Is Yasser Arafat indispensable?

On 1 April 2002, The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah appeared on MSNBC’s “Making Sense” show, hosted by Alan Keyes. The following excerpt offers Ali’s segment onward until the end of the show.

ALAN KEYES, MSNBC HOST: Next here on MAKING SENSE, we’re going to get to the heart of this matter when we ask these questions. Is Yasser Arafat indispensable? Would his departure from power help or hurt the prospects for peace? And what would follow in his wake?




GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I’d like to see Chairman Arafat denounce the terrorist activities that are taking place, the constant attacks.


KEYES: That was President Bush today criticizing Palestinian terrorism. Now, recently his administration has criticized the strong Israeli response to Palestinian terrorism. Is Bush a president divided against himself? Well debate that in our next half hour.

A reminder now that the chat room is humming right along tonight. Seminole says: What is with the double standard were giving Israel if we have a real war on terror? And you can join in right now with your opinion at

But first here, were talking about the future of the Middle East and whether Yasser Arafat should play a role in it. Joining us to get to the heart of the matter, Ali Abunimah (above left), vice president of the Arab American Action Network. Also with us, Max Singer (above center), a senior fellow and founder of the Hudson Institute, a public policy research group in Washington. And Rich Lowry (above right), the editor of National Review. Welcome, gentlemen, to MAKING SENSE.

Now, in light of what we have just heard, I think a serious question, Mark, has to be put behind what Yasser Arafat’s usefulness is in this process. As I heard what Dore Gold was just saying, from the point of view of the existing Israeli government, this is an invalid interlocutor, somebody you can’t talk to and who can’t make peace and who’s not going to be able to make progress.

Max Singer, let’s start with you. Do you think that that kind of a statement is helpful? Does it indicate a reality? And is, in fact, Yasser Arafat now an obstacle to achieving a positive result in efforts for peace?

MAX SINGER, SENIOR FELLOW, HUDSON INSTITUTE: I don’t think its right to personalize this. Its Arafat’s policies that matter. Arafat has said very frankly that hes started a war. He doesnt want to have a cease-fire until he wins. He said no negotiation about truce. He wants negotiation about what he calls ending the occupation, which is a misnomer.

So, he’s fighting to win. And in that, he’s got the support right now of the Palestinian people. And perhaps just as important, he right now has the encouragement and support of Iraq and Iran, who are very eager to keep the United States tied up worrying about Israel-Palestinians so they don’t turn on solving the problem of the axis of evil in the Bush war on terrorism.

So, he’s following a policy. If he changes his policy, we’ll talk to him. If he doesn’t change his policy, we have to fight him. It’s very straightforward.

KEYES: But Rich Lowry, I think that one of the problems I see with Yasser Arafat, though, and I was thinking of it in President Bush’s remarks where he said that Arafat should stand up and denounce in Arabic the acts of terrorism. So, he commits the acts of terrorism. And then we say its OK so long as he lies about what he’s doing in both English and Arabic. Does this really make any sense?


RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW: Well, not in that light. And this is the thing, Alan. Eventually, the administration just has to take no for an answer from Yasser Arafat. And hes been saying no more or less for the last 18 months. And eventually, it’s going to seem kind of silly to keep on expecting him to say the right magic words.

Now, all that said, the Palestinians have been dealt a very tough hand by history. The conditions in those refugee camps are very appalling. But nothing justifies terror. And it seems pretty clear that Arafat has deliberately chosen terror as a tactic. And if the Israeli government considers him an enemy as they say, and they consider him a terrorist as they say, you would think eventually they have to follow that through to its logical conclusion and do something more drastic than just isolating him, perhaps expelling him.

ALAN KEYES, MSNBC HOST: Ali Abunimah, what do you think of Dore Gold’s suggestion that Yasser Arafat, an enemy, is, in fact, not a valid interlocuter, can’t be dealt with, is not able to produce a peace, and therefore, by implication, somebody else needs to come forward who would be able to do so?

ALI ABUNIMAH, ARAB AMERICAN ACTION NETWORK: Well, this is not about Yasser Arafat. And Dore Gold knows that well. This is about Israel’s military occupation, the same one that Dore Gold is telling us doesn’t exist. He wants the viewers to believe that the tens of thousands heavily armed occupation troops who have been outside Israel in the Palestinian territories for the past 35 years ruling millions of Palestinians through military terror and military dictatorship, taking away their land and giving it to Israeli settlers, none of that has happened. None of it exists. And that shows how extreme this Israeli government is.

And there’s something missing from this conversation. Everyone is concerned about terror. I am concerned about terror. I agree with Mr. Lowry that absolutely nothing justifies suicide bombings. They’re horrifying. But nobody seems to care that the vast majority of innocent civilians killed in the past 18 months are Palestinians deliberately killed and targeted by the Israeli Army. And I know that Mr. Gold and perhaps some of your other guests…

SINGER: How many of these questionable statements…

ABUNIMAH: … All you have to do…

SINGER: … should we listen to before we discuss them?

ABUNIMAH: … is look at the Web sites of every human rights group, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights USA, even the Israeli group B’Tselem will tell you that the Israeli Army shoots Palestinian civilians down like dogs. And as long as thats going on, the violence is going to continue. Now, we want peace…


KEYES: Max Singer…


KEYES: … Ali Abunimah, just one second. Max Singer, Max Singer, two questions very quickly. That understanding of history, and that understanding of current events, what do you say to it?

