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Yasser ArafatLegacy or Lunacy?
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Legacy or Lunacy?
by Tekla Szymanski
His watery eyes were always wide open, as if perpetually perplexed. His sparse beard, the growth of a sixteen-year-old, framed thick, cracked lips, and was unkempt. Arafat, a battered prisoner living in his partly destroyed headquarters in Ramallah (according to cynical Israelis, "in carefully preserved half-ruins"), where the Israeli army kept him under house arrest since September 2002.
An image gone? Not so fast.
Arafat was the eternal prisoner, and the Palestinians, who also see themselves as prisoners, could identify. But for more than a year before his death, the septuagenarian was faced with open rebellion in the legislature of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and within his power base, Fatah. Yet, he bounced back, again and again, astonishingly well for a man his age. Nevertheless, a taboo had been shattered.
Some Palestinians were desperately trying to shatter more than an image. The so-called old guard within Fatah Arafat and his men (the "made-in-Tunis regime" that was allowed to return in 1993 from exile to the West Bank following the Oslo accords) has been accused of corruption by the so-called new guard within Fatah, those pragmatic, pro-reform young Palestinians, intellectuals among them, who launched the first Intifadah in the 1980s, fought on the ground while Arafat the Ra'is ["the head," "the leader" in Arabic] to his people still lived in hiding in exile; this young guard has started to doubt the merit of the uprisings. Arafat, however, stressed in an exclusive interview with Tel Aviv's liberal Ha'aretz (July 7, 2004) that he gave clear orders, after the Intifadah had started, to cease the attacks and stop any suicide bombers.
Arafat "turned the promise of his return to Palestine into a hell for his own people," opines Canadian journalist and political scientist Salim Mansur. "He destroyed the internal leadership [now mostly affiliated with the new guard] that had emerged in the wake of the first Intifadah, placed his cronies from exile into positions of influence and ran the territories under limited autonomy as a police state."
Now, the new guard, eager to get its act together before Israel unilaterally withdraws from the Gaza Strip next year, is demanding transparency and accountability within the PA. Mansur believes that the opposition to Arafat's rule "has the makings of a third Palestinian Intifadah," this time, "against Arafat and his henchmen. Arafat's behavior has been deeply humiliating to Palestinians.... They deserve better from a leader who could not have returned from exile without their sacrifices."
Mohammed Dahlan, Chief Conspirator?
Meet the main conspirator 44-year-old Mohammed Dahlan, who has accused Arafat of "sitting on a pile of Palestinian corpses." The former head of the Preventive Security Service (PSS) in Gaza, then interior minister during Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' short term (Abbas resigned last year in protest of Arafat's continued refusal to implement change), Dahlan is seen as the leader of the new guard. An eloquent opportunist, a moderate, respected by the Americans, the Israelis and the Europeans (and, according to rumors, with good connections to numerous foreign secret services), Dahlan encourages elections and is well liked in the Gaza Strip but lesser known in the West Bank.
He has attacked the corruption within the PA, even though Arafat's loyalists claim that he is far from clean himself. After the demands for reform were made, Arafat refused to meet with Dahlan, who had given Arafat public reassurance in an interview with the London-based Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat (Aug. 12, 2004), "President Arafat does not have to be afraid of me. He should be worried about some of the hypocrites around him. I have no ambitions to replace President Arafat, but this will not stop me from demanding reforms."
The third component in this internal power struggle are the militant wings of Fatah the Jenin Martyrs' Brigades, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and the Abu Rish Brigades, all of which receive funding and weapons from Arafat, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad with their own agendas. Political reforms and democratization, however, are far from their concern.
According to Tel Aviv's mass circulation Yediot Aharonot, had it come to a showdown between Dahlan and Arafat, Hamas would have sided with the Ra'is. Why? Because Dahlan threatened to disarm Hamas if that is what it would take to bring stability to the region. In addition, the corrupt PA is a perfect cover for Hamas' underground work. According to Yediot's Alex Fishman, the Israeli Army believes that after the withdrawal from Gaza, all hell will break loose. Hamas and Arafat, hand in hand, would have tried to prove that Israel was to blame for the loss of control within the Gaza Strip.
