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After Arafat

It's rare that an individual achieves truly world-historical significance, but Yasser Arafat, dead today at the ripe old age of 75 was such a man. He didn't single-handedly transform the cause of Palestinian nationalism from a minor element of a regional struggle between Israel and its neighbors into a movement of massive global significance, but he came a lot closer to doing it single-handedly than one would think possible. At the same time, it's become clear to me and many other observers over the past several years that after Oslo, Arafat ill-served the movement he had done so much to create. He brought his people neither good government, liberation from occupation, nor peace. Instead, he himself and his taste for power and corruption became a major obstacle to Palestinian aspirations.

At the same time, I, like many others, have had a very strong suspicion that to Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush, and others, Arafat was a welcome obstacle to peace. A handy excuse for an inaction that would have been preferred otherwise. Perhaps this interpretation is too churlish. Now would be a good time for people to start proving me wrong.

November 11, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Yes, that's too churlish; When you're talking peace with the likes of Arafat, the price was always to high.

The problem is that he wasn't just personally a corrupt, evil man, but he has also left a situation so poisoned that years must pass before peace is a realistic prospect.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Nov 11, 2004 11:36:33 AM

I am, if anything, sympathetic to the Palestinians and critical of the Israelis; but even I was surprised at the softness of the Arafat obituaries, which barely mentioned---or even omitted---the cold-blooded murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, which Arafat ordered.

Is the fact that this was done at his direction in dispute? Or are we judging Arafat by some "great man" code of ethics in which such things don't matter?

Did Arafat or the PLO ever apologize for this crime?

NOT trying to get a flame thread started, folks---just sincerely asking better-informed persons than myself.

Posted by: Anderson | Nov 11, 2004 11:37:33 AM

>Instead, he himself and his taste for power and corruption became a major obstacle to Palestinian aspirations.

If http://www.debka.com/article.php?aid=935 is any indication, the corruption continues.

Posted by: raj | Nov 11, 2004 11:43:46 AM

Sorry, apparently the blogger linked to the wrong story.

Just go to the blog http://www.stcynic.com/blog/archives/2004/11/the_grieving_wi.php

Posted by: raj | Nov 11, 2004 11:45:41 AM

Sorry, here's the Debkafile story

http://www.debka.com/article.php?aid=934

Posted by: raj | Nov 11, 2004 11:46:30 AM

Is the fact that this was done at his direction in dispute?

Not really. It's not clear that he personally gave any specific orders about it, but the terrorists were briefed by one of Arafat's top right-hand men, Abu Jihad (later assassinated in 1988 by an Israeli commando squad, because of terrorist acts committed during the late '80s Palestinian intifada). Nobody doubts that Arafat knew what was going on, and approved of it.

Did Arafat or the PLO ever apologize for this crime?

No.

Posted by: Haggai | Nov 11, 2004 11:59:44 AM

Can anyone tell me if there's a dime's worth of moral difference between Arafat and Bin Laden? They both have the blood of thousands of civilians on their hands.

And can anyone tell me why it was a good idea for the Israelis to turn him into "a partner for peace" and basically give him a seat in government, instead of trying to kill him like we're doing with OBL?

Thanks, dudes!

Posted by: Wondering | Nov 11, 2004 12:21:06 PM

"Perhaps this comment is too churlish."

No, it's not.

Posted by: Anna in Cairo | Nov 11, 2004 12:22:27 PM

Expanding on the point of Anderson above, doesn't Arafat deserve any blame for making terrorism, um, popular? I am no student of history, but doesn't the PLO's success in getting the issues of the Palestinians to be a central (or is it *the* central) issues of the Arab/Muslum world directly related to the PLO's history of terrorism? And this is not a military sort of guerrilla bombings/killings, but the real terrorism of, for example, killing Israeli athletes because they are Israeli, and are at a very public event (the Olympics).

Posted by: noone | Nov 11, 2004 12:26:45 PM

Interesting question as to Arafat's importance: if not for Arafat, would we already have a two-state solution, or would we have a one state solution? Specifically thinking of Black September and trying to remember the early years, did Arafat in trying to take over Jordan ensure that the West Bank would remain unresolved?

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 11, 2004 12:43:04 PM

I've always wonder to what degree Arafat was a political agent and to what degree he was just a sort of corrupt middleman. Seemingly he's always been playing various Palestinian factions of against each other, some of which wanted to kill him, and also the Iranian, Syrian, and Saudi hirelings (to say nothing of Israelis). He never really had a great deal of instituional power, it seems, but always had to rely on others. But even though the Palestinian entity barely existed as a functional unit, he was its leader, since whenever one of the real players needed to involve the actual Palestinians, or to seem to do so, they needed a contact person, which was him.

The above theory is not based on close study, but on 30 years of random reading, and I make no great claims for it.

If true, it probably means that things won't improve much with his death, and probably will get worse. I don't think that the Palestinian government has much institutional power to pass on, I'd expect power struggles and fragmentation.

In my experience, no Arafat-hater has ever suggested anyone else as a superior replacement. To most of them, any Palestinian leader would be an enemy.

I am uncharacteristically interested in having my statement critiqued. Israel/Palestine is one of my weak spots.

Posted by: Zizka | Nov 11, 2004 12:55:58 PM

To start with, 'political agent' and 'corrupt middleman' is the same thing. Arafat created a nation in the same sense as, say, George Washington did. Creating a nation takes a lot of playing various factions against each other and it also takes brutality, as in the case of Washington ruthlessly destroying whole Indian tribes in the US, combatans, civilians, women, children - all.

Well, we'll see what their John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are going to be like.

Posted by: abb1 | Nov 11, 2004 1:17:02 PM

You're basically right, Zizka, but I'm more cautiously optimistic about what might follow now that he's dead. The last few years essentially saw Arafat abdicating enough of his power to sow chaos in the territories, hoping that some external intervention would eventually bail him out, but keeping enough of his power to prevent anyone else from making any progress. And while it's true that he didn't have much instititional power, he did have great symbolic power.

The reason I'm slightly optimistic is that his death coincides with the continuing political progress in Israel on the Gaza withdrawal. Not that I have any faith at all in Sharon when it comes to implementing (or desiring) an overall peace agreement, but the significance of a center-right prime minister pushing for withdrawal from settlements is very large, since most of the political landscape in Israel is now committed to it, after spending a couple of years dancing around the fact that most of the public wanted it to happen. Arafat's death might allow for a positive cycle of re-inforcement where new Palestinian leaders will rely on filling the post-withdrawal vacuum with order and security, as opposed to Arafat's preference for chaos, which could in turn lead to more co-ordination with Israel.

Of course, things could go very badly, and the lack of competent leadership in Washington is not a small factor in how things will turn out. But, the specter of Arafat was difficult to overstate in terms of how it affected the Israeli political spectrum. In the last election, in early 2003, the Labor candidate (Amram Mitzna) became the first major PM candidate in Israel to campaign explicitly on withdrawing from settlements. He promised to withdraw from more of the West Bank than Sharon is contemplating, but on this issue, his positions were noticeably more popular than Sharon's, who was explicitly against withdrawal. But Mitzna also campaigned on resuming negotiations with the Palestinians, and though he never explicitly said he wanted to go back to dealing with Arafat like they did during the Oslo process, the implications were clear, and the Likud didn't need anything else to convince people that he was going to sell everything out on the basis of a peace process that had already failed. But, as things have turned out, the idea of withdrawal was popular enough for Sharon to adopt it as his own, and now all of his political problems are within his own party, not with the electorate as a whole (which strongly backs the disengagement plan).

So, the potential for new Palestinian partners might allow for more sanity on the Israeli side, with people wanting to get on with their lives and disentangle themselves from the territories. Of course, the level of mutual mistrust is higher than it's ever been, and it'll take a hell of a lot more from any Palestinian leader than just being "not Arafat" to get a majority of Israelis behind talking to him. But, it was impossible for that to happen while Arafat was alive, and now it no longer is.

Posted by: Haggai | Nov 11, 2004 1:21:16 PM


Am I correct in assuming that various members of the Arafat family are very well-fixed in Switzerland, France, and Italy?

Posted by: Zizka | Nov 11, 2004 1:37:58 PM

His wife and daughter are well-set-up in France, and I think he has a sister somewhere.

Posted by: Haggai | Nov 11, 2004 1:45:57 PM

Evil World Pays Condolences To AIDS Infected Terrorist.

Posted by: Modern Crusader | Nov 11, 2004 2:17:25 PM

Robert Fisk is a useful point of reference here, as he saw close-hand the shitty, corrupt PLO fiefdom in Lebanon during the 80s.

It's worth remembering that Israel initially encouraged HAMAS, as a Gaza-based, Islamicist counterinfluence to the Arab nationalist PLO. Whether there's enough strength in the nationalist side, as opposed to the younger Islamicist side, is yet to be seen. And I've yet to see a slightly younger generation of Israeli politicians prepared to do more than fight decades-old personal grudges.

Gaza becomes the focus now. And Sharon himself becomes a target for the lunatic settler fringe. Who knows what comes next?

Posted by: ahem | Nov 11, 2004 2:19:20 PM

'Modern Crusader' -- please kill yourself. Now.

Posted by: ahem | Nov 11, 2004 2:21:20 PM

I'm curious to see if Bush backs elections. The Palestinians want this and it would go a long way to show he's not being selective re. spreading Democracy throughout the ME.

Posted by: sofia | Nov 11, 2004 2:40:28 PM

The myth of there being no negotiating partner based on Arafat's "rejection" of the Camp David offer and his "choice" of violence instead is one of the single most effective pieces of propoganda in recent history. To understand why it's a myth, there's a fair amount of detail to be covered. The definitive reading is the New York Review of Books exchange between direct participants at Camp David which starts here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/14380

This Slate article is a good summary:
http://slate.msn.com/id/2064500/

Posted by: Alex | Nov 11, 2004 2:45:49 PM

Anyone heard of the saying "it takes two to tango"? The root causes of terrorism are the religious extremists on BOTH sides. Religion is the greatest way to bring people together and to tear them apart. Religion has been used to murder 10's of millions of people. Terrorism is an issue of religion and religious land. If most people believe that the palestinians have more than enough land, food, water and shelter, they are blinded by their own faith and hatred. Let's see if their own faith can remove the blind fold - Psalms 37: 11 But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace

14 The wicked have drawn out the sword and have bent their bows to cast down the poor and needy, and to slay such as be of upright manner of living.

Posted by: nathan | Nov 11, 2004 2:47:49 PM

Wondering:

Like Matthew, I'm feeling churlish today too, so let me play devil's advocate. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq for reasons he knew were false. The only real WMD in the world are nukes, and both bits of evidence of nukes in Iraq, the aluminum tubes and the yellowcake from Niger, Bush knew to be false when he went to war. So Bush is responsible for thousands of innocent deaths in the Iraq war. Every civilian death in an unjustified war is the moral equivalent of murder. Bush is a murderer. So is Arafat.

As for the Israelis trying to kill Arafat like we are trying to kill bin Laden: yeah, just like. We stopped at the Pakistan border when bin Laden moved into his new home there, and we failed to chase him. Guess Bush is scared of Musharraf. Girly man.

Posted by: epistemology | Nov 11, 2004 5:31:39 PM

And if Bush truly wanted a transformative use of power in the mideast, instead of invading Iraq, he should have invaded Gaza and the West Bank, drawn reasonable borders and enforced them.

Oxen will be gored on both sides when the new state of Palestine is created (does anyone think it will never happen?) and there will be fighting. Get it over with already. Draw the damn borders, bring the Palestinian diaspora home; at least the Israelis can then bomb their enemies with a clean conscience if there is any cross border terrorism.

Posted by: epistemology | Nov 11, 2004 5:37:15 PM

Could *any* leader have 'liberated' the West Bank (and, let us mention, obtained some kind of justice for millions of refugee families deprived of their property)? - given the absolute military domination of the Israelis in the area and their relative comfort at creating and occupying a population of displaced people and non-citizens?

The central issue is 'Might makes right', which Israel has repeatedly found to work in its favour. Given the fact of any Palestinian leader's complete lack of effective military power (a fact engineered by the US) there are only two possible methods: violent and nonviolent resistance.

People do romantically go on about what had happened if Arafat had been another Gandhi, but I don't think it would have had any measurable success. There are many differences: the British were already contemplating getting out of India, whereas Israel was dead set on hanging on to as much territory as possible; the British were vastly outnumbered so could not possibly hold out if most of the population turned against them; and of course there was still the rest of the Empire to go and play in.

Nonviolent resistance doesn't get you very far against people who can afford to, and deeply desire to, ignore it. The Israeli response to a prison hunger strike was to fire up the barbecues... If there is no terrorism, what is the incentive for Israel to agree to anything, since it would gain little directly and possibly lose a great deal through compensation, etc.?

The only realistic nonviolent route would have been persuading a US president to abandon the superpower's partiality for Israel and to offer real substantive support for the founding of a second state. I don't see any president who would have taken such an interest in a tiny, sleepy, somewhat leftwing backwater, which is what a nonviolent Palestinian movement would have amounted to.

The best thing that can now happen is for the US to be called out on its desire for democracy and to have to support new presidential elections to fill the power vacuum. Without a president who has democratic authority, there is no-one who could have a hope of delivering peace even if they really wanted it.

Posted by: Thomas Dent | Nov 11, 2004 6:22:59 PM

Has it ever occured to you, Thomas, that the Palestinian territories have borders besides those with Israel? Have you ever stopped to wonder why a wall on one of those borders matters so much, when the other is to their supposed friends and allies?

You really ought to think about why everyone regards the Palestinians as trapped by a wall on ONE side of them.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Nov 11, 2004 6:32:39 PM

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