SINGER: Well, the first mistake is he talks about the Palestinian land. And the Jordan Valley is not Palestinian land. You can argue that the place where Palestinians live now, which is a very small part of the West Bank, should be Palestinian land. It never was Palestinian land. And Israel is prepared to give it to the Palestinians when there’s a peace process, negotiations as provided by UN Resolution 242.

But there is no Palestinian land. There will be Palestinian land. But there has never been. And there is not now. There’s disputed land. And thats what the fight is about. The Palestinians just never recognized decisions.

The first decision was by the League of Nations that provided that Palestine should become a Jewish homeland. And that is a perfectly valid decision thats never been accepted by the Arabs. What?

ABUNIMAH: What Mr. Singer is telling us is that the sky is green. That’s what he’s saying. The sky is green. The entire world, even the United States government, is saying Israel has to get out of the occupied territories…



SINGER: The United States government is not saying that.

ABUNIMAH: Oh, yes it has. The United States supports UN Resolution 242, supports its decision.


ABUNIMAH: That’s right. And the UN Resolution 242 does not say that anything is Palestinian land. And it does not say that Israel has to get out of all the land…


KEYES: Gentlemen, one second. One second. Rich Lowry, one second. Rich Lowry…

ABUNIMAH: … in exchange for…


KEYES: Rich Lowry. Ali, Ali, Ali, Ali, Rich Lowry , one question to you. Im listening to this back and forth. And it seems to me we are at the present time suffering in part from the fact that a lot of people, including a lot of viewers, I think are acting in a vacuum of historical understanding and that in point of fact we look at this situation as if it had no antecedents. Max tried to remind us of those antecedents in a way. But what of the charges that the Israeli government is brutalizing civilians and that that is at the root of the current violence?

LOWRY: Well, Alan, I think there is an important moral distinction to be made here. Yes, Israel has killed civilians. Yes, America has killed civilians in Afghanistan. But that is collateral damage. Its not deliberately targeting civilians.

ABUNIMAH: That is absolutely false. Every human rights group in the world disagrees with you.

LOWRY: If civilians get killed in the course of legitimate if civilians getting killed if I could finish the thought.

ABUNIMAH: All you have to do right now…


KEYES: Ali Abunimah, the great problem, Ali, Ali…

ABUNIMAH: … everyone can see that.

KEYES: … Ali, unfortunately, I think we have an illustration of part of the problem right here.

ABUNIMAH: Absolutely. We do. This is a total denial of the facts.

KEYES: I am quite willing, I am quite willing, and we have been willing to give you the time thats needed to express yourself. But you need to be willing to acknowledge that others are existing on this panel and give them the freedom…

ABUNIMAH: Will you give me well, let me ask you a question.

KEYES: No. No. I ask the questions here. I ask the questions here, Ali.


KEYES: And right now I am doing my best to get an answer, a complete answer, from Mr. Lowry. Simple question. There are accusations that the Israelis have brutalized civilians. Are these accusations accurate in your view?

LOWRY: Civilians have died. But, Alan, the point I was trying to make is that there’s a moral distinction to be made between civilians dying and what are meant to be legitimate and targeted military strikes, that there’s a difference between that and strapping explosives around the waists of young men and women and having them run into coffee shops and discos and supermarkets and deliberately blow to bits innocent civilians. That is not permitted under the laws of war. That is terrorism.

KEYES: Rich, now Ali Abunimah, simple question. Is that a false distinction?

ABUNIMAH: Well, there is no distinction in my mind. I care about Israeli and Palestinian civilians being killed. It seems your guests only care about Israeli civilians being killed. They don’t care at all about Palestinians.

Mr. Lowry denies the facts that every human rights group in the world that has looked at it, including several Israeli human rights groups, all say very clearly that Israel targets Palestinian civilians, kills them, shoots them down like dogs…

SINGER: Human rights groups can speak untruths as well as other people.

ABUNIMAH: Oh, they are all speaking untruths? Yeah, I’m sure they have their own interests. But this is what even our State Department has made these points in its human rights reports.

SINGER: No, the State Department has not done that.


ABUNIMAH: All they need to do is go and read it on-line right now,…


ABUNIMAH: I want to say one more thing.


KEYES: Ali, one second. One last word for Max Singer. Let’s see what you have to say very quickly.

SINGER: I say that its clear that Israel isn’t killing as many civilians as it could. It’s going in there, endangering the lives of its soldiers by operating in a way that tries to hold to a minimum the number of enemy casualties. And if you read the instructions that the chief of staff gave to all its soldiers and officers, he stressed that at the beginning of this current campaign. It’s a very strong part of Israel.

And, unfortunately, war is hell. And you can’t do it perfectly. They’re trying very hard.

KEYES: I want to thank all three of you for joining us today. Obviously still deeply contentious issues at the heart of this matter. But one point I’d like to make before we leave, I think all of us can agree that there has to be a distinction between the conscious targeting of innocent civilians to achieve your policy ends and those kinds of awful deaths that occur in the midst of war, which are not intentional, which are not part of ones strategic policy.

And to fail to understand that distinction, I think it’s one of the things that right now lies at the heart of the great difficulty the Palestinians are having getting people to accept their version of the situation. As long as those innocents are dying as a conscious result of policy, youre not just dealing with war, youre dealing with the same evil we suffered from in New York. And it’s got to stop.

Next, we’re going to talk about whether the Bush Middle East policy is at odds with itself, whether or not we’ve seen a lot of contradictions over the last several days that need resolving. A debate on that and more. You watching MSNBC, the best news on cable.