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Middle East

Should He Stay, or Should He Go?

The Arafat Mystique

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat after speaking to the press on the grounds of his compound in Ramallah on March 24, 2004. (Photo: Jamal Aruri/AFP-Getty Images)

Yasser Arafat is tired; he is isolated, and he is old — an eccentric, senile man, decked out in olive-green dress fatigues. His hands shake violently as he carefully pulls the kaffiyeh tighter around his sullen face.

His lips tremble, his watery eyes sometimes fixed in the direction of Jerusalem. His sparse beard, the growth of a sixteen-year-old, that frames his thick, cracked lips, is unkempt.

A battered prisoner living in his now partly destroyed headquarters in Ramallah (according to cynical Israelis in carefully preserved half-ruins), where the Israeli army has kept him under house arrest since September 2002.

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Surely, his time has come. But not so fast.

Arafat is the eternal prisoner, and the Palestinians, who also see themselves as prisoners, can identify. But for more than a year now, they have been criticizing their leader. The septuagenarian is faced with open rebellion in the legislature of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and within his power base, Fatah. He has bounced back, again and again, astonishingly well for a man his age. Nevertheless, a taboo has been shattered.

Some Palestinians are 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 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 late 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 Ashraq 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 Yediot Aharonot, were it to come to a showdown between Dahlan and Arafat, Hamas would side with the Ra'is. Why? Because Dahlan has threatened to disarm Hamas if that is what it takes 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, will be trying to prove that Israel is 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 will try to prevent.

For the past months, Egypt has been negotiating 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, appears 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 plays into Arafat's hands and allows him to dismiss Dahlan's relentless finger pointing as ill-timed, selfish, even unpatriotic. And that is exactly what the Ra'is will do.

Arafat, the leader — who, according to the 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 has 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 stays mostly in charge. The German 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 is not. Neither is he a Fidel Castro in complete control of his flock. The mild-mannered Shimon Peres has called him "a fruitcake." Ariel Sharon considers 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 is 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 is 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 has become one of Arafat's demagogic tools to achieve his end — which to many commentators seems a means for self-destruction in the long run. He has replaced his pre-Oslo armed struggle with a "phased strategy," claims Efraim Karsh in the Middle East Quarterly (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 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, 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. Since then, the reforms have stagnated and ground to a halt. Arafat, as always, has 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 can take Arafat's place though. 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 is still the man who can gather the masses behind him. He has traveled the world; some say, he can be charming. But he has never appointed a likely successor (as few leaders in the Arab world have done), and the Palestinians have no started to doubt that the Ra'is has their best interests at heart.

Rampant Corruption, and No Paper Trail

Were Arafat to die tomorrow, the vacuum he'd leave would hurt the Palestinian cause irreparably. Who would be able to find where the Ra'is diverted the $1 billion of revenue from the budget that was given to the PA in aid money between 1995 and 2000? No one. Between 2000 and 2003, the European Union wired $12 million a month to the PA without proper controls. As early as 1997, a Palestinian internal audit revealed that $359 million, out of a budget of $880 million, had disappeared. And, according to the German public broadcaster ARD, in September 2001, Arafat wired $5.1 million — a sum that may have included international aid money — to his personal account in the Arab Bank in Cairo.

Arafat's former treasurer, Jaweed al-Ghussein, related in August 2004 to the London Times, how, during his 12 years as chairman of the Palestine National Fund, the financial arm of the PLO, he gave Arafat a monthly check for $10.25 million. He was told the money was being spent on the Palestinian movement's paramilitaries and on families who had lost the breadwinner or other members in the struggle. Al-Ghusseim said that there was never any audit on that money: "Ali Baba had 40 thieves — Arafat has 400."

"The PA received about $5 billion from donor countries that have gone with the wind," contends Dahlan, "and until now, we do not know where it went."

What is remarkable amid all this 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."

Israel's Burning Arafat Question

The Israelis have had enough of Arafat, and hinted in late 2003 that they were considering actions to "remove" him, without going into detail. According to a Yediot Aharonot poll conducted in September 2003, 37 percent of Israelis wanted to see Arafat killed, 23 percent wanted to expel him, 21 percent wanted to continue to isolate him, and 15 percent wanted to see him released and negotiations to continue. "The world will not help us," charged the Jerusalem Post in a fiery September 2003 editorial. "We must help ourselves. And we must kill Yasser Arafat, because the world leaves us no alternative."

