The Palestinians’ Yom Kippur

It’s as if the Palestinians are having their own Yom Kippur this year. Looking back over the 24 months of the current intifada and the nine years since the Oslo accords, Nabil Amr, a former minister and Yasser Arafat loyalist, beat his breast last week and declared: "We have committed a serious mistake against our people, authority and the dream of establishing our state."

At the same time, Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, recently appointed to streamline the myriad Palestinian security services, called for an end to violence and suicide bombings. "Violence only breeds violence and reactions which bring grave losses," he said. "The militarizing of the intifada and the armed operations were a historic mistake that has cost the Palestinian people lots of blood and innocent lives."

Arafat echoed the point in his address to a meeting of the Palestinian Legislative Council in his Ramallah headquarters on Monday. Israeli critics noted that they were repudiating violence not because it was immoral, but because it didn’t work. But to many Israelis in the line of fire, that will do for a start, so long as the Palestinian leadership acts and doesn’t just talk.

The Palestinians won the first intifada, a revolt of stones and Molotov cocktails, in the late ’80s by convincing Israelis that they could no longer live with the status quo.

However, the Palestinians have lost the second intifada, a revolt of guns and bombs, because Israel did not buckle.

More and more Palestinians now recognize that the resort to arms and the failure to build a civil society brought them nothing but grief. Amr, who resigned four months ago as Arafat’s parliamentary affairs minister, articulated it more bluntly and more publicly than others. It is significant that Amr did so in the columns of an official Palestinian Authority newspaper, Al Hayat al-Jadida, and that Arafat’s thugs have not forced him to retract.

Along with Arafat and other exiled Palestinian leaders, Amr returned to the homeland after Oslo. Now in his early 50s, he has served as the Palestine Liberation Organization’s ambassador to Moscow. He is also a former editor of Al Hayat al-Jadida. His outspoken "Open letter to President Yasser Arafat" spares neither the Palestinian Authority nor its leader.

"We abandoned one of our most important weapons," he wrote, "that of building establishments worthy of receiving support from the world and capable of winning the trust of the Palestinians and pulling the rug from under the feet of the Israelis…. I speak in the plural ‘we’ because I believe the responsibility for failure is a collective one, although you shoulder the greater part of the responsibility in view of your post, jurisdiction and power."

Amr complained that the leadership was more concerned with "sharing the booty" than creating a credible administration or judiciary. "Not a single committee was formed to study the qualifications of those who were assigned big and small posts," he wrote. Later in the letter, he noted that the "army of employees" had reached 130,000 persons, "three-quarters of whom do not know what their work is."

But the ex-minister’s most sardonic attack was leveled at Arafat’s rejection of the compromise peace formula President Bill Clinton floated, with the acquiescence of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, at Camp David in July 2000. Amr said it was a decision that condemned the Palestinians to a situation of constant retreat.

"Didn’t we jump for joy over the failure of Camp David?" Amr mocked. "Didn’t we throw mud at the picture of Clinton, who dared to submit a proposal for a state with some modifications? Didn’t we do this? Were we sincere with ourselves? No, we were not. After two years of bloodshed, we accept what we rejected, perhaps because we know it is impossible to achieve."

Sari Nusseibeh, the PLO’s point man in Jerusalem, is another eminent Palestinian brave enough to say Arafat blew it at Camp David. "My sense," Nusseibeh told me, "is that Barak wanted to close a deal.

"This is what the Palestinians should have made use of," he said. "I think it was possible to make Barak come the extra mile or two, if we on the Palestinian side had made the one or two steps forward in terms of what we were prepared to do on refugees."

Like Nusseibeh, Amr believes it is never too late to repair the errors. "What works," he wrote, "is frankness and admission that a grave failure has occurred…. We have not done yet what we must do…. We have committed a serious mistake against our people, authority and the dream of establishing our state.

"However, we can be forgiven if we admit our mistake and get to work immediately," he continued. "What this people deserves is for us to work a lot with them and for them — not to place their destiny at the mercy of new international winds or mortgage them until doomsday without opening a window of hope for them."

That’s as ringing a declaration of penitence as you will hear in any synagogue this Yom Kippur. But Arafat and company still have to earn their second chance.