12 November 2004
The Arafat Paradox
The very first time I was sent as an envoy to Yasser Arafat, what seemed most striking to me was the enormous gap between the total unreality of his conspiratorial explanations of political events transpiring around him and the extraordinary skill with which he played his weak political hand in order to advance the hard-line ideological agenda from which he never swerved: the elimination of the State of Israel.
This was the Arafat paradox; as he weaved one conspiracy theory after another and lied in the face of foreign leaders, one wondered how he wasn't thrown out of the chancelleries of Europe, rather than being welcomed on a red carpet.
Was this a testament to the strength of his cause for the petrodollar rich portions of the Arab and Islamic worlds - or evidence of his own personal powers as a global player? Will this strength that he exhibited be passed on to those who succeed him as well?
With all his faults, Arafat combined every attribute of leadership for the Palestinians. He was at the same time a military commander, head ideologue of the Fatah component of the PLO, the chief financial officer of its terrorist war chest, and its international spokesman at the UN. It is doubtful that any single individual can retain such concentrated powers in the future. A collective leadership is almost inevitable.
Arafat's secret was that he knew how to read historical trends and exploit them to the fullest for his movement. He began as a sympathizer of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood which opposed the monarchy of Egypt, where he was born. He then shifted leftward, siding with the Soviet Union and its championing of national liberation movements in the 1960s. The apex of his power at the UN in the 1970s came about when the Soviets combined forces with the Afro-Asian bloc against an isolated State of Israel.
However, he was capable of making huge errors, such as siding with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which lost him both American backing and the financial support of Arab Gulf monarchies as well. Nonetheless, Arafat recovered with the 1993 Oslo Accords, which gave him the territorial base next to Israel for waging "armed struggle" in accordance with his own "strategy of stages" from 1974. The truth of his Oslo deception became all too clear when he launched his second intifada in September 2000, leading to nearly 1,000 Israeli fatalities.
What finally did in Arafat was yet another historical turn which he failed to discern after the 9/11 attacks. Arafat's entire strategy had been based on the legitimacy for his terrorist operations granted by the Nonaligned Movement and its Soviet backers at the UN, and in other international forums. He was forgiven in many circles for ordering airplane hijackings and the murder of the US ambassador to Sudan. But after 9/11 he lost his freedom of maneuver. Allied with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Iran, he ended his life as a virtual prisoner in his Ramallah headquarters.
Whether the Palestinians will abandon the legacy he has bequeathed them is the most important question for determining the chances of peace in the future. A realistic assessment might lead one to hope that any new leadership will shake loose from Arafat's terrorist past, but his hard-line political legacy is likely to survive him.
The writer, currently president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to the UN and foreign policy aide to prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.