By Harvey Sicherman
Volume 11, Number 1
Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is President of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former aide to three U.S. secretaries of state. His October 19 lecture on “The Democratic Prospect in the Middle East” may be viewed on this website.
Yasser Arafat was the man who wanted too much. He equipped his people with a sense of victimhood, a rhetoric of hate, and a cult of violence that ultimately put his objectives beyond reach. Often a master of maneuver to international acclaim, Arafat’s doing, and his undoing, proved to be his penchant for terrorism. Embattled to the end, he had hoped to duplicate Saladin’s triumphal recovery of Jerusalem. But Allah had other plans and he died in the bosom of the French.
Who was this short man in khaki, symbol of the Palestinian cause and consummate survivor?
Arafat shrouded his personal biography in myth. Distantly related to the famous al-Husseini family of Jerusalem, who gave the Palestinians their first leader, the Mufti Haj Amin, Arafat himself was born in Cairo in 1929. His mother died young and the boy spent some time in Jerusalem at an uncle’s house during the Arab Revolt, 1936-39. Although Arafat’s Egyptian-accented Arabic gave away the education of his youth, he would always describe himself as a son of Jerusalem who shared in the tribulation of the refugees of 1948.
Arafat studied engineering in Cairo but his real vocation was politics. These were the heady days of pan-Arab nationalism, a generation of leaders skilled in “lose-win” politics whereby military gambles gone bad became political victories through defiance of the foreigner. Nasser was the master; battlefield defeats in 1956 and 1967 left him more popular than before. Arafat, like others of the class such as Hafez al-Assad of Syria and Saddam Hussein, became skilled practitioners of “lose-win.”
Arafat proved eclectic in his choice of allies. He began with the Muslim Brotherhood, then gravitated to nationalist ideas, moving to Kuwait where he founded the Fatah Party (“Conquest,” a reverse acronym for Palestine Liberation Front;) with four others in 1959. Over the next decade Arafat sided with Syria, then with Egypt, courted Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union, supplicated the King of Jordan before nearly overthrowing him. Arafat was always up for rent but never for sale.
In March 1968, Arafat successfully exploited an Israeli raid against his forces in the Jordanian village Al Karamah that went wrong when a Jordanian unit intervened. The Palestinians lost the battle, but an Arab world thirsting for heroes after the 1967 disaster found its votary in Arafat.
Arafat vainly called himself a general. His real forte, however, was something else: terrorism, the use of civilians both as target and shield. Shocking acts of violence and disruption were Arafat’s way of declaring that the world would not know peace unless the Palestinians were placated.
Only two years after 1967, Nasser’s patronage, Arafat’s own mythmaking, and a series of sensational, international airplane hijackings propelled him to the Chairmanship of the Egyptian-sponsored Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the main address for the Palestinian cause. To consecrate the occasion a new “covenant” was written. This expressed another element of Arafat’s strategy. Less a formula for government than a tract promising to destroy Israel and uproot Zionism, the document served to unite the feuding Palestinian factions. Economic, religious, and political quarrels should be deferred until after victory. Arafat thereby surmounted personal identification with any sectarian cause, symbolizing only the simplest of goals-a Palestinian state in place of Israel.
From this period, too, one can date Arafat’s ability to address several audiences simultaneously. He endorsed the idea of a single secular Palestinian state of equality for all its citizens in order to rally European “progressive” opinion to his side. But to his Arabic-speaking audiences he offered the religion-infused language of the peasants and small towners who comprised the bulk of the Palestinians. To them, Palestine would be Arab and Muslim, the Christians and Jews relegated to their proper place of Dhimmi, protected but inferior residents in the classic Muslim polity. In short, the way it was before the British and the Zionists arrived but without the Turkish overlord.
Evaluating the enemy, Arafat always stressed the inherent evil of Zionism. In his view, the Zionists were the successors of the Nazis and often worse, committing unprecedented crimes against the Palestinian people. This encouraged Holocaust denial and European-style anti- Semitism. Arafat also stimulated a Palestinian sense of tragic heroism and victimhood. It was for others to offer redress.
