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Israelis Reflect and Look Ahead with Yasser Arafat Clinging to Life

November 8, 2004
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Mordi Peretz arranges rows of meatballs and slices of lasagna behind the counter of his Tel Aviv deli as he pulls together his thoughts on the apparent demise of Yasser Arafat. Like most Israelis, Peretz will not miss the grizzle-faced Palestinian Authority president: He blames Arafat for throwing away peace with both hands, for leading the Palestinians towards terrorism and further away from statehood. And like his fellow countrymen, Peretz sees in Arafat’s eventual death hope for a political breakthrough and a chance for peace.

Still, the 44-year-old reflects out loud on the long road Israel has walked with Arafat — from pariah to possible peace partner and back to pariah. So when he saw the 75-year-old Arafat, now frail and ill wave goodbye as he boarded a helicopter before he left the country for medical treatment in Paris, he felt the pang of mixed emotions.

“He was everything negative and achieved none of things he could have,” said Peretz. “But when I saw him waving goodbye,” he adds, “I felt a certain sympathy. And I felt badly for the Palestinians. Israelis, although they despise him, will still feel the loss of his image as the symbol of the Palestinian people.”

Customers come into the deli that Peretz runs with his brother Ran asking for the latest news on Arafat.

“We cannot believe that after all this time he is finally going,” Ran Peretz said.

“This Is the End” read the banner headline in the weekend edition of Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yediot Achronot, next to a large photograph of Arafat.

But as Arafat reportedly continues to slip in and out of a coma in a French military hospital outside of Paris, Israelis and Palestinians both are living in a state of limbo.

For so many years, Arafat — grinning under his trademark kaffiyeh while overseeing the struggle against Israel — was the opponent Israelis loved to hate. A post-Arafat landscape appears to be a blurry one, with hopes for renewed peace efforts but fears of the specter of Palestinian infighting.

“It could change things for better or for the worse. I don’t know, but I am hoping for the best,” said 22-year-old Tali Asolin as she folded pastel colored T-shirts at a sportswear store in Tel Aviv.

Mordechai Kedar served for 25 years in the military intelligence branch of the Israeli army and now teaches at Bar-Ilan University. He spoke of the mixed feelings Israelis are experiencing.

Borrowing from the old joke of the mixed emotions of a man watching his mother-in-law plunge off a cliff while driving his fancy car, Kedar said that it’s like “we are watching Arafat riding our Mercedes over a cliff.”

In the short term, Arafat’s death may throw uncertainty into the planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, his death could result in a chaos that prevents the Palestinians from quickly resolving their internal affairs, delaying their ability to turn toward the Israelis in a renewed peace process, Kedar said.

“His personal game is finished. The question is what will people think is his legacy,” Kedar said.

Arafat seemed to seal his fate with Israelis, and perhaps with the world, when he rejected the offers at Camp David in the summer of 2000, instead giving the nod to the return of armed struggle against Israel.

That struggle has since become four years of intense fighting known as the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising. In the violence, almost 3,000 Palestinians have been killed and some 1,000 Israelis have lost their lives.

Israelis who supported the peace process and thought Arafat would be the key to resolving the conflict feel betrayed.

“As a Jew and as an Israeli, I see him as a murderer and I am happy to see him die,” said Robert Hannuna, a 24-year-old university student. Hannuna said that he cannot forgive what he sees as the mistakes Arafat made when it came to trying to forge peace with Israel.

“He was a hero to the Palestinians, he is the one who put the Palestinian issue on the world agenda, but he missed the chance to make peace,” he said.

Charles Frankenberg, a 44-year-old tour guide who immigrated to Israel from Vancouver, Canada, said he is dismayed that the Palestinian leadership appears to be trying to keep the world in the dark about the truth of Arafat’s health. He said that does not bode well for them being able to be truthful and forthcoming in the future.

“Everybody in Israel is hoping Arafat will die as soon as possible, so we can get on with it and move on to the next stage, whatever that may be,” he said.

Despite the twinge of sympathy by Peretz the deli owner, distaste for Arafat is one of the few things that now seem to unite both the left and the right in Israel.

On the popular Israeli satire show “Sold Game,” contestants were asked how they would remember Arafat.

One brought out a small battery-wound yellow chick, its head wrapped in a kaffiyeh and said, “Like a little chicken.”

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