Yasser Arafat -- Two views
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Issue Date:  November 19, 2004

Even in death, Arafat will remain a potent symbol

His influence will endure


The grave illness of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has given rise to frenzied speculation about what will happen after his departure from the political scene, and much critical analysis of his legacy.

Born Muhammad Abd al-Ra’uf al-Arafat al-Qudwa in 1929, Yasser Arafat first became active in Palestinian politics while an engineering student in Cairo in the early 1950s, where he headed the Union of Palestinian Students at Fu’ad I University. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Arafat launched his own contracting firm in Kuwait and quickly prospered. He founded al-Fatah, the most prominent of a number of exile groups that advanced armed struggle as a means to liberate Palestine. Since the late 1960s, Yasser Arafat has been the icon of the Palestinian cause and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He returned to the occupied territories in 1994, and was overwhelmingly elected leader of the Palestinian Authority.

Lionized by some and vilified by others, Arafat inspires affection and loyalty in a way no other living Palestinian does. Palestinians, though, have always been his first and most vocal critics, a reality rarely conveyed by the mainstream press. In the past decade, Arafat received considerable and consistent criticism from Palestinians frustrated by the disappointments and injustices of the Oslo Accords. He also received stinging rebukes from former friends and supporters, as well as in the West, for administrative corruption, mismanagement, favoritism and a politics of patronage that made a mockery of democratic practice in the Palestinian Authority.

His towering position notwithstanding, the speculation about the post-Arafat future is based on the false premise that the presence or absence of a single individual is a decisive factor in settling a complex, century-old conflict. Removing Arafat -- or Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon for that matter -- changes absolutely none of the conditions that make conflict between Israelis and Palestinians inevitable. The Israeli military occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip will continue; Israel’s settlements on Palestinian land will still be there and growing. Israel will still have tens of thousands of troops controlling the lives of millions of Palestinians. Millions of Palestinians will remain refugees and exiles.

Last spring, in an all too routine action, Israel destroyed hundreds of homes in Gaza’s Rafah refugee camp. When U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was asked why the international community took no action to stop what many human rights organization termed “war crimes,” he said, “You would want to see immediate action by the Quartet [the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia] to stop the demolition of the houses, and that is going to take the kind of action and will and resources and confrontation that, quite frankly, today I don’t see anybody on the international community willing to take.”

Many Palestinians see this lack of political will to confront Israel as the main explanation for why the international community prefers to focus on side issues such as Arafat’s role.

Arafat has exercised little real power in recent years. Until he was taken to Paris for medical treatment, he had been under Israeli house arrest in the rubble of his Ramallah headquarters, unable to travel or meet his people since a major Israeli military assault in March-April 2002 across the West Bank killed more than 500 people and destroyed most of the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. He shared the fate of millions of Palestinians under Israeli military rule, for whom curfews, blockades and collective punishment are pervasive features of life.

For Israel, Arafat’s passing from the scene would be a mixed blessing at best. Just a few weeks ago Sharon was again threatening to murder Arafat, the way Israel killed Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel-Aziz Rantisi. When Arafat’s health suddenly deteriorated, however, Sharon ostensibly extended all medical assistance to preserve his life.

Israel fixates on Arafat because it needs an alternative explanation for the dramatic escalation in the conflict caused by its colonization and stubborn refusal to end the occupation. Sharon’s most senior adviser, Dov Weisglass, recently told Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper that Sharon’s much vaunted Gaza “disengagement” plan is actually a ruse to kill, not advance, any peace process.

Weisglass explained, “When you freeze that [peace] process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”

President Bush’s re-election can only have bolstered Israel’s confidence that it will come under no American pressure. The domestic constituency in the United States for unquestioning support of Israel has grown in recent years far beyond traditional Democrat-leaning Jewish communities. Evangelical Christians, a huge segment of Bush’s base, see U.S. support for Israel as essential to fulfilling biblical prophecies they believe will trigger Armageddon. Influential televangelist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson recently warned President Bush that any pressure on Israel to relinquish any part of Jerusalem would interfere with “God’s plan,” and constitute grounds for breaking with him.

Arafat, alive and well in Ramallah, served Israel -- and the U.S. administration -- as a scapegoat and distraction from such hard political realities. Israel and its cheerleaders in the United States have painted Arafat as a puppeteer who controls all Palestinians and can even determine the outcome of Israeli elections. As Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote in a confidential report to Israeli lobbyists in April 2003, Arafat has been a great asset to Israel because “he looks the part” of a “terrorist.”

The caricature Arafat has become so dominant in American discourse that little recognition has been given to the irony of Arafat’s repeated attempts to end the current intifada and, before that, to reach peace with Israel. In 1988, Arafat convinced the Palestinian national movement to recognize Israel and accept a two-state solution, even as Israel opposed such a compromise. In 1993, Arafat formally recognized Israel in the Oslo accords. (Israel has still never formally recognized any Palestinian right to independence and continues in its official maps and documents to designate the occupied West Bank as “Judea and Samaria,” inseparable parts of “Greater Israel.”) It was for these actions that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Arafat has been accused of precipitating the current crisis by rejecting a “generous offer” from then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak at the 2000 Camp David summit. This charge has been refuted in several articles by Robert Malley, who was special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, and was present throughout the failed negotiations. It has also been carefully debunked in two recent books: Clayton Swisher’s essential volume The Truth About Camp David: The Untold Story about Arafat, Barak, Clinton, and the Collapse of the Middle East Peace Process (Nation Books, 2004) and Israeli scholar Tanya Reinhart’s Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 (Seven Stories Press, 2002). Yet despite the overwhelming evidence that the summit failed because the two sides were simply too far apart on fundamental issues, the absurd claim persists that we have no peace purely because of Arafat’s personal vanity. In a Nov. 6 editorial, The New York Times labeled Arafat the “man who couldn’t say yes” largely on the strength of the unfair pro-Israel account of Camp David.

The Israeli and American press have been full of speculation that either Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia or his predecessor Mahmoud Abbas may eventually succeed Arafat. Both are described as “moderates” with whom Israel and the international community would be ready to deal. Among Palestinians, these men enjoy little trust and support. Any attempt by foreign powers to anoint new Palestinian leaders whom they see as more pliable will be strongly resisted by Palestinians. Some analysts have raised fears of a Palestinian “civil war” once Arafat is gone. This is highly unlikely. Opposing Palestinian factions have consistently managed even their most severe disagreements through dialogue.

Israel has reportedly already “planned” a burial for Arafat in Gaza because, according to Israel’s justice minister Tommy Lapid, “Jerusalem is a city where Jews bury their kings. It’s not a city where we want to bury an Arab terrorist, a mass murderer.”

Coming after a month in which Israeli forces killed 155 Palestinians, 36 of them children, these comments betrayed not only shocking arrogance and callousness toward Arafat as an individual but told Palestinians collectively that even now, Israel does not see them as rightful inhabitants of the land. Not content to rule Palestinians’ lives militarily while they are alive, Israel even wants to determine where they might finally rest. Arafat’s symbolic power, at least, remains as strong as ever.

Ali Abunimah is cofounder of the Web site The Electronic Intifada and is based in Chicago. He is also a columnist for the Beirut-based newspaper The Daily Star. He regularly contributes articles to many American newspapers.

Arafat's scorched earth


For almost all Israeli Jews, whether left, right or center, Yasser Arafat has already taken his place among the most detested villains of Jewish history. That’s not only because he re-legitimized the murder of Jews in the post-Holocaust era and delegitimized the existence of the Jewish state; more profoundly, Arafat is detested because he toyed with our deepest longings for peace and betrayed Israel’s hopes for normalcy and reconciliation.

The scorched earth Arafat leaves behind includes a shattered Israeli peace camp. A generation of Israeli doves had courageously struggled to convince their fellow citizens to empower Arafat and accept him as a peace partner. And so when Arafat launched his terror war in September 2000 -- against a Labor party government that was the most peace-minded in Israel’s history and after Israel became the first country in history to offer shared sovereignty over its capital city -- he destroyed the doves’ credibility within the Israeli mainstream and assured the ascendancy of Ariel Sharon.

In his refusal to abandon the demand for refugee return to the Jewish state, Arafat proved to Israelis that the conflict isn’t about the 1967 borders or even the settlements but about the existence of Israel in any borders. Indeed, during the failed Camp David negotiations in July 2000, settlements weren’t even among the top five issues dividing the two sides, according to Israel’s chief negotiator, Gilad Sher. Instead, those issues included the Temple Mount and refugee return -- that is, historic symbolism and tangible threat to Israel. More than creating a Palestinian state, Arafat was driven by the obsession to destroy the Jewish state, and by a grandiose vision of his place in history, reflected in murals all over the Palestinian territories depicting him as Saladin, waving a sword and riding a white steed.

Arafat’s scorched earth includes thousands of dead and crippled Israelis, but his crimes hardly end there. Arafat not only destroyed Jewish bodies but, perhaps worse, he destroyed Palestinian souls. He raised a generation of Palestinian children to see in suicide bombers religious and educational role models. And his media taught the Palestinians a culture of denial -- denying the most minimal truths of Jewish history, from the biblical narrative of an ancient Jewish presence in the Holy Land to the existence of gas chambers. Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s dovish former foreign minister who negotiated with Arafat at Camp David, was stunned to hear the Palestinian leader declare then that there had never been a Temple in Jerusalem; for Ben-Ami, and for many other Israelis, that was a revelatory moment, in which Arafat’s war against Jewish history became clear. Indeed, the Palestinian territories, along with much of the Arab world, are the only region on the planet where Holocaust denial has become normative, from intellectual circles to the person on the street.

Arafat routinely lied to his people, bequeathing a culture of mad conspiracy theories. He accused former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak of committing terrorist attacks against Israelis to blacken the Palestinian cause and accused the Israeli army of spreading depleted uranium in the territories; his media spread the lie about Jewish involvement in the 9/11 attacks.

Arafat promised to prepare his people to accept the legitimacy of Israel; in fact, he did precisely the opposite. The assassinated Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, taught his people that the Oslo process meant that the fantasy of “Greater Israel” was over; Arafat taught his people that the Oslo process brought the dream of “Greater Palestine,” and with it the destruction of Israel, ever closer. In a 1995 speech in a Johannesburg, South Africa, mosque, for example, he declared that, just as the Prophet Mohammed was forced, because of weakness, to conclude a ceasefire with an Arabian tribe he later destroyed, so too was he, Arafat, forced to declare a temporary truce with Israel, which he intended to destroy. That speech was supposed to be off-limits to the media, but one journalist smuggled in a tape recorder and its contents reached Israel. The revelation of Arafat’s real intentions stunned the Israeli public, and was the beginning of the end of Israeli trust in the Oslo process.

The colorless bureaucrats who will succeed Arafat -- including Abu Mazen and Abu Ala -- will almost certainly tone down Arafat’s jihadist rhetoric, like his frequent boast to head a million martyrs marching on Jerusalem. Still, those Arafat associates are unlikely to dismantle either the terrorist infrastructure Arafat funded and nurtured or the infrastructure of hate he created in Palestinian schools, media and mosques.

In practical terms, Arafat has insured that a comprehensive peace agreement will remain elusive even after his death. The abyss of mistrust he leaves behind insures that the Israeli public will insist on a prolonged testing period of Palestinian intentions before agreeing to share Jerusalem with an armed Palestinian authority. The concretization of that mistrust is the security barrier Israel is currently completing along the length of the West Bank -- which should, in fact, be called the “Yasser Arafat Memorial Fence.” Arafat created the conditions that made the fence -- once inconceivable for Israelis -- a life and death necessity, embraced by almost all parts of the political spectrum.

The most that can be hoped for in the post-Arafat era is an interim agreement that will allow the Palestinians to create a state in Gaza, as a testing stage. Sharon’s intention to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and uproot nearly two dozen settlements there is as timely as it courageous: The Palestinians need to be given a chance to create the beginnings of a state and determine their destiny in the post-Arafat era. But Israel needs the reassurance that that experiment, in its initial phase, is limited and can be stopped if, say, missiles begin to fall from Gaza on Israeli cities following an Israeli pullback.

If the post-Arafat Palestinian leadership somehow manages to undo Arafat’s legacy and end terror and the culture of incitement, then the Israeli public will support negotiations over the future of the West Bank. Yet few Israelis really believe that that scenario is possible, at least not in the foreseeable future. Instead, Israelis expect bloody succession battles among the dozen rival security militias Arafat deliberately created to police each other, followed by even bloodier battles between Hamas and Fatah. That too will be part of Arafat’s legacy.

As I write, Arafat lies unconscious, surrounded by aides who shamelessly contradict each other’s diagnoses of his condition. In fact, he is dying the way he lived: enveloped by lies, plots and the whiff of violence. Israel, increasingly ascendant in the war against terror, will survive Arafat’s genocidal intentions. Instead, the ultimate victim is likely to be the hope of a viable Palestine, living in peace with its neighbors and contributing to the emergence of a sane Middle East.

Yossi Klein Halevi is the Israel correspondent for the New Republic and author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (Morrow, 2001).

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 2004

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