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Yasser Arafat

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Yasser’s Legacy

29 October 2004

Yasser’s Legacy

By Gwynne Dyer

Yasser Arafat isn’t dead yet. The “blood disorder” that forced him to desert his besieged headquarters in Ramallah and fly to Paris for medical treatment may not kill him, but he is probably never going home again, and his long reign as the undisputed leader of the Palestinian people is certainly over. So it is time to write his political obituary, if not his personal one.

Frantic speculation has already begun about who succeeds him, but it’s unlikely that any single successor can command the support and respect that Arafat enjoyed in the deeply divided Palestinian community at home and in exile. The notion that a new Palestinian leader might be able to reopen peace talks with Israel is built on the myth that they only failed because of Arafat’s stubborn personality. His career seems to be ending in failure — and yet he did achieve something.

He should have died at least ten years ago, of course. It would have been better for his reputation, for he never had the skills to run a proto-state like the Palestinian Authority: even as “President” of the PA, he remained at heart a guerilla chieftain who ruled through cronies and relatives, coopted his opponents with bribes of one sort or another, and never failed to appoint at least two rivals to any position of power.

It would also have been better for peace in the region, for a more astute Palestinian leader might just have pulled off a final peace agreement at the Camp David talks with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak in 2000. It was already late in the game, for the 1995 assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Arafat’s partner for peace in the Oslo Accords, and the subsequent delaying tactics of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996-99, used up most of the available political time and patience, but a more flexible and imaginative man than Arafat might just have managed it.

Arafat didn’t. He baulked at the fact that the Israelis would put none of their proposals into writing (because Barak’s cabinet was already disintegrating back home over the scale of the concessions he was offering). He was utterly unprepared psychologically for the fact that a final deal would mean that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian refugees would never see their ancestral homes again (although everybody else had known it for a decade).

It has been argued that Arafat was wise to refuse the deal Barak was offering because it was only half a loaf, and anyway Barak’s government was already falling. But it was as much of the loaf as Israeli public opinion would accept, and if the deal had been rejected by a subsequent Israeli government after Barak fell, it would have been Israel that took the blame, not the Palestinians.

Arafat was too cautious, and so the deal failed. A month later, Ariel Sharon marched onto the square in front of al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem guarded by hundreds of Israeli soldiers and snipers, with the manifest intention of provoking a violent Palestinian response. The Palestinians threw rocks, the snipers opened fire, and that triggered the intifada, just as Sharon (and maybe Barak too, by that time) intended. Four years later, all the peace plans lie in ruins and nothing awaits the Palestinians and the Israelis but endless violence.

So what did Arafat do right? Just two things, but they were big ones. First, he broke the hold of Arab governments who tried to control the Palestinian resistance movements for their own purposes. Then, even more importantly, he made the whole world acknowledge the existence of the Palestinian nation. He did that, for the most part, by successful acts of terrorism.

When Arafat created the Fatah guerilla movement in 1959, the Palestinian refugees who had fled or been driven from their homes in 1948 in what is now Israel were known simply as “refugees”: stateless Arabs who could theoretically be “resettled” anywhere. Arab governments resisted this definition, but in the West it was universal. Arafat changed all that.

The key event in his life was the Six-Day War of 1967, in which Israel conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where most of the 1948 “refugees” had ended up. In response to that disaster, he took Fatah into the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in 1968, became the PLO’s leader, and launched the campaign of international terrorism that made him famous.

It was universally condemned in the West, and all the authorities vowed that terrorism would never succeed, but by the time Arafat called off the campaign in 1989 he had achieved his goal. The world no longer talked about “refugees”; it talked about “Palestinians”, and just to give them that name implicitly recognised their right to a particular territory. US and Israeli recognition of Arafat as a valid negotiating partner, the Oslo Accords of 1993, and the peace negotiations that took up most of the 1990s were the result.

They failed, and Arafat bears a share (though only a share) of the blame. As he departs from power and perhaps from the land of the living, the future of the Palestinians and the Israelis has rarely looked grimmer. But the history of the future is just as long as the history of the past; we just don’t know it yet. There is still hope, and the historians of the future may be kinder to Yasser Arafat than the judgement of his contemporaries.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“Frantic…something”;and “It has…Palestinians”)

The Strategy of Suicide Bombs

6 January 2003

The Strategy of Suicide Bombs

By Gwynne Dyer

 Terrorism isn’t about killing innocent people; that’s just a means to an end. Terrorism is about goading a stronger opponent into behaving in ways that will benefit your cause.

On Sunday, for the first time since November, a couple of Palestinian suicide-bombers got through and blew themselves up in central Tel Aviv. At least 23 people were killed, most of the foreign workers from Africa and Asia who came to Israel to do the low-wage jobs that were once filled by Palestinians. With wearisome predictability, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s spokesman blamed Yasser Arafat: “This terrorist attack has earned the Palestinian Authority’s stamp of approval. It is a direct result of persistent incitement coming out of the Palestinian Authority and its refusal to rein in the terrorists in its midst.”

Sorry, could you run that by me again? You’re talking about Yasser Arafat, the man whose whole career was dedicated to the goal of getting his people recognised as Palestinians (with rights to at least some of the land of what used to be called Palestine), rather than mere refugees with a right only to a tent and daily rations? The man who then risked assassination by his own hard-liners by renouncing terrorism, signing the Oslo accords with Yitzhak Rabin, and then, after Rabin was assassinated, waiting patiently while Binyamin Netanyahu stalled for three years on fulfilling the terms of the accords? You reckon he sent the bombