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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Chapter Activities

Chicago, IL

Chicago Jewish News

Jewish Chicagoans React to Arafat's Passing
By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood
November 2004

Most members of Chicago's Jewish community who follow Middle Eastern affairs closely see Yasser Arafat's death as a seismic event that could change the Israeli-Palestinian relationship in profound ways.

Just what those ways are is less certain. Chicagoans had a variety of opinions on that subject, as well as what the Palestinian leader's lasting legacy will be.

One man who has first-hand knowledge of Arafat-literally-is attorney and Jewish community activist Joel Sprayregen. As a national board member of the Anti- Defamation League, Sprayregen was part of a delegation that met with Arafat three times, in 1995, 1998 and 2000.

Although all three meetings were different, Sprayregen said in a telephone conversation, his overall impression of the Palestinian leader remained the same throughout: Arafat's "talent for duplicity was astonishing."

"I know all politicians talk out of both sides of their mouth, but with Arafat, it was his complete modus operandi and way of life," Sprayregen said. "He would talk peace and send people to (talks at) Oslo and Geneva at the same time as he would be approving the most hideous crimes and murders."

At the first meeting in Gaza in 1995, at the height of the peace process, Sprayregen said, Arafat "went on for 45 minutes" stating that he had proof that a bombing that killed Israeli soldiers at a bus stop was perpetrated by the Israeli right-wing to discredit him.

"If you disagreed with him, he would say, 'I am General Yasser Arafat, I have the proof.' The tragedy is that no one called him on it," Sprayregen said.

At the second meeting, in 1998 in Ramallah, Sprayregen said Arafat "pulled out a paper" that was supposedly a decree he had issued against incitement to violence. "That was the last anyone ever heard about that," Sprayregen said.

The third meeting, on Sept. 20, 2000, was in his opinion the most significant, he said. At it, spokesmen for Arafat issued threats about what would happen if the Camp David talks then in progress failed; eight days later, the second intifada began.

"Arafat was utterly incapable of ending the conflict. The armed struggle was a way of life," he said.

Sprayregen has also met Arafat's two possible successors, P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the PLO's executive committee and a former P.A. prime minister.

"They are quaint, gentlemanly older guys-they don't carry guns or go around dressed in military garb" as Arafat sometimes did, he said. But "they are weaker-they don't have Arafat's credibility with the Palestinians, his stature, his charisma. The question is, can they concede anything he didn't concede?"

To predict the future would be foolish, Sprayregen said, but he said that just as Israel's national anthem is "Hatikvah," which means hope, Israelis and American Jews must have hope and "try and do whatever we can to encourage peace."

If Arafat's successors "take strong steps against terrorism, steps that can be verified, then there is something to talk about," he said.

Gidon "Doni", president of Chicago Peace Now, agrees that Arafat was "a terrorist who fought violently against Israel for much of his career and did little to stop-and much to encourage-the current intifada."

But he said he believes that Arafat's death will create the opportunity for more moderate Palestinian leaders, such as Abbas and Qurei, to take the reins. Abbas, he said, "was thwarted by Arafat from gaining control over the Palestinian security forces; that, along with the failure of (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon and President Bush to help him, prevented Abbas from putting his words into action and was one of the main reasons that the Road Map crashed last summer."

Remba said there was one period in Arafat's life in which he was an active partner in the pursuit of peace with Israel; from October 1997 to October 2000, he said, Israel "experienced only a single fatality from suicide bombings thanks to Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation and the hope generated by ongoing peace talks." The next generation of Palestinian leaders would do well to emulate this phase of Arafat's life, he said.

Meanwhile, Arafat's death "could create an opportunity for ending the intifada, reaching a truce with Israel, and leveraging Israel's disengagement plan into a new peace process with responsible Palestinian leaders," he said.

Arafat's death "is probably a step toward peace, but I don't think it's going to really matter" unless the Palestinians change their culture and their textbooks that foster hatred of Jews and glorification of suicide bombers, according to Izzie Weinzweig, a past president of Chicago's American Zionist Movement.

Palestinians "don't have to have a love for Israel, just a recognition that Israel is there" and a commitment to building a state that can "live side by side with Israel in peace," he said. "Until that happens, it doesn't matter who the leadership is."

The collective Palestinian leadership "vows to continue the path of armed resistance when they talk to their own people in Arabic, but when they talk to the West, they say they're interested in peace provided Israel does this, the United States does that, the United Nations does the other. They completely absolve themselves from any responsibility" for building a peace process, he said.

Weinzweig said he was also upset about some of the press coverage of Arafat's death. Some of the media "made him seem like he was a statesman, not a murderous killer, which he was. He didn't do a thing for his own people-he made their situation abysmally worse than before he appeared on the scene and he stole billions from them," he said. "I don't think most of the coverage told the story about what he was really like. They portrayed him as a great leader, when he actually led his people into misery."

Rabbi Victor , chairman of To Protect Our Heritage PAC, an organization that supports pro-Israel elected officials, said that while he is always saddened by anyone's death, Arafat "really challenges that feeling. He has caused so many deaths throughout his life, he has allowed his people to languish, uneducated, malnourished, unemployed while he used terror to deny the Jewish people any rejoicing over their own achievements," he said.