"The Arafat question has become a domestic political issue [in Israel]," wrote Ze'ev Schiff in Ha'aretz (Sept. 17, 2003). "If there is any chance at all [for a Palestinian prime minister to function properly], it will happen when Arafat is far away. But there is a consensus among the [Israeli] security forces that removing or killing Arafat would broaden the bloody clashes, which could spread to Israeli Arabs."

But is Israel — evidently lacking policies for the post-Arafat era — ready to take bold steps without Arafat that it did not take in the past? "When Arafat dies," says Dr. Shmuel Bar of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya, "the PLO will die with him. Then we can take our pick of Balkanization, Lebanonization, or Afghanistanization." Ha'aretz' Schiff adds another angle to this bleak scenario, having come to the conclusion that Sharon actually needs Arafat, since Sharon's unilateralist course requires the presence of an ostracized Palestinian partner, rather than one able to strike a deal. Oh, the irony: Arafat and Sharon, both shunned by the world, as brothers in arms.

"The PA's Days Are Numbered"

In June 2004, with the short-lived resignation of Abu Ala (who, according to a Palestinian joke, doesn't go to the bathroom without prior authorization from Arafat), numerous kidnappings at gunpoint, states of emergency, mass demonstrations and acts of vandalism, and after Arafat sacked a corrupt old-guard police official and appointed his own cousin, Moussa Arafat, as head of General Security, anarchy reigned in Gaza. Armed gangs of militants ruled the streets of some towns.

In late August 2004, signs of increasing loss of control were already appearing in the West Bank. But the Ra'is was still unwilling to cede his absolute power. "The PA's days are numbered," predicted Ha'aretz' Danny Rubinstein in September 2003: "The road map is dying, there is no peace process and they, the zealots of Islam, together with Arafat and remnants of the left, are entrenched in the positions of the joint struggle."


But neither Abu Mazen nor Abu Ala — known in Israel affectionately as "The Abus" — have the grassroots support to ultimately take the reins of the PA.

On July 27, 2004, Arafat embraced and kissed Abu Ala and rejoiced at his return to the government. Unity had returned. Then, Arafat promised more reforms, granted limited powers to his new-old prime minister, smiled broadly, shook hands. He even gave a much anticipated public speech on August 18, 2004, a mea culpa of sorts, performed with a fury of hallmark Arafatesque repetitions and the usual bathos, in which he acknowledged that "unacceptable mistakes were made." But he fell short of taking some of the blame himself and ignored the issue of corruption. He assigned Abu Ala to oversee the internal security forces.

But he did not give up his authority over the bulk of his Palestinian security personnel, the Palestinian intelligence service and the armed forces. He promised to place the three security services under the control of the government and to separate judicial and executive functions. But he chose not to issue a binding presidential decree. Regardless of all these presumed initiatives, a former cabinet minister, Abdel Jawad Saleh, was quoted in the Jerusalem Post (Aug. 18, 2004) that there would be a nonviolent "uprising against this authority very soon."

The Arab Press Lashes Out

For the first time, Arafat is isolated within the Arab world that has always regarded the man with suspicion even though his cause fit well into their political agenda and suited their political ambitions to the letter. But now, the gloves are off. Al-Hayat coined the phrase "the Somaliazation of Gaza" (July 21, 2004).

Arab-language commentators have criticized the Ra'is harshly, and, for the first time, the Arab-language media have openly demanded his resignation. "For the past 56 years, the Palestinians have been led from one disaster to another across the Middle East," fulminated Beirut's Daily Star in its July 23, 2004, editorial. "With such a history, there appears to be a definite lack of consciousness on these leaders' behalf. All the toil and the blood that has been spilled will have come to naught if the PA lets the political situation hemorrhage even further. The PA has to sort itself from the inside out ... or [it] will hang by its own noose."

Dr. Ibrahim Hamami, a Palestinian writer living in London, was much more blunt: Arafat's "disastrous" policies have led the Palestinians from one catastrophe to another. "You treat the Palestinians as a pair of shoes to be worn or kicked aside as the mood strikes. The solution is for you to pack your bags, take your crooked friends and go somewhere else. Just go. Get out of here!"

"Arafat ... lives like a leader with no rival [and] employs day-to-day tactics without strategy," writes Ahmad al-Rab'i in the London-based Arab-language daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat (July 16, 2004). "Great leaders act in the interest of their people. Arafat is a leader under siege with no powers. No one can negotiate with him, and if there are negotiations with him, it is done for the benefit of the media only."