Arafat also shared the larger Arab nationalist view of Israel’s place in the world. The Jewish State could be explained best as a residue of European imperialism able to survive only because the West — specifically the United States — supported it. Arafat opposed the United States for the simple reason that American power (in his view) was the main obstacle to his goal. As for Nasser, so for Arafat, the Soviet Union proved a necessary ally. Perpetually dressed in the military uniform immortalized by Che Guevara, Arafat quickly obtained the support of Third Worlders and Western sympathizers for national liberation movements then in their heyday. Arafat and the Palestinian cause joined the pantheon of the Algerian revolution, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and the “big men” of Africa, among whom he counted Nelson Mandela.
By 1970, Arafat had assembled key elements in his struggle: demonizing the enemy; ennobling the victims; unity over ideology; double-speak; multiple partners; terrorism. It took him nearly thirty years to become a political force recognized by the Arabs, the U.N., the United States, and finally, Israel, as he swung between victory and defeat in a dizzy oscillation. He controlled part of Jordan by 1969, but overplayed his hand and was forced out. A dozen years later, he lost a mini-state in Lebanon, after an Israeli invasion. A year after that, Syria’s Assad aborted his return. Yet, Arafat’s “lose-win” politics still brought him increasing international acclaim. The Rabat Arab Summit in 1974 gave him sole custody of the Palestinian cause and later that year a triumphant appearance at the U.N. International intervention led by the U.S. saved him in Beirut. Sidelined after 1983 in Tunis, he was rescued again by the Palestinians themselves in Gaza and the West Bank four years later through the intifada. Then in December 1988, buoyed by the intifada’s success and Israel’s travails, he secured American recognition of the PLO.
Arafat had to pay a price for all this legitimacy. In 1974, he launched the “stages theory”; the PLO would take authority over any territory vacated by Israel, leaving a single, all-Palestinian state to be achieved at a later stage. This suggested a possible two-state situation. Was Arafat compromising his goal? Some PLO factions thought so and broke violently with him. Israel thought not.
Arafat faced other difficulties with the United States. He was directly implicated not only in aircraft hijackings and the massacre of Israel’s Olympic athletes in 1972 but also the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Sudan (Cleo Noel) in March 1973 — crimes committed ostensibly by the mysterious Black September. He was armed and tutored by the Soviets or Soviet clients. And he joined the Iraqi-led Rejectionist Front opposed to the 1978 Camp David Accords and Egyptian- Israeli peace. Washington insisted that he swallow some bitter pills by adhering to UNSC Resolution 242 (recognizing Israel) and renouncing terrorism. Arafat did it his way, first declaring in a pompous ceremony at Algiers a virtual Palestinian state; then, as head of the new state, offering terms to the United States.
These new achievements were promptly jeopardized by old habits. The dialogue with the United States lasted only until Arafat fomented a terrorist raid. And then in 1990 he sided with Saddam when the “lose-win” master of Iraq seized Kuwait. That cost the Palestinians dearly. The Gulf States ejected a quarter-million who worked there and withdrew their financial support for the PLO.
Yet, Arafat still held important strengths. Only he could call off the war with Israel and thus ease American and Western relations with the Arabs. In 1993, he was rescued once more when Israeli Prime Minister Rabin gambled that Arafat would compromise his objectives to build a state in part of Palestine. The Oslo Accords created the Palestine Authority. Arafat was its Rais or Chairman or President (depending on the audience), and it was “autonomous” within negotiated rules. For this modest achievement, his critics argued, Arafat recognized Israel and (once again) forswore violence. Other critics pointed out that the Palestinians might have gotten something similar had they accepted the Camp David Accords in 1982 when only ten thousand rather than 120,000 Israelis were settled in Gaza and the West Bank.
Lionized by the West after a glittering White House ceremony and Rabin’s reluctant handshake, Arafat duly arrived in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho in 1994 amidst popular delirium. Arafat also won the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Israel’s primary negotiator, Foreign Minister Peres. At 64, the Rais had become a familiar international figure. Personally modest, “married to the revolution,” a teetotaler, he preferred the humble table of the “street” and even served meals to visitors himself. This was in deliberate contrast to other Arab rulers in the region who paraded their wealth and power. Of course, money had its uses; Arafat always corrupted those who could be corrupted, the better to bind them to his side. But he played the personal paragon of unsullied virtue.
