Friday, November 12, 2004

Yasser Arafat

There is much that can be and should be said about Yasser Arafat; some of it complimentary, some of it not. A great deal, I expect, will be said about his life, his effect on the Middle East, and what the near future holds in store. Much of the latter will be idle speculation, in which I will of course join a bit further on.

I also expect that the two mantras that will be repeated endlessly in discussions of Arafat will be "corruption" and "failure to contain terrorism." Neither is without merit, but both will be overplayed and overemphasized to the detriment of truth.

Yasser Arafat was like many other leaders of popular movements over the years, in that he displayed a failing I've seen even in those I greatly admire (Jean-Bertrand Aristide springs to mind): He was a much better organizer, a much better if you will activist, than he was an administrator. He eventually lived to be the old lion, far past his peak but with just enough in him to hold on to leadership of the pride when facing the increasingly-frequent challenges - but who like the aging founder of the family business refused to face the fact that it was time to let go. His "corruption" was mostly that of cronyism, of surrounding himself with trusted friends while icing out others, generating an autocratic governance and central control that came to frustrate even his own aides. It was not, it should be noted, a financial corruption. In fact, last summer, Markus Kostner, country coordinator for the West Bank and Gaza department at the World Bank, credited the Palestinian Authority with having "a clearer bill of health vis-a-vis financial management" than most countries in the region. Admittedly, that is not a terribly high standard to meet - but it is a standard.

Terrorism is a, what should I call it, a subtler issue, first because terrorism is of course how Arafat and the PLO brought the plight of the Palestinians forcibly to the world's attention. (Although Israeli Justice Minister Yosef Lapid's description of Arafat as "a man who made terrorism a method in the world" surely ranks among the larger distortions of historical fact of recent years.) But the PA and Arafat came to condemn terrorist attacks as at least counterproductive when not morally wrong. Still, the Israeli position was that Arafat had never done enough. Even when, last June, Arafat could note that
British intelligence, which is monitoring the security situation in the territories on behalf of the Quartet, recently published a positive report on the Palestinian security services' efforts to foil suicide bombings in Israel.
Even when Israeli officials admitted that conditions would make it difficult for any Palestinian government to exert strict control over violent splinter groups. Even then, he'd never done enough and therefore, in Israel's view, it need do nothing, need take no steps, need make no compromises. The image pushed, in fact, was not only that Arafat hadn't done enough, but that he refused to do anything, that if he but snapped his fingers and said "stop!" that attacks on Israelis would cease. It was never said directly, of course ("We never actually said Saddam was behind 9/11.") but that was the clear message.

But it wasn't that Arafat wouldn't stop terrorist attacks, it's that he couldn't. And in the face of continued Israeli intransigence, in the continued lack of progress or response, in the continued IDF terror attacks on Palestinians, the harder Arafat tried to stop attacks on Israelis the more he raised internal threats to his own position.

So "corruption" and "terror" is what we will hear. But my own conviction is that history will be kinder to Yasser Arafat in the long run than in the short run.

But of course we live in the short run, and in that frame there will be expressions of relief, of "Thank God he's gone!" They won't be put quite so bluntly, of course, even here certain diplomatic niceties must be observed. Instead, it will be talk of "new opportunities" under "new Palestinian leadership." Or, as Shrub put it in a ghoulish statement made while Arafat was still alive, an "opening for peace." (This before his crocodile tear offer of "condolences" to the Palestinian people.)

I fear it will change nothing, open nothing. And soon enough the "new leadership" will be denounced in the same terms that Arafat was, as obstacles to peace and as proof that Israel must continue on its "unilateral separation," involving turning Gaza into a gulag and clamping a tighter hold on significant portions of the West Bank, while putting even more restrictions on Palestinians in the rest of the occupied territories.

It's already starting: Secretary of State Colin Powerless said
it is important that the new Palestinian leadership fight terrorism and make it clear it "will not in any way give any kind of support to terrorist activities."
That is, they will be judged not by how well they address their own people's needs but by how well they address Israeli demands.

Understanding why I say nothing will change requires going back over 10 years, to 1993. It was then that Arafat
shook hands at the White House with [then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin on a peace deal that formally recognized Israel's right to exist while granting the Palestinians limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
It was a very risky deal for Arafat, who against fierce opposition had guided the PLO first to acceptance of a two-state solution in the mid-1970s, then to de facto recognition of Israel, and then in 1993 to formal recognition, the thing that Israel had always insisted was the one thing it required. He had dragged the Palestinian hierarchy, kicking and screaming the whole time, along, as well as facing an increasing opposition both from the rejectionist front opposed to any deal with Israel and from Palestinians on the whole, who were increasingly frustrated with the lack of any progress or reciprocal concessions from the Israelis.

The result was seven years of relative - I say relative - peace and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, which operated with at least some degree of authority, even if circumscribed by Jerusalem, in the occupied lands.

In 2000, it came apart. Arafat did not want to attend proposed talks, thinking that nothing would come of them and a failure would be worse than no meeting. Bill Clinton, desperate to reach a Middle East peace as his legacy, convinced Arafat to come by promising him that there would be no recriminations.

At that meeting, then-Israeli PM Ehud Barak made a supposedly "generous offer" to Arafat, involving a Palestinian state in Gaza and something like 90% of the West Bank. Arafat refused. The talks broke down and Clinton returned to Washington to denounce Arafat for the talks' failure, betraying the promise he had given previously. Clinton still blames Arafat. Thus, it is said, Arafat's "true face" was exposed, that of a man determined not to make peace with Israel.

There is just one problem: The deal that Barak proposed was one that the Israelis knew in advance Arafat would not, could not, accept. It was nothing but a propaganda ploy designed to head off the possibility of a settlement. As subsequent events have shown, with Bush cutting off contacts with Arafat and John Kerry declaring during his campaign that Arafat could "expect no reprieve" from a Kerry administration, it was one of the most successful PR coups of modern times.

What was wrong with the "generous" offer? Two things. One, the 10% of the West Bank not part of this Palestinian state would be occupied by Israeli "security corridors" connecting settlements and outposts, which would have effectively sliced the West Bank into a bunch of Bantustans, with Palestinians needing the permission of the Israeli military to get from one part of their country to another.

The other, perhaps even more important, issue was that the agreement would have required the Palestinians to completely relinquish any "right of return," the dream of the families of those who fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 war to return to them someday. This is an intensely emotional issue among Palestinians: I remember one activist telling me some years ago "the Jews did not forget their homeland in 2,000 years but they expect us to forget ours in twenty-five." No Palestinian leader could have accepted that and survived politically - and perhaps physically. And the Israelis knew it. What's more, they also knew that
[e]ven those who hold an 'extreme' position on the issue, among them Arafat, have adopted the position that if Israel recognizes the right of return in principle, its implementation can be partial and limited.
But the principle itself was simply not negotiable. The "generous offer" was bogus to its core.

I have said before and I say here again: It assuredly was otherwise in the past, but now, today, the obstacle to peace in the Middle East is not the Palestinians. It is Israel.

There will be those who read this and are angered, affronted. They will, with justice, point to the toll of Israeli blood produced by terror, by suicide bombers. They will, with justice, point to the radical rejectionist groups such as Hamas, which
vowed to keep up attacks against Israel. "The loss of the great leader will increase our determination and steadfastness to continue Jihad and resistance against the Zionist enemy until victory and liberation is achieved," a statement said.
But I say to you that with or without peace you will face such as Hamas. But without peace you face them and millions more, millions who are desperate, angry, who increasingly feel they have nothing left to lose. Peace is not without its risks. But what in heaven's name makes you think the status quo is safer?

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