I agree with Srdja Trifkovic (“Time for Arafat to Go,” The American Interest, February) that Yasser Arafat is not the best leader for the Palestinians and may well be an impediment to peace.  But Dr. Trifkovic repeats a common misconception when he says, in effect, that the Israeli offer at Camp David was just too good to pass up.  Despite what the media have led many to believe, Israel did not offer the Palestinians anything like an independent state.  True, former prime minister Ehud Barak would have ceded 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians, but these percentages are misleading.  In fact, the proposal would have kept critical areas under Israeli rule so that the future Palestinian state would have been not a contiguous entity, like any other country, but a group of isolated Bantustans.  Maps of the proposed settlement, which were never shown to the American people, make this abundantly clear.  In short, the Barak proposal would have condemned Palestinians to perpetual servitude, and it is safe to say that no Arab negotiator could have accepted it.

As for Arafat’s continued support of “terror,” it is worth remembering that David ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, never moved against the Irgun or the Stern Gang until after the state of Israel was established and secured.  Essentially, Sharon is demanding that Mr. Arafat do something that the Israelis themselves refused to do when fighting for their own state.

In March, a court in Brussels was scheduled to decide whether Sharon  would stand trial on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide—charges stemming from his involvement in the 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.  But in the eyes of many, Sharon, with his bloody résumé, is already a certifiable war criminal.  Meanwhile, he has deliberately undermined our recent coalition with the Muslim world by invading Bethlehem and five other main Palestinian-controlled towns, killing Palestinian officials with American-made Apache helicopters and building even more illegal settlements.  When-ever peace is about to break out, his hit teams assassinate yet another Palestinian leader.  By such actions, he fuels Muslim rage.  With each passing day, it becomes more difficult to justify U.S. support, not of Arafat, but of Sharon.  

In short, neither Arafat nor Sharon is  the best of leaders, but to think that a replacement for Arafat would reach an acceptable peace agreement with Israel is illusory.  Removing Arafat would begin the spiral toward a lengthy and bloody war of attrition, which would be dangerous not only for Israel but for the United States.

        —Frank J. Messmann
Falmouth, MA

Dr. Trifkovic Replies:

On the whole, I have no quarrel with Mr. Messman’s assessment of the unlovely Ariel Sharon or with his timely reminder that different brands of terrorism are morally equivalent, regardless of the identity of perpetrators.

With regard to the shortcomings of the proposed Camp David package, Mr. Messman is preaching to the choir: I agree that the deal was far from perfect, and it was certainly open to criticism on moral and practical grounds.  We differ on what I wrote—which is a matter of record—and on what Yasser Arafat should have done in the final months of the Clinton presidency, which is a matter of opinion.

For the record, I did not say “in effect, that the Israeli offer at Camp David was just too good to pass up.”  I simply stated that the deal offered there “accurately reflected the limits of Israeli flexibility at that time.”  My statement was a value-neutral factual assessment, and neither side in the Middle Eastern divide would dispute it.

It is still my considered opinion that the Palestinian Arabs, and everyone else, would have been better off had Mr. Arafat signed the agreement offered at Camp David.  Politics is the art of the possible: Within a few years, the Camp David framework would likely have evolved into the irreducible minimum, not the final and immutable limit of Palestinian aspirations.  The Israeli withdrawal from the remaining four percent of occupied territories would have been only a matter of time, and Palestinian statehood would have become a reality.

In the 19th century, as small Christian nations of the Balkans struggled to regain their statehood after centuries of Ottoman Muslim misrule, a period of autonomy under the nominal suzerainty of the sultan for some—Serbs, Bulgars, Rumanians—was a painful but necessary stepping stone on the road to full independence.  An incremental strategy worked well for Finland under the Romanovs—so well, in fact, that it possessed many attributes of de facto statehood well before the Bolshevik Revolution.  Kossuth’s uprising against the Habsburgs failed in 1848-49 because his maximalist demands went far beyond the limits of Vienna’s tolerance, but the Ausgleich of 1867 created preconditions for full-fledged Hungarian statehood in the aftermath of World War I.  Had the fathers of the Irish Free State demanded immediate full independence for the whole of Ireland—Ulster included—in the aftermath of World War I, the road to Eire would have been longer and bloodier.  In all of these cases, the interim solution fell short of optimal demands but provided a firm foothold for the next generation.

As he endures the humiliation of the Israeli Defense Force bivouacking in his Ramallah compound, while the death toll on both sides moves from dozens into the hundreds, Mr. Arafat would be well advised to ponder these and similar lessons of history.  I suspect that his private thoughts on the subject are closer to my assessment of what he should have done at Camp David than to Mr. Messman’s.