His colleague, Mamiun Fendi, snapped in the same paper (July 19, 2004) that in all negotiations conducted by Arafat, "it appeared that he was acting according to the saying 'If I'm not part of the solution, I'll ruin the whole game'. All Arabs ... must tell this man, 'this matter is bigger than you are,' and the Palestinian people are much more important than [you]. Arafat's actions are not liberation strategy but survival maneuvers, and [as far as he is concerned], the Palestinian people, and the region, can go to hell." Ramzy Baroud added in the Palestine Chronicle (July 30, 2004), "Those who vowed to safeguard the Palestinian people's aspirations were the ones who so harshly desecrated them."

"Arafat, like Saddam, has led his people to terrorism, destruction and death," opined Ahmad Jarallah, the editor of Kuwaiti's daily Al-Siyassa (July 20, 2004). "He has torn the land apart. ... This man abuses the lives of his people in order to survive."

Columnist Fahd al-Fanek warned in Jordan's Al-Ra'i that same day: "[Arafat] has become a heavy burden. ... What is necessary now is to sacrifice a Palestinian state for the sake of preserving [Arafat's headquarters] in Ramallah. ... Does [he] realize that his time is past and that he must retire willingly — or that things will reach their natural end in other ways?"

A Communal Form of Martyrdom

After all was said and done, nothing much has changed, except that the Europeans concluded that Arafat was the main obstacle to peace and are now weighing economic levers to induce the Palestinians to let Arafat go. But this is too little too late. "Return of the Joker," mocked Yediot Aharonot in a June 4, 2004, headline. "Arafat is as relevant as ever." Arafat is still the one who can make life miserable for Palestinians and Israelis. At Israel's request, Egypt has been negotiating 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. The deal would give Egypt a say in containing Hamas (which is, after all, a threat to Egypt's secular state that sits just over its border with Gaza).

But should Arafat refuse Egypt's call for reforms (and Israeli officials believe he will), the Egyptians will back off from their involvement in the area, leaving a powder keg in the Gaza Strip, ready to erupt, that Israel would be left to deal with on its own; Egypt's absence would leave a vacuum that could derail any efforts for a smooth disengagement, even to the point of toppling the Israeli government. "[Arafat] could determine Sharon's political future," warned Yediot. "What a joke!"

But the really bad news, according to Ehud Ya'ari writing in The Jerusalem Report (Aug. 23, 2004), is "that there is no automatic correlation between the demand for reform and moderation toward Israel. So far, the opposite is the case. ... It is not the victory of the reformists that matters as much as the nature of the reform. The point is not so much the weakening of Arafat per se, but rather who will be strengthened by the distribution of the scraps from his table."

"All that Arafat seems capable of offering Palestinians now is a communal form of martyrdom he seems to covet," wrote the New York Times in an unusually acid editorial on July 22, 2004, under the headline The Arafat Problem (Israeli commentators wondered, however, why it took the Times so long to take a firm stance against Arafat). "But there is, of course, no sign that Arafat is interested in much beyond his own myth," the Times continued. "It seems to be of no importance to him that the Palestinian lands are in total ruin and that the fruits of the Oslo accords are in tatters. ... The dire situation calls for Arafat's immediate retirement."

Arafat, cornered like an animal, is waiting. He is waiting for Sharon's political downfall, for a change of guard in the White House, for a messy Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Arafat knows that he has to gain time in order not to come across as weak and to be forced to make concessions. According to a Palestinian Legislative Council investigation in August, Arafat has made a clear political decision not to end lawlessness. "The main reason for the failure of the Palestinian security forces and their lack of action in restoring order is the total lack of a clear political decision without a definition of their roles, either for the long term or the short," the report states. On August 25, 2004, the Ra'is refused to sign the presidential decrees needed for restructuring his administration.

Arafat knows he has to wait. "He apparently feels he must still hold some cards close to his chest for that last, fateful hand that he plainly believes he alone will yet play, one day, with Ariel Sharon or another Israeli leader," muses Ha'aretz (July 7, 2004). The paper calls Arafat "the wily, seasoned chairman [and] not a man for loose language. Much fog remains."

Alas, until the fog lifts, one has to picture him mumbling to himself, a "joker," as Yediot has called him, pacing the few rooms he has left in his house of cards — his very own museum of ruins — knowingly sacrificing a brighter future for his own people, while clinging to imaginary martyrdom. The joke's on us.

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