Arafat also had his vanities. In 1990, he secretly married a secretary, Suha, from a wealthy Palestinian Catholic family. Thirty years younger, and eventually mother of his daughter, she lived a life of ostentatious luxury that her husband did not prevent. Arafat liked to describe himself as a general who never lost a battle. He relished international travel and advertised his willingness to mediate the quarrels of others.
Arafat also played the romantic revolutionary. Sporting a scraggly beard, perpetual military fatigues and the headdress draped to resemble the map of Palestine, he kept a conspirator’s hours, a late night ritual meeting preceded by exhausting hours of delay. Arafat’s conversation was a study in calculated affability punctuated by flashes of temper — every gesture intended to impress the high seriousness of a holy cause. Still there was something comical about it. The Israeli novelist Amos Oz said of Arafat that “He imagines himself as a combination of Che Guevara and Saladin.” But the would-be hero lacked Guevara’s physique and Saladin’s gravitas. He could appear ridiculous and he knew it. Arafat was jealous of Palestinian dignity of which he was the self-appointed symbol. Still, clowning had its uses if it led the opponent to underestimate him. And the clown had both sharp teeth to bite and the vaulting ambitions of a high-wire walker, skills he employed to the fullest.
Oslo itself was not a full peace treaty but rather an interim agreement that set up a Palestinian Authority, pending negotiation on final status. The biggest problems - - borders, settlements, security, Jerusalem, refugees — were put off. While the complex phases of Oslo unfolded, Arafat was determined not to let his people relax or his cause be sidelined. Palestinian media and textbooks were saturated with images of Israel as the enemy. Arafat never doffed his military uniform nor the militant atmosphere that surrounded him; his rhetoric often resembled pre-Oslo days. Once he compared Oslo to a famous episode in the Koran when the prophet Mohammed reached a temporary treaty that allowed him to gain enough strength to overwhelm his enemies later. It sounded suspiciously like 1974’s “stage theory.” And it was amplified by Arafat’s insistence that the outcome of Oslo would be an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, Palestinian control over Jerusalem, and the return of Palestinian refugees to reclaim their lost homes.
The Rais was not interested in good government or economic development. He quickly established a “cronycracy,” equal parts corruption and incompetence. The Old Guard from Tunis exploited the flow of foreign assistance, ran monopolies and local extortions. Elected President in early 1996, along with a Legislative Council intended to be the prototype of a parliamentary democracy, Arafat ignored and humiliated it.
Most seriously, Arafat deliberately diffused the crucial security forces among a dozen overlapping and competing organizations that quickly exceeded the Oslo limits. Nor did he suppress Hamas and other groups determined to oppose Oslo through terrorism. This was the “red line” for Yitzhak Rabin. The Israeli leader understood that Arafat might retain a terrorist option by allowing Hamas and other groups to function while denying any responsibility. In September 1995, Rabin publicly warned Arafat at the White House that everything would be lost if Arafat failed to suppress terror.
Arafat was loath to give it up. After Rabin’s murder but too late for Peres’ election campaign in the spring of 1996, Arafat finally moved to constrain Hamas. When he suspected the newly elected Likud leader Netanyahu did not want to negotiate seriously, he tried to stir popular outrage. And then Arafat was rescued once more when Netanyahu’s opening of an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem that September inflamed Palestinian fears for the al-Aksa Mosque.
The old Arafat was unleashed. His propaganda accused the Jews of plotting to destroy the mosque while his policemen fired upon Israeli soldiers. These were the crudest violations of his Oslo obligations. Yet, Arafat was immensely gratified by the political results. A panicky Netanyahu and anxious President Clinton embraced him at the White House. Henceforward, he became Clinton’s most frequent foreign visitor while the Israelis remained on the defensive. Throughout the Oslo years, the United States, Israel, and the European donors to the Palestine Authority remained doggedly reluctant to penalize Arafat’s reversions or to discipline the cronycracy. They believed a final agreement ending the conflict would redeem all these travails.
But Arafat had exhibited all the warning signs of a man more interested in pursuing a violent struggle than in building a stable state.
