Who Is Yasir Arafat?

In the summer of 1994, Yasir Arafat made a telephone call to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with a special request. After months of tortuous secret negotiations that came close to collapse on many occasions, the two leaders had finally signed the detailed deal on how they would implement the peace process.

Arafat was about to return to his ancestral homeland to rule the Gaza Strip and Jericho, starting a transition period that— if all went well— would produce an independent Palestinian state in five years. In addition to thousands of Palestine Liberation Organization officials and soldiers about to move from various Arab states to Gaza, Arafat told Rabin that he had a list of more than 100 “old friends” he wanted to bring with him. Rabin knew Arafat was talking about individuals personally involved in many terrorist acts against Israelis over the years. But to try to make the peace process work by showing his own flexibility, Rabin sent Arafat’s list of names to Yakov Peri, head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service, urging him to agree that many of the men could be let into Gaza. In the end, Peri approved entry for all but four individuals who had committed the most heinous acts.

On the morning of July 1, 1994, Arafat’s motorcade crossed from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. Israeli soldiers at the border were under strict instructions not to touch Arafat’s Mercedes or the accompanying cars, which then drove past the Mediterranean coast’s sand dunes to Gaza City. Early that evening, Arafat delivered a speech in Gaza City amid tens of thousands of people. Millions more around the world watched on television, including Rabin in his office.

But his viewing was interrupted by an urgent phone call from Peri who had just one thing to tell his boss: “The bastard brought them in the trunk of his Mercedes.” Even after Israel accepted the return of thousands of Palestinian terrorists, soldiers and officials who had fought it, Arafat had just smuggled in the four forbidden men. When Rabin demanded that Arafat expel them, the Palestinian leader at first denied they were in Gaza, then sent them to Egypt but soon had them smuggled back.

This small incident is a good metaphor for Yasir Arafat’s career. Even at a time when he seemed closest to making peace with Israel, Arafat had shown that his word could not be trusted. Time after time, he begged or demanded concessions from others without ever really giving any himself. In 2003 he was still promoting the same basic ideas, often using the identical phrases, as in 1972. Yet his behavior never seemed to dissuade world leaders and the media from the idea that he had done nothing wrong or that next time he would do better. Finally, and most importantly, the incident suggested what would become clear only too late: Arafat was never interested in making comprehensive peace with Israel, and at heart was a revolutionary determined to destroy his enemy.

The Arafat Paradox

Arafat has spent 55 years as a participant in revolutionary movements, nearly four decades as chief of his own group, 35 years as leader of an entire people, and 10 years as head of a government. During that time he took the Palestinians from the depths of defeat and humiliation to gaining the world’s attention and often sympathy. He almost single-handedly created the movement and mobilized Arab support while ensuring its independence. He attained international legitimacy, and made the world forget time after time his previous reprehensible actions.

This was a remarkable work of political art over an incredible length of time. It also helps explain why, despite everything, the Palestinians wanted to keep him as their leader.

But if Arafat often made his people feel proud, he did not make their lives good. During his lifetime, Palestinians gained little, at least in material terms, from following Arafat’s leadership for so many years. If their goal was an independent, peaceful, prosperous Palestinian state, he did not attain it, and during the 2000 Camp David summit he threw away the best opportunity to do so. If the goal was to destroy Israel, he failed at that also.

This has made him one of the least understood leaders. But Arafat’s life as a leader can be divided into four crisis cycles, each characterized by his ambiguous course of action and each ending in what seemed to be a crushing defeat: in Jordan, 1967 to 1971; in Lebanon, 1971 to 1982; in Tunisia, 1982 to 1993; and in the West Bank and Gaza, from 1993 onward. Each time, Arafat refused to acknowledge mistakes so that he and his movement never really re-examined or amended their doctrine, strategy, goals or leadership. In each case, he destroyed his own position by his refusal to keep his commitments, his mistaken belief that violence would improve his situation, his inability to compromise, and his use of radical groups to conceal his own support for terrorism.

The Unquestioned Leader

What distinguishes Arafat from so many failed revolutionaries was that although he could not achieve the ultimate victory for his people he is still able to stay atop his movement. Part of his success was his ability to carefully remold himself to be a walking, breathing symbol of his cause. This process began with falsifying biographical details of his life. Because the geographic symbol of the Palestinian cause is Jerusalem, Arafat has always insisted he was born there. But birth records clearly indicate that he was born in Cairo, Egypt, 74 years ago and only lived a few years as a youth in Jerusalem. Arafat also has insisted he had ample military experience, beginning with a self- proclaimed heroic role in the 1948 War against Israel, although there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest he ever fired a shot.

Next, Arafat created the proper physical image, dressing in a khaki military uniform so as to be seen as a soldier but, in contrast to grandiose dictators, wearing no medal, gold braid or rank because he is a man of the people. He wears a checkered keffiyeh (headscarf), once the common people’s garb to show his devotion to tradition, draped carefully to resemble the shape of a Palestine that includes all of Israel, to show his devotion to the cause.

Arafat skillfully learned how simultaneously to appeal to his people and the Western media by tailoring his language depending on the audience. Facing Westward and speaking in English, he is the pitiable victim who only wants a reasonable peace and has no control over violence. But to Arab or Islamic audiences he is Salah al-Din, the all-conquering warrior.

Experience taught Arafat that militancy and refusal to compromise kept him popular among his own people and in the Arab world. When Arafat initiated violence, it stifled Palestinian criticism of the incompetence and corruption around him, his unfulfilled promises and failed prophesies. During the last three years he has constantly told the West that he supports cease-fires and opposes terrorist attacks. At the same time, in Arabic speeches— as well as in instructions to his movement, security forces, and the Palestinian media outlets he controlled— Arafat was whipping up fervor to justify, continue and even escalate such attacks.

The strategy worked. As Arafat’s own bodyguards carried out terror attacks, Westerners debated whether he had any responsibility for the violence. He rejected reasonable peace offers and many excused him on the grounds that the proposals were insulting. His broken promises of cease-fires were quickly forgotten. No sooner was one of his wild claims of conspiracies or Israeli atrocities disproved then the next would be treated credibly.

In private conversations, Palestinians often make clear their contempt for Arafat and misgivings about his strategy. Yet Palestinians believe they have no alternative leader, which is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Palestinians also continue to support Arafat because they fear civil war and largely share both his militant goals and profound misperceptions. But there also is a lack of other candidates with the requisite ambition, skills or charisma. It is clear then that Arafat will remain the unquestioned Palestinian leader until he dies.

Arafat’s Legacy

It seems equally clear the kind of legacy Arafat wants to leave. If Arafat’s main goal had been to help his people by obtaining an independent state for them, he could have offered Israel full peace in exchange for such an outcome any time within the past 35 years. But Arafat always continued to seek only a Palestinian state in place of Israel and was always reluctant to make any deal that forecloses that goal, no matter what the immediate benefit for the Palestinians.

But he never ceased putting the main priority on his dream of total victory. This was made clear in the year 2000. In July, at the Camp David summit, Arafat rejected as a framework for further negotiations a plan that would have given him an independent state with its capital in east Jerusalem.

At the end of the year, Clinton made an even better offer, his final one, and Arafat turned that down as well.

Arafat has told associates that his worst nightmare is that one day, long after his death, there will be a question on the final examinations of Arab schools asking, “Who was Yasir Arafat?” And the correct answer would be: “The man who sold out Palestine to the Jews.” To say that Arafat got part of it back would not be an acceptable response.

But instead of having a nightmare, Arafat could have had a dream for his people. He could have seen a Palestinian state under his leadership. It wouldn’t have been a wealthy country, but it could have brought back hundreds of thousands of refugees and given them new, productive lives.

Playing on the guilt and political competition of Arab oil-producing states— as well as the Cold War U.S.-Soviet competition— Arafat could have gathered a lot of money. A whole Palestinian generation could have been educated and an economy built on servicing the needs of wealthy Arab oil-exporting countries and managing the compensation money wisely.

In that case, Arafat could have looked back on his labors with satisfaction, having firmly laid the foundation for a state that had many problems but was relatively peaceful and democratic by Arab standards. Palestine might have become a fair, if modest, success, celebrated as a model for other Arab countries. Arafat would have been a statesman cited as an example of peaceful solutions to deep problems.

In the end, then, Arafat fails the tests that dozens of other nationalist and Third World leaders have met. The terrible irony is that the very man who had made it possible for the Palestinians to revive their cause and pride also is apparently incapable of solving their problems. The only battles he has won are on the public relations’ front.

Thus, the conclusion must be that Arafat will remain the Palestinian leader as long as he lives, but this fact will ensure that there will be no peace or Palestinian state.