Weissberg agrees with most other observers that Arafat's death "brings the possibility of some movement in the problems that face the Israelis and the Arabs. He was obstinate and unbending," he said; Arafat "swaggered to cover his fear that the other Arabs would kill him for any compromise he would make for Israel."

"I would hope for something better from his successors," Weissberg said, adding that Israel would encourage the Palestinian elections scheduled for January and "show good will in many other ways" if there is a lessening of terror." Weissberg saved his most scathing criticism for French President Jacques Chirac, who, he said "should be whipped and scourged for the (positive) way he treated" the Palestinian leader, who died in a Paris hospital.

American media coverage "always wants to show the best side of somebody when they die, but in this case they had to stretch it," he said. "He's a thief, and the actions of his wife, the way she was supported, are thievery. All of the deceit he did was covered up because (the media) wanted to make him seem like a righteous guy."

Aliza Becker, the Chicago-based national executive director of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom-Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, said Arafat's death creates a new opportunity for peace.

"This is very rare-a man dies, a new era begins," she said. "In Bush's meeting with (British Prime Minister Tony) Blair, he started all of a sudden talking about reengaging in the peace process after (Bush) was disengaged for so long."

Becker said that even before the U.S. election, her organization had started a campaign aimed at the next president with two demands: to reengage in the Middle East peace process and to appoint a high-level U.S. envoy to the region.

"There are many things going on besides the (Palestinian) leadership transition- the Gaza withdrawal, the war in Iraq and the growing enmity against us in the Arab world. There is a need for Bush to reengage in the Israeli- Palestinian peace process to gain some leverage there. All these things are coming together and there are many opportunities there," she said.

"It could be positive. Will the Israeli government negotiate a Gaza withdrawal with the new Palestinian leadership? It could be an orderly transition or it could be an excuse to take over more West Bank settlements. There is so much on the table and a lot of opportunity," she said.

Rabbi William Kanter, president of Religious Zionists of Chicago-Mizrachi Hapoel Hamizrachi, disagrees about the opportunity. I don't think (Arafat's) passing will change anything," he said. "The leadership has to change. The last few years he has just been a figurehead, sitting there. The situation won't change until the Palestinians stop terrorism and stop the radical groups controlling the streets."

Even if Arafat's successors have the desire, he said, they don't have the ability or the commitment to stop radical Palestinian religious leaders from "encouraging jihad and martyrdom and trying to get their children to kill Israelis."

As proof, he points to the assassination attempt against Abbas two days after Arafat's funeral. Abbas, Kanter says, is "a Palestinian through and through. He's not a left-winger. But he was trying to work with the Americans and they tried to assassinate him. Any kind of turning toward a peace process that would require stopping terrorism is met with an assassination attempt. There is no leader willing or able to take on the radical groups, and anybody who tries to rein in the terrorists will be killed," he said.

Meanwhile, Kanter said he was disgusted with the reaction of world leaders who came to Arafat's funeral and lionized him.

"If Osama bin Laden came out of his cave and got sick they might treat him in a hospital, but they wouldn't give him a hero's farewell," he said. "There is no difference between Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Arafat in their desire to kill people. Arafat had American blood on his hands, Israeli blood."

Arafat was an "arch-terrorist" who tried to destroy not only Israelis but his own people, Kanter said. "To give him a hero's farewell is disgusting."

To Frank Tachau, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an expert on Middle East affairs, Arafat's demise "changes the political situation in a profound way," although the outcome, he says, is anything but certain.

Some aspects of Arafat's life remain puzzling even after his death, Tachau said. For instance, "many people claim he was basically in sympathy with extremists and suicide bombers and could have stopped them whenever he wanted to. I'm not sure that's entirely true. I'm sure he had some influence with them, but I don't think he had full control."

Whatever Arafat may or may not have been able to do, the future no doubt holds something different, Tachau said. "If a moderate like Abbas is elected as president of the P.A., then at least on the surface" there will be a greater chance for the peace process to resume, he said.

Abbas "was centrally involved in the Oslo negotiations, and Bush and Sharon can't claim he is irrelevant, that there is no partner on the other side" as they did with Arafat. "There are some glimmers that even the Sharon government understands that and is prepared to do something," he said.

On the negative side, radical groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad "have said they don't want to participate in the elections" in January or to consider a ceasefire. "If they go on as they have been, presumably launching more suicide attacks, it could have a negative impact on the political situation," he said.

"It is hanging on a delicate balance, but at least there are possibilities."

Menachem, an Israeli and professor at Hebrew University who is currently teaching in the Hebrew Studies Department at the University of Chicago, said that he believes that Arafat's death "could be for the better" but that "some elements are missing."

"Many Israelis say that there are three obstacles to get back to the peace process-Arafat, Sharon and Bush," he said. "If you have only one of the three disappearing, there are still the two others."

Sharon "can't come near to the Barak- Clinton (peace) proposal," he said.

"Bush is putting all the pressure on the Palestinian side, and rightfully so," Brinker said. "But he doesn't demand anything from Israel and it's not clear to the Palestinians that they are going to get anything in return except withdrawal from Gaza."

The peace process could be jump- started, he said, "if Bush attempts to form a unified position on the Middle East with Europe, helped by his special relationship with Tony Blair, and the Palestinians prove themselves closer to having democratic uncorrupted leadership. If all this happens," he said, "then there will be some chance for peace."

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