In 1999, Ehud Barak, former Chief of Staff and self-declared disciple of Rabin, routed Netanyahu and wagered his premiership on ending the conflict. A year later a reluctant Arafat joined Barak and President Clinton at Camp David in a final attempt to settle the matter. Arafat forewarned them that the Palestinians had not been prepared for compromise (he knew this better than anyone). Actually, Arafat had been working on another plan, a unilateral declaration of independence for September. He ran a violent rehearsal on May 15, Nakhba (Disaster) Day, the way Palestinians marked Israeli independence. That summer Arafat’s security forces were stocking supplies in anticipation of trouble.
All sides blundered at Camp David. Yet, Arafat’s refusal to make a counteroffer, his destructive fable that the Jewish temples had never been in Jerusalem, and his sanctification of the conflict after the summit (“the al-Aksa Intifada”) shook confidence that he really wanted a deal. But he found little international support for a unilateral declaration of independence.
Arafat was spared the impending stalemate, courtesy of General Sharon, his old foe whose overreaching had rescued him in Beirut eighteen years earlier. On September 28, Sharon reasserted Israeli claims to the Temple Mount in a highly publicized, well-guarded walk on the Temple Mount. To Arafat, this must have seemed a repetition of Netanyahu’s 1996 gaffe. He encouraged deadly demonstrations throughout the Palestinian Authority and by Israeli Arabs in Israel itself
Why did Arafat resist all international efforts to restrain what quickly became a guerrilla war punctuated by terrorism, unlike the first intifada? Why did he not seize either the Clinton parameters of late December — well beyond Barak’s original offer — or conclude a deal with Barak at Taba? Why did he insist on both Jerusalem and the Right of Return, guaranteeing the dissolution of Israeli public support for doing any deal with him?
Arafat simply thought he could win. On the surface, he had good reasons. Even if Barak lost the January 2001 Israeli elections to Sharon, it would be easy to isolate an Israel led by so highly unpopular a figure. George W. Bush, rejected by ninety per cent of the Jewish voters and son of a President who had quarreled with Israel, would be sympathetic. Israel might be forced into a “two-state solution” whereby Arafat got one state now and, after the return of the refugees, another larger state later.. These proved fatal miscalculations.
The tricks and duplicities of the past caught Arafat with a vengeance. The Israelis were aroused, angry, and for a critical year, united in a Sharon-Peres government. Sharon himself had learned from the mistakes of 1982. He would conduct the war heedful of American limits. And, in Washington, Clinton warned Bush against investing in Arafat unless he stopped the violence and negotiated seriously. Suddenly, the Palestinians had lost vital American support.
Arafat compounded the blunder. By redoubling the violence and disturbing the international scene once more, he hoped to provoke an international intervention to save him. Then came 9/11 and Bush’s support for a Palestinian state as an incentive to call off the war. But Arafat played a double game. When the Israelis intercepted the freighter Karine A, full of Iranian arms that would have escalated the conflict, Arafat denied any connection to the vessel even though he knew that Bush knew he was lying.
Not to be outdone by Hamas, Arafat produced the latter-day version of Black September, the al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade. When the suicide bombers finally inflicted an intolerable number of casualties in April 2002, the Israelis invaded the Palestinian cities successfully and confined him to his Ramallah headquarters, something Arafat was sure they would not do. His hopes rose when Bush dispatched Secretary of State Powell to Israel, then fell when he learned that American pressure on Sharon would only be triggered if and when he ended the terror. The Rais was visibly upset. His strategy had failed. He had no other plan.
Once Arafat had called the 1969 Palestine Covenant caduc—“obsolete” in French. Ironically, Arafat’s own tactics in the last phase of his life rendered him increasingly caduc. He seemed not to realize his situation. In June 2002, Bush delivered the heaviest blow, calling for a reformed Palestinian partner free of a leadership “tainted by terrorism” before statehood could be achieved. Arafat now faced the loss of international legitimacy. He appeared increasingly the main obstacle to his own objectives. The rest of his life would be spent in a strange limbo of simultaneous relevance and irrelevance. Nothing could happen without him, but nothing could happen with him.
Arafat clung to the illusion that, like Beirut of twenty years earlier, Sharon would do something outrageous enough to compel an international rescue. After the war in Iraq, he skillfully evaded Washington’s grasp by crippling the Prime Minister forced on him, his old comrade-in-arms Abu Mazen. Meanwhile, he presided over the slide of the Palestinian Authority into chaos.
