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

Arafat's death has forced the Palestinians to seek a new leader, but his legacy--constantly reaffirmed by most of his colleagues and successors--continues to shape the movement in several critical respects. First, the movement remains focused on the destruction of Israel and the incorporation of its territory into a Palestinian Arab state. Ironically, the movement has jettisoned real nationalism in exchange for the promise of revenge and total victory. It never speaks of a realizable Palestinian state that would gather in refugees and be economically and culturally prosperous, but rather of a "return" intended to recreate a mythical pre-1948 Palestine.

Second, its tactics remain focused on a glorified anti-civilian terrorism that at most might be temporarily abandoned if it appears to be too politically costly. This approach is justified not only by hatred and a total disbelief in the other side's readiness to make real peace, but more deeply by the assumption that such violence will cause Israel to collapse or surrender.

Third, its political culture revolves around the glorification of armed struggle, the legitimacy of terrorism, the deification of total victory and the definition of moderation as treason. This view is spread through schools, mosques and the media. Defeats are perceived as victories, the extent of international support and Israel's weakness are overestimated, and thousands of dead Palestinians are glorified as martyrs, inspiring further struggle. This tendency to misstate actual conditions and ignore the balance of forces continues to block any moderate, pragmatic reorientation. And rather than decline, such ideas have now been passed to a new generation. This process is going to be very difficult to reverse.

Finally, there is the structural problem. The Palestinian movement remains a mishmash of rival leaders, institutions and organizations; nationalist and Islamist groups; and divisions between Palestinians inside and outside the West Bank and Gaza. There is no working chain of command nor any meaningful political Left, Right or Center. In fact, no consideration at all is given to economic organization, social policy or any of the other issues that shape political debate elsewhere.

IT IS easy for outside observers to ignore all these factors and simply assume that everything is different in the post-Arafat era and that the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), is going to adopt a pragmatic policy. But there will be no serious progress toward peace until there is a leadership strong and moderate enough to make and implement the tough decisions necessary to achieve a negotiated solution. The battle for power among the Palestinians is just beginning, and Abu Mazen is very far from exercising any real control. Thus, a quick advance to a comprehensive peace agreement in the near future is extremely unlikely.

Certainly, there are some leaders, including Abu Mazen himself, who genuinely understand the mess into which Arafat led the Palestinians. Unfortunately, there are even more activists and leaders who want the struggle to go on until Israel is destroyed, or at least forced to make concessions so massive as to lead ultimately to the same outcome. Still others are opportunists and careerists who will go along with an extremely radical consensus to gain or retain power for themselves. Even for those who understand the need for moderation, the political--and even personal--risks are so high as to discourage them from going very far in implementing such a policy. Among the main indicators of this reality is the view--held by Abu Mazen, too--that a "right of return" for all Palestinian refugees to live in Israel is a non-negotiable demand, not a negotiating chip.

Thus, they are only ready to accept a negotiated solution that keeps the door open for total victory. Such a stance requires terms neither Israel nor the United States will accept, and it ensures that any apparent diplomatic solution merely sets the stage for a new period of instability. It is this stance--not the details of a Palestinian state's borders or the exact arrangements for Jerusalem--that blocks the success of diplomatic efforts. Similarly, an unwillingness or inability to stop the violence prevents progress in the near term. In other words, the kind of program required as a minimal basis to achieve peace with Israel is basically defined as treason, a charge which the many rivals for leadership will not hesitate to fling at anyone deemed excessively moderate. Militants can argue, but moderates cannot, that they are fulfilling Arafat's legacy.

Nobody else will solve these problems for them. History has shown that when Israel has a government ready to make major concessions (as was the case in 1992-96, 1999-2000 and even to a large extent today), this is insufficient for a breakthrough. The same applies to U.S. involvement. The United States cannot deliver the kind of solution the Palestinian leadership demands. Indeed, the greatest outbreak of anti-American ideas and deeds in the Arab and Muslim world came after the United States raised billions of dollars in aid and provided massive political assistance to the Palestinians, endorsed a state for them, and tried to implement this outcome. As long as the current Palestinian leadership and ideology prevails, America cannot impose a peace, no matter how hard it tries.

For the Palestinian movement itself, weakness and failure are guaranteed by internal divisions and the inability to make vital decisions, on the one hand, and the lack of moderate goals or a viable strategy, on the other. As strange as it may seem to observers, it is nonetheless true that most Palestinian leaders want the occupation to continue more than Israelis do. For it is this that justifies their continued struggle to win everything, gains them international support, and lets them avoid making the kind of tough decisions that could split the movement or even result in their own demise.

These are the Herculean tasks that Abu Mazen must now confront, and his is also a job for which he has no proven skills and little support within the movement. He either cannot mobilize the masses against the radicals or does not know where to begin. He dares not use force against extremists, even to stop them from sabotaging any ceasefire he negotiates. Abu Mazen may want a peaceful solution, but he knows that compromise is political suicide. Yet without compromise, progress is impossible.

To understand better his dilemma, it is necessary to examine the factions within Fatah, the organization that is essentially the movement's ruling--albeit totally undisciplined--party. Fatah's establishment, of which Abu Mazen is a part, is the traditional leadership, who mostly come from places that became part of Israel in 1948 and who spent years of exile abroad. The great majority of them see no reason to change their view that the conflict is about Israel's destruction and replacement by a Palestinian state, not the creation of a peaceful Palestinian state alongside Israel. They will accept no compromise solution that would foreclose that ultimate objective. They demand a total return of refugees to ensure Israel's destruction from within. And they hold anti-American ideas that make them deeply distrustful of U.S. offers to help them achieve a state.

Their best-known leader is Faruq Qaddumi, the new head of Fatah, who is far more personally popular in the organization than Abu Mazen. He refuses to acknowledge Israel's right to exist, and he condemned the Oslo accords. In a November 29, 2004 interview, he explained that any two-state solution will only be a prelude to Israel's destruction and replacement by a Palestinian Arab state. The powerful Fatah Revolutionary Committee is led by a similar figure, Sakr Habash, who in 2000 authored a major Fatah paper explaining in detail why the Palestinian movement would never make real peace with Israel. Still another key institution, the Palestinian National Council (PNC), is led by Salim al-Zanun, who insists that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) never changed its charter calling for Israel's destruction.

Despite these hard-line views, this faction has good reasons for letting the relatively moderate Abu Mazen become the most prominent Palestinian leader. First, Abu Mazen is one of them, a man who can be trusted to support their interests against the younger generation and the Islamists. Second, by presenting a moderate face to the world, he is more likely to gain Western support than would an openly hard-line leader. Third, they are confident of being able to prevent him from making any meaningful concessions to Israel or the United States. Fourth, given the 69 year-old Abu Mazen's age and lack of charisma or mass support base, they do not have to worry about him challenging their power or punishing them for opposing his preferred policy.

In comparison, Abu Mazen has few dedicated moderate supporters. Prime Minister Abu Ala, a career PLO bureaucrat and the most enthusiastic among Palestinian leaders for the Oslo process, is also timid and, at 67, has had health problems. He also feuds with Abu Mazen. Muhammad Dahlan, 43, the only moderate with control over armed men, could be among the top leaders, or even be leader himself, when the next generation finally takes power. Once Arafat's protégé, he fell out with Arafat while leader of the Preventive Security Force in Gaza. He has been bold in challenging the Fatah mainstream. Yet he also has numerous enemies and probably could not take over even Gaza, where he would be opposed not only by Fatah hardliners but Hamas as well.

Essay Types: Essay