Barak, Clinton, Arafat at Camp David 311 AP.
(photo credit: AP)
On November 11, 2004, Yasser Arafat died. US president Bill Clinton explained
why he wouldn’t attend Arafat’s funeral: “I regret that in 2000 he missed the
opportunity to bring [Palestine] into being...” Not Israel, but Arafat did
Today, the Arafat era’s lessons have been largely swept under the
rug: his persistent mendacity, use of terrorism, cynical exploitation of an
“underdog” posture to garner sympathy and unfailing devotion to the dream of
wiping Israel off the map. The placing of that last priority over creating a
Palestinian state is why there is none today.
Not Israeli policy, not
settlements, but the preference for total victory over compromise.
Arafat’s funeral, one of his lieutenants, Saeb Erekat, proclaimed: “Give him the
honor he deserves!” Let it be so.
As the editorial in The Times
put it, he was the man who “threw away the best chance in a generation for an
honorable settlement to the Middle East conflict.” In The New Yorker
Remnick accurately wrote, “Rarely has a leader blundered more and left more ruin
in his wake.”
Yet too, perhaps, as never before in modern history, have
so many relentlessly airbrushed away a leader’s career of faults and
What was especially remarkable in so much of the coverage and
discussion was the virtual erasure of a career in terrorism which had spanned 40
years. There were no scenes of past carnage shown; no survivors or relatives of
his victims interviewed. In political terms, his dedication to the elimination
of another state and people, consistent use of terrorism and rejection of peace
were thrown down the memory hole of history.
The time lines for Arafat’s
life prepared by both the BBC and the Associated Press omit any mention of
terrorist attacks and skip the fatal year 2000 altogether. In its time line the
Associated Press only invokes the word terrorism to claim that Arafat had
“renounced” it in 1988, though this had not prevented the PLO from committing
scores of attacks – usually with Arafat’s blessing – thereafter.
who knew him and his history better, were more critical. An article surveying
Arab reaction in Cairo’s Al-Ahram
concluded that most Arab officials’ private
reaction was one of “relief.” They said he had been an obstacle to achieving
peace “largely for the sake of his own glory” and called him a man “too
self-centered to really care about the misfortunes of his own people.” Not a
single interviewee expressed a word of sorrow.
AT THE time of Arafat’s
death, his people still did not have a state, a functioning economy or the most
elementary security after following his leadership for 35 years. Much of that
situation remains the same today.
Yet Arafat’s narrative had largely
triumphed, certainly in persuading those who wanted to believe it that the
movement he shaped and created was noble and sympathetic, a victim of other’s
treatment rather than of its own policies.
Arafat was widely proclaimed a
hero of national resistance for opposing an occupation that could have ended on
more than one occasion if he had chosen to achieve a negotiated peace. He was
hailed as the victim in a war which he had begun and continued despite many
opportunities to end the fighting. He was said to be striving only for a state,
when he had long invoked the idea that a separate state living peacefully
alongside Israel was treason.
He was said to be popular and loved by his
people even though – despite his considerable degree of real support – he stole
so much from them and was ridiculed by them in private. In fact, Arafat’s
performance in Palestinian public opinion polls had never been impressive. Even
a British reporter who revered him admitted that Arafat didn’t have support from
his people. “Foreign journalists,” she recounted, “seemed much more excited
Arafat’s fate than anyone in Ramallah.”
At the time of
his death he was more popular in France, where almost half the population saw
Arafat as a great national hero, than among his own people. In a June 2004 poll,
only 23.6 percent of Palestinians named him as the leader they most trusted.
Actually, Arafat’s popularity rating among Palestinians was lower than that of
president George W. Bush among Americans, though the US leader was – in sharp
contrast to Arafat – widely portrayed as being reviled and mistrusted by a large
part of his people.
But Arafat had always been able to outlive his own
history. He had indeed created a Palestinian nationalist movement, organizing
and uniting his people. Yet having so much authority over it, Arafat had to be
held responsible for its shortcomings.
Was it really so impossible that
things could have been otherwise, that even the violence might have been
tempered by some moral or pragmatic restraint and that the goals would have been
moderated at least far earlier? Did the creation of Palestinian nationalism
really inevitably entail Arafat’s virtual creation of the doctrine of modern
terrorism, betrayal of Jordan, contribution to destabilizing Lebanon or support
for unprovoked Iraqi aggression? Did it really require the systematic killing
and glorification of killing of civilians from its beginning to the last day of
Arafat’s career? Did he really have no way to urge his people toward a peaceful
compromise or to rule them well when given the chance to do so? Since Arafat’s
death, most of the leadership of Fatah and the PA has made clear their
interpretation of Arafat’s legacy was the need to fight on for total victory, no
matter how long it took or how much suffering or lives it cost. One Palestinian
leader recalled that when, in 1993, he had reproached Arafat for signing the
Oslo Accords, Arafat replied that by making the agreement, “I am hammering the
first nail in the Zionist coffin.” Actually, though, Arafat biggest achievement
may have been hammering the last nail into the Palestinian coffin.The
writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and
editor of the
Middle East Review of International Affairs