Dahlan, therefore, is interested in working with Egypt and making the withdrawal and its aftermath as smooth as possible exactly what Arafat and Hamas wanted to prevent.
Shortly before the Rai's' death, Egypt had started to negotiate with Arafat over structural and political changes within the PA in exchange for much-needed assistance to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip once Israel pulls out. Arafat, as expected, appeared reluctant to cooperate. But, during an interview with Ha'aretz (July 7, 2004), Arafat denied those allegations of stonewalling. To the question of whether he would hesitate, after an Israeli pullout, to risk the unity of his camp and fight Hamas, Arafat answered: "Even against anyone from Fatah who comes out against the law. I am respecting my word, my position." And he stressed that he was working with Egypt on security in Gaza. Ha'aretz' reporters also learned from the Ra'is that "at the end of the day, it was he who had signed Oslo and he who had negotiated at Camp David. His implication was unmistakable: As long as he lived, he was the only man to do business with."
Can Gaza Become a Democratic Enclave?
How strange that the democratic reform movement has its roots in the Gaza Strip, which was always regarded as backward compared with the West Bank, a refugee enclave that shelters the militant Hamas amid poverty, unemployment (running at 70 percent) and despair. "Give people jobs, bread and butter," explains one PA official on why the West Bank is lacking any reform spirit so far; "[then] they [don't] care how many ministers they have or don't have."
Ironically, it was also Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon "The Butcher," as Palestinians refer to him who has triggered their will to reform with his declaration of planned unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the evacuation of Israel's settlements there. Israel has additional leverage over Gaza's internal affairs: Any Israeli incursion into Gaza following rocket attacks against Israeli settlements in the area played into Arafat's hands and allowed him to dismiss Dahlan's relentless finger pointing as ill-timed, selfish, even unpatriotic. And that is exactly what the Ra'is wanted to do.
Arafat, the leader who, according to the New York-based financial Wall Street Journal, "has come to represent the act of self-delusion on a massive international scale" is not a man of change. But, according to WSJ, "Where Arafat spends the rest of his life is not important. What matters is for the world to recognize that it is time to get rid of [him]." Arafat reluctantly, and accompanied by much theatrical hemming and hawing, agreed to some cosmetic changes within the PA. He pledged an overhaul of its centralized security apparatus but the old man stayed mostly in charge. The German liberal weekly Die Zeit has put it nicely: "He began his career as a terrorist, and he is not able to let go, even though he must realize that people like him are not needed any longer in times of peace."
A Mandela of Palestine he was not. Neither was he a Fidel Castro in complete control of his flock. The mild-mannered Shimon Peres called him "a fruitcake." Ariel Sharon considered him "irrelevant." A wry editorial in the New York Times once declared: "We have no illusions about Mr. Arafat suddenly becoming the Palestinian Queen Mother."
A Man Taking Up Arms
Arafat, the eternal warrior. One of the founders of the Palestinian Fatah ["conquest"] movement in 1965, he has taken up his armed struggle, drawing inspiration from the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962), a guerilla war of national liberation against a colonial power, France. In 1969, he was elected head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and, in 1989, he appointed himself "President of the State of Palestine." In 1993, following the signing of the Oslo accords, he triumphantly returned with his cadres to the West Bank.
In 1996, he was officially and overwhelmingly elected president. He has always been fighting his war, using all means at his disposal, smuggling arms, diverting aid money and paying off confidants and cronies hungry for presidential perks, always with his eyes on an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Sometimes, he chooses to be part of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and sometimes he even reluctantly condemns terrorist acts.
As Arafat the peacemaker, he was hiding behind his Nobel Peace Prize and the slogan "peace of the brave" (used by President Bill Clinton in his speech on the occasion of the signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestinians on September 13, 1993, in Washington, D.C. "A peace of the brave is within our reach.").
Talking peace had become one of Arafat's demagogic tools to achieve his end which to many commentators seemed a means for self-destruction in the long run. He replaced his pre-Oslo armed struggle with a "phased strategy," claimed Efraim Karsh in the Middle East Quarterly magazine (Spring 2004): To seize whatever territory Israel is willing to cede, using it as a springboard for additional territorial gains and thus gradually achieving a "complete liberation of Palestine." Karsh continues: "Arafat has never been as interested in the attainment of statehood as in the violence attending its pursuit."
