November 18, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 6

Middle East peace has been elusive, says Rev. Raymond Helmick, SJ, because "the parties are not negotiating on equal footing, and consequently any agreement is non-binding to the Palestinians. The terms of discourse need to be changed, with agreements based on the binding nature of international law."

Assessing Arafat's Legacy - and the Middle East's Future

Theology's Fr. Helmick says international law must guide peace talks

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

For someone whose life was full of controversy, it seemed fitting that the final days of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were similarly contentious.

The death of Arafat on Nov. 10 capped a week of rumor, speculation and debate about the nature of his illness, the quality of his health care, the location of his final resting place and, most of all, his legacy as a major player in Middle East politics.

One Boston College observer who followed the events and commentary surrounding Arafat's death with particular interest was Rev. Raymond Helmick, SJ, a part-time faculty member in the Theology Department who had a long-standing relationship with the president of the Palestinian Authority.

A founder of the US Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, Fr. Helmick began corresponding with Arafat - and many other prominent Israelis and Palestinians - nearly 20 years ago and met him several times. Fr. Helmick's involvement in Middle East mediation efforts earned him an invitation to the 1993 White House ceremony formalizing the Israeli-Palestinian Liberation Organization accord.

The failure of Israelis and Palestinians seven years later to build on that accord is the subject of a new book, Negotiating Outside the Law: Why Camp David Failed, by Fr. Helmick, who has continued his contacts with key figures in the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Interviewed amidst reports of Arafat's impending death, Fr. Helmick offered his assessment of the man who - for better or worse - embodied Palestinian nationalism. He also discussed the major points of his book, in which he contends that the best prospect for Middle East peace is for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate as equal partners in strict adherence to international law.

Fr. Helmick said he acknowledges the body of opinion that saw Arafat himself as an obstacle to peace in the Middle East. But whatever Arafat's sins, says Fr. Helmick, he was ultimately the one who could deliver a peace settlement on behalf of the Palestinians. [See sidebar.]

"I have had great respect for him. I found him to be well educated, reasonable and articulate. And I maintain that his life's work was to prepare the Palestinian people for peace with Israel. So I do not find it all credible that he was trying to tear down the peace process he'd help put in motion years ago.

"The efforts of President Bush and [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon to marginalize Arafat and make him out to be irrelevant was a reversion to Israelis' and Americans' refusal in the 1970s and '80s to deal with the Palestinian leadership - and the result, then as now, has been nothing but a stalemate. The representative of the Palestinians can only be the one who the Palestinians choose, and the Palestinians believed Arafat would never sell them out."

Critics of Arafat point to his direct or indirect support of, or involvement in, terrorist activities. But while that may have been true earlier in Arafat's life, Fr. Helmick says the violence of the past four years in Israel has occurred in spite, not because, of him.

"There has been constant Israeli attack on every element of Arafat's police authority - destruction of their stations and infrastructure, killing of his police on any pretext, classification of any action of the Palestinian police in protection of Palestinians as acts of terrorism, with the result that Arafat was left with no capacity to stop violent actions by Palestinians beyond his moral authority, which in fact he used.

"He did terribly as an administrator, because nothing in his experience prepared him for it, and he did not leave enough of a role for trained, experienced Palestinians. Yet the emotions we saw unleashed during Arafat's final days show that he was most certainly relevant, and it will be difficult for anyone to have the same level of credibility he did among the Palestinians."

In Negotiating Outside the Law, Fr. Helmick recounts his initial contacts with Arafat and the building of their rapport over the years. At their first meeting in 1985, the Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman appeared to Fr. Helmick as "a highly intelligent and cultivated man, anxious for serious contact with an American public, especially Jews..." Sessions with Arafat tended to run long, and Arafat spent much of their first encounter describing his attempts to initiate peace negotiations during the previous decade, ending each account with "but they wouldn't listen."

While Arafat was hardly blameless in the collapse of the 2000 Camp David talks and follow-up parleys, far too much of the responsibility has been laid at his feet, claims Fr. Helmick. Some chroniclers of the negotiations, such as Clayton Swisher, point to what they see as President Clinton's over-eagerness to broker an historic deal that would enhance his legacy and, related to this, a lack of adequate preparation by the American team.

There is, Fr. Helmick notes, further controversy over the lack of written or official records on the Camp David negotiations. The regular practice at Camp David, he said, was that all proposals from the Israelis to the Palestinians were channeled through the Americans, which meant "everything was presented as American conjecture on what the Israelis might agree to. That often left the American team, and Clinton in particular, highly frustrated that what they presented to the Palestinians as the Israeli 'bottom line' or 'red line' would then turn out not to be the bottom line, as the Israelis would suggest to the Americans that they might in fact go further."

This approach underscores a basic flaw in the Middle East peace process, Fr. Helmick says.

"Because of the disparity in power, the parties are not negotiating on equal footing, and consequently any agreement is non-binding to the Palestinians," he explained. "The terms of discourse need to be changed, with agreements based on the binding nature of international law."

Fr. Helmick refers to Article 2 of the UN Charter, which renounces any acquisition of territory by force, and UN resolutions 242 and 338 - adopted in the wake of the 1967 and 1973 Middle East conflicts, respectively - which provide for return of captured territory in exchange for peace.

In addition, he says, two earlier UN resolutions are relevant: 181, which in 1947 originally established the Jewish and Arab states in Palestine; and 194, which when passed in 1948 set requirements for the end of Israeli-Arab hostilities, including the contentious issue of right of return for refugees, but in language that already provides the strict limitation that such a return has to be "to live in peace" or otherwise be replaced by compensation.

He also cited the Fourth Geneva Convention directives that require an occupying power to be responsible for the "safety and well-being" of the occupied and prohibit an occupier from expelling residents from the territory and from transferring their own population into occupied territory.

"Following the rule of law, of course, does not give a cut-and-dried formula for resolution of the issues. Instead, it makes the two parties to the negotiation equal before the law, overcoming the disparity of power that results from basing the process on superiority of force.

"What may not be done by force, according to the most basic premise, Article 2 of the Charter, may still be done by agreement - made freely between parties who are equal before the law and who then look to the realities of the situation. The law, then, does not prejudice the case against the Israelis, as some people fear, but is there to protect the rights and interests of both parties."

The departure of Arafat makes it all the more important for the US to take a stronger role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says Fr. Helmick.

"The imperative is right there before us," said Fr. Helmick, referring to the US-led strike against insurgents in Fallujah, which began during Arafat's final days. "What happens in the Israeli-Palestinian situation is critical to what happens in Iraq and the whole Middle East.

"If the US were to insist upon both parties negotiating as equals before the law, I believe we would see true progress."

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