His influence will endure
By ALI ABUNIMAH
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-Rauf 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 Fuad 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; Israels 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 Gazas 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 dont 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 Arafats 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, Arafats 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 Arafats 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. Sharons most senior adviser, Dov
Weisglass, recently told Israels Haaretz newspaper that
Sharons 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
President Bushs re-election can only have bolstered Israels
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 Bushs 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 Gods
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
The caricature Arafat has become so dominant in American discourse that
little recognition has been given to the irony of Arafats 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 Swishers 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 Reinharts 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 Arafats personal vanity. In a Nov. 6 editorial, The New
York Times labeled Arafat the man who couldnt 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 Israels justice minister Tommy Lapid,
Jerusalem is a city where Jews bury their kings. Its 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. Arafats
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
|Arafat's scorched earth
By YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI
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. Thats 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 Israels 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
Israels 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
In his refusal to abandon the demand for refugee return to the Jewish
state, Arafat proved to Israelis that the conflict isnt 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 werent even among the top five issues dividing the two sides,
according to Israels 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
Arafats 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, Israels 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
Arafats 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 Arafats 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 Arafats 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. Sharons 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
Arafats 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 Arafats legacy.
As I write, Arafat lies unconscious, surrounded by aides who shamelessly
contradict each others 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 Arafats
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
Jews Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land