Arafat's Poisoned Legacy

Arafat's Poisoned Legacy

Mini Teaser: Arafat's Palestinian nationalism denied the legitimacy of any Israeli state. His successors must shed this straightjacket if they want a state of their own.

by Author(s): Barry Rubin

Yasir Arafat had a remarkable career. In all of modern history, no terrorist had such good press or was so internationally honored as he was at his funeral. But the story of Arafat is far from over. Of course, the most compelling question is whether his legacy will continue to shape Palestinian politics and wreck the hopes for peace. But beyond that, Arafat's legacy affects the entire world. In a very real sense, he was the godfather of the radical movements born in the Middle East that have ushered in a new era of global terrorism.

Arafat's brilliance at public relations allowed him to reinvent himself periodically, to avoid responsibility for his defeats, intransigence and terrorism. As early as the 1970s, American officials called him the "teflon terrorist." Arafat exploited others' wishful thinking that peace could be obtained easily if only they gave him concessions--or their vanity that they might be the one to solve the great Middle East problem if only they were nice to him. He showed how easy it was to fool the well-intentioned West and how quickly it forgot what he did last time. Arafat was able to give himself the image of being politically progressive, which allowed him to intimidate his own people, ignore their poverty, perpetuate outrageous conspiracy theories and foster corruption without any of it being counted against him by the Western Left. Public opinion polls showed that at the time of his death, Arafat was more popular in France than he was among Palestinians.

Until the end, the many who praised Arafat--far more numerous in the West than in the Arab world, in itself a point of great significance--found him admirable mainly on the basis of three qualities. He was said to be a nationalist who was leading and representing his own people; to be beloved by them as the symbol of their struggle and as a personally courageous individual; and to be a champion of the underdog. Each of these arguments is easily challengeable. Indeed, without thoroughly investigating and questioning them, it is impossible to assess Arafat's record.

Arafat was never a true nationalist--if we define a nationalist as one whose priority is obtaining an independent state. By the end of the 1970s, he had already created a movement that the world was ready to acknowledge. He could have obtained a state in the context of the Egypt-Israel peace deal at Camp David, and on several occasions thereafter, had he moderated his goals and tactics.

In 1993, by signing the Oslo agreement, he persuaded many that he was ready for a compromise peace. And he returned to his homeland to become the head of a Palestinian Authority (PA) that seemed poised to achieve a state. Yet as ruler over two million Palestinians, he did nothing to raise their standards of living or contribute to their well-being. In 2000 he rejected, at Camp David and in the Clinton plan, two chances to obtain a state and end the Israeli occupation. Instead, Arafat returned to war, still believing that violence would achieve his goals. The result has been four years of bloodshed and the pointless deaths of several thousand people.

Arafat's entire career was always dedicated to opposition to the very existence of the state of Israel--even at the cost of obtaining an independent Palestinian state. And Arafat's embrace of terrorism was not an accident but essential to his strategy. Arafat believed that by deliberately targeting Israeli civilians he would bring about Israel's collapse. To his dying day, he never lost belief in the efficacy of this method. He also believed that who he was fighting would make him more popular--at least in the Arab and Muslim world--and acceptable. Certainly, while Arafat tried to avoid direct anti-Semitism, he did so by the simple method of transferring all the traditional anti-Semitic feelings and stereotypes to Israelis. Fighting in a land with which the world was obsessed guaranteed him international attention. Murdering what might be called the world's most despised people ensured a sympathy that would otherwise not have been forthcoming.

As a means for destroying Israel, this strategy failed. But Arafat's embrace of terrorism had other advantages. It grabbed headlines, making the rest of the world feel frightened and creating a false urgency for the Palestinian cause. Arafat made the Palestinian issue a central global concern and thus developed a new mode of politics which seemed successful enough to encourage imitators through a combination of terrorism, propaganda, courting sympathy, threatening to unleash the wrath of the Arab and Muslim worlds, and ensuring that the conflict would not go away.

It also allowed Arafat to claim a seat at the table as a major force in the Middle East. As a "revolutionary" leader, Arafat always claimed that he could control the policy of Arab states and the opinion of the Arab population--persuading others that those who crossed him would face their wrath and those who pleased him enjoy their largesse. The power of oil money and the growth of Islamic-oriented politics seemed to reinforce that claim. This gave him an advantage in dealing with Western governing elites who thought in terms of economic advantage and realpolitik.

To a large extent, he was bluffing. Arab rulers held him in low regard. They did not consult him on their actions or heed his threats. When it suited their interests, they cut off his money and killed his men. But in a sense, Arafat's claim was partly true. He received backing from Arab states not because they feared his power to win over their own people but because it was in their own interests to do so. The Palestinian issue was highly beneficial for the regimes because they could convince their people that all their social, political and economic problems were caused by Israel. It has been the great excuse of Arab politics. The conflict's continuation was used to explain why the Arab world lacked democracy and failed to progress economically and socially. Today, Arab rulers continue to insist that reform is a trick by the hostile West and democracy an unaffordable luxury in a time of war.

Arafat also had an influence far beyond his region. He paved the way for other extremist movements to be legitimized as freedom fighters battling against imperialism and colonialism.

First, he demonstrated that terrorism can be a very effective tool for mobilizing people who are willing to overlook the moral issues and rejoice in the deaths of other ethnic groups. It is true that terrorism had been used throughout history, but this tactic had been decisively--if not always consistently--rejected by communism, the dominant revolutionary movement for most of the 20th century. Arafat introduced it as a populist revolutionary tool for building a movement. He proved how politically profitable a terrorist strategy could be, thus encouraging imitators.

Second, Arafat showed that terrorism could be carried out with little political cost. Though Western politicians have warned of the terrible punishment awaiting terrorists, few of those under Arafat's command with blood on their hands have ever been imprisoned, and many were sprung from jail by further attacks, hostage-taking or political deals. Arafat proved that being a terrorist was much less risky than it seemed, again inspiring imitators. Indeed, Arafat's self-styled revolutionary persona and underdog appeal gave him cachet with his leftist sympathizers in the West, which he and later totalitarian movements would use repeatedly to great effect. It was this support that allowed Arafat to demand concessions from his adversaries and reject good-faith offers despite his own position of weakness.

Finally, Arafat helped make anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism respectable again. By constantly portraying Israel--and more subtly, Jews--as evil, Arafat returned this stereotype to international acceptance, reversing the impact of Nazism's defeat and the horror at the Holocaust. It is especially noteworthy that the peak of anti-Semitism since the death of Hitler happened after Israel offered to give Arafat just about everything he claimed to want, making his achievement all the more impressive. Equally, he played a large role in spreading anti-Americanism globally. While it is easy to attribute Arafat's hostility toward the United States to its support for Israel, it was actually part of his revolutionary ideology from the beginning, going back to the early 1960s, long before U.S. aid to Israel had begun. Again, the true blossoming of this hatred came only after President Bill Clinton tried so strenuously to produce a political solution that met Palestinian needs and interests.

But by the end of his career, Arafat's luck had begun to run out. While many in Europe and elsewhere continued to be swayed by Arafat's unique skill in public relations and his revolutionary image, he was increasingly being seen as part of the problem, not the solution. The events of September 11, 2001, brought home graphically to America--and to some extent the West in general--that terrorism was not merely a matter of taste, definition or the sincerity with which one pursued a cause. Both Israel and the United States refused to talk with Arafat, being disillusioned by their dealings with him and by his refusal to implement promises. Even in Europe and the Arab world, criticisms of Arafat reached an all-time high. Among Palestinians, too, his popularity reached a low point, though they agreed there was no alternative leader.

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