arafat's authority will come from the Hamas strongholds around Nablus and Hebron, the second will come from East Jerusalem. The one thing Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin may have in common is their age. And when observers consider the next generation of Palestinian leadership, they look less to the group in Tunis than they do to Faisal al-Husseini, Sari Nusseibah and other West Bank establishment figures. They too have developed influence and authority within the territories in Arafat's absence. If Arafat is slow to deliver on his promises or seems unable to govern effectively, he may have to worry about dissension within the P.L.O. as well as Hamas.
Arafat at least has the advantage of dealing with a known threat in Hamas. For Rabin and the Labor-led government of Israel, much of the next few months will be spent in trying to figure out who on the Israeli right is a legitimate threat--and to what extent.
The nature of the Israeli opposition to the agreement of principles makes it difficult to predict how it will behave in the coming months. At the moment, an uneasy coalition exists. On one end are religious extremists who proclaim that it is a desecration of God to give up Jericho; on the other are the hundreds of relatively moderate Israelis who moved to settlements in the territories less for ideological reasons than for economic ones.
Then there are the Likud politicians who warn that the recent events are all a plot by the P.L.O. to weaken Israel and set it up for an eventual push into the Mediterranean. In this suspicion, the Likud (Labor's main rival) is merely echoing the nagging doubts of many Israelis who are reluctant to suddenly embrace the P.L.O.
It is unlikely that the tactics and ideology of these opposition groups will continue to coincide. The far right fringe is more than capable of suddenly engaging in pitched battle outside Jericho--a move that would force the Labor government to treat it as a terrorist one. Yet if Rabin moves too quickly to suppress groups on the far right, he may face a public relations disaster and charges that he is fomenting civil war.
Public support is vital for Rabin. In the wake of Aryeh Deri's forced resignation from the cabinet over financial misdeeds, Shas (Deri's party) participation in the Labor-led coalition is hanging by a thread. Shas is the only "religious" party in the coalition and joined it amid cries of betrayal from the other conservative, religious parties. Although it is a small party with only a few votes in the Knesset, its absence from the coalition would mean that Rabin would be forced to rely on Arab party votes to sustain his majority. If Rabin and the Labor party are to have a prayer of beating Likud and its charismatic leader Binyamin Netanyahu, they must be able to position themselves as acting on the wishes of the majority of Israeli Jews.
Many other issues are of vital importance to a successful implementation of the principles signed last Monday--economic aid, in particular. But the coming months will also show whether two aging politicians, Rabin and Arafat, can succeed in a world where Godot has arrived.
Lori E. Smith '93-'94 is Associate Editorial Chair of The Crimson. She spent most of 1991 on a kibbutz in northern Israel. "Cricket Bats and Cudgels," in case you were wondering, comes from Tom Stoppard's play "The Real Thing."
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