Arafat also sought to revive diplomatic pressure. He connived at an exercise called the Geneva Accords, an extension of the Taba negotiations by former Israeli officials, some of his trusted agents, and sympathetic Europeans. As usual, he endorsed only those parts he liked. When, partly in reaction, Sharon surfaced in December 2003 with a “unilateral” plan to withdraw Israeli forces and settlers from Gaza, Arafat saw it as another trick to bring the Palestinians into civil war or, at the least, subvert his authority. Still besieged in the ruins of his Ramallah headquarters, he danced for joy when Sharon’s Likud Party rejected the plan in a non-binding referendum. He opposed even the removal of Israeli settlements unless he, Arafat, became once more Israel’s and America’s negotiating partner.
In late summer of 2004, Gaza rioting and increasingly bold public criticism of his strategy and government forced Arafat to acknowledge errors — by others — and to promise “reforms.” That amounted to reshuffling his slate of the co-opted, corrupted, and coerced. Something might turn up. The Americans might need him for Iraq. Sharon could fall. Bush might lose the election. There was always an interview to give. But no one believed him anymore. Then his time ran out.
Gripped suddenly by severe illness, the cameras caught Arafat in an unwelcome pose, a shrunken old man wearing a Russian fur cap bundled against unnatural chills. He managed a feverish smile at the crowds on his way to Paris. Commentators noted that he had survived bullets, bombings, car accidents, and airplane crashes. Mortality seemed an anti-climax.
Yet, the drama refused to end. Mystery attended his symptoms, confusion his colleagues, hysteria his wife. His death was reported, then denied; denied, then reported. Arafat’s spokeswoman in Paris issued a statement worthy of the master: “He is between life and death. He is in a coma, which is reversible.” Options were still open! But Arafat had finally met a Power who could not be terrorized, bribed, or charmed. At last, on November 11, 2004, at age 75, his death was announced.
Where would he be buried? Arafat wanted to achieve in death what he could not in life, namely, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The Israelis refused. Instead, his birthplace, Egypt, would offer a lying-in-state at Cairo airport and he would find his rest — temporary of course —at the scene of his last headquarters, the Muqata compound of Ramallah. And there he was interred amid chaotic scenes punctuated by gunfire.
Among all the national liberation icons of his era, Arafat was most expert in working the interstices of the international system, his movement more than a conspiracy but less than a government. In the end he was never able to escape that limbo, to move from terrorism aimed at destroying Israel, the work of war, to the building of a real Palestinian state, the work of peace. Perhaps, he became too comfortable with the struggle, for achieving his end meant also the end of him.
Arafat might be compelled to step in someone else’s direction but, like his lifelong enemy Hafez al-Assad, he was expert at not reaching someone else’s destination. He would go down as the symbol of defiance. No one would say of Arafat, “He ceded Jerusalem to the Jews.”
As for diplomacy, what some thought enigmatic actually followed a well-worn pattern. It was the old “lose-win” maneuver of his youth. Win if you can, negotiate if you must until you think you can win again.
Regardless of the situation, Arafat made full use of victimhood and martyrdom. His nom de guerre, Abu Ammar, was that of an early martyr from the Koran. Of course, Arafat preferred the benefits of martyrdom to the rigor of the actual experience. The media would capture him time and again in his favorite scene, standing amidst the rubble, grinning, indomitable, and loquacious on his readiness for martyrdom. Fittingly, he would be buried in the carefully preserved ruins of the last scene, Muqata.
Arafat, father of his people, leaves the promise of a state he himself could not or would not fulfill. He begat violence throughout his life and his legacy of terrorism, deceit, and victimhood will not be easy to overcome. Burying that burden is the next and most vital step in the rehabilitation of the Palestinian hope.
Arafat leaves a broader international legacy as well. His career was a monument to Western weakness and ineptitude in dealing with international terrorists. Unwilling to disqualify him or hold him to account, unable to settle the conflict upon which he thrived, the democracies set a disastrous example for their enemies. The man who wanted too much finally overreached against an enraged Israel and an American President steeled by the 9/11 attack. But the damage was done. Many more lives may be lost before it is undone.
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