"Arafat, architect of the Palestinian national movement, is now concluding his career by being its undertaker," summarized Barry Rubin in the conservative Jerusalem Post (July 26, 2004.) "Arafat has led his people into a dead end, [clutching] the steering wheel as he plows the Palestinian vehicle into a stone wall." For Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel's foreign minister in 2000, Arafat is "not a leader connected to the ground [but] a religious man...focused on mythological issues."
But that's not all. "Not only has Arafat not built anything, but he has turned the Israeli right into the majority," fumes Yoel Marcus in Ha'aretz (July 30, 2004.) "It's hard to say which is worse." And, according to the Middle East Quarterly's Barry Rubin, "The legacy of justifying violence without limit is a devastating part of the post-Arafat heritage for Palestinians. Arafat simultaneously speaks the language of nationalism and Islamism. Many [of his followers] will regard a war on Israel as the route to avoid war among the Palestinians. [Arafat's] legacy is the cul-de-sac in which the Palestinians are stuck. He will go down in history as the man who put the Palestinians on the political stage. But it will take a very different kind of leadership to [effect] the most decisive change: getting the state of Palestine on the political map. Thanks to Arafat, that task will be more difficult, not easier, than it would have been just a few years ago."
Forced to Clean Up His Act
The urge for political and structural change came in September 2002, after the second Intifadah, begun in October 2000, had already cost the lives of thousands of Palestinians and wasn't going anywhere. Says Dahlan: "We are deceiving ourselves.... We failed to make peace and to make war. We failed at both. We have to decide now: Are we going to have war or peace?" Some commentators called the second Intifadah a fraud that provided Islamic extremists with a cover for unleashing a guerilla war against Israel.
In March 2003, Arafat was forced to make substantial changes within the framework of the American-brokered "road map," a new peace initiative built on the ruins of the Oslo accords. Arafat was to appoint a prime minister, an interior minister and a finance minister, to end, as Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi later put it bluntly, "his one-man show and to put this solo performance behind us."
Arafat's hand-picked choice, Mahmoud Abbas, a.k.a Abu Mazen, however, resigned six months later because his attempts to overhaul the many Palestinian security forces to unite them under one authority, not Arafat's, and to reform its institutions came up against fierce resistance from the Ra'is and ultimately proved to be futile. The irony: Now, Abu Mazen is back with a vengeance; he was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in the Jan. 9 2005 presidential elections. According to the New York Times, Abu Mazen refused to talk to Arafat in the last 16 months of the late Palestinian president's life, and he has now pledged to end the armed Palestinian uprising once and for all.
But until Arafat's death, all attempts for reforms had stagnated and ground to a halt. Arafat, as always, had the last word. "This is the way of a paranoid, neurotic revolutionary," wrote Gisela Dachs in Die Zeit (Sept. 11, 2003), "who mistrusts everybody and everything.... Only during times of anarchy and chaos does Arafat's world exist. Only then do his people look up to him."
In September 2003, Arafat quickly appointed a new prime minister: Ahmed Qureia, a.k.a Abu Ala. But he submitted his resignation in June 2004. Arafat completely ignored the fallout from this second throwing up of hands, until he was rudely awakened by mass demonstrations proving that times had indeed changed for the "Arab street."
Nobody could have taken Arafat's place though. Not while he was still alive. He is the symbol of the Palestinian struggle to his mostly European followers abroad. He is the leader and the father of the Palestinians, the personification of their national aspirations. People may loathe him, but he could gather the masses behind him. He traveled the world; some say, he was charming. But he never appointed a likely successor (as few leaders in the Arab world have done), and the Palestinians have now started to doubt that the Ra'is had their best interests at heart.
What is remarkable amid all this internal political chaos is that some members of the new guard have kept their optimism. "Many nations have a leader as a symbol," says Palestinian Legislative Council member Muhammad Horani, "but that which remains is the nation itself. The Palestinians will be able to manage without him. We have enough leaders left, both social and cultural, not to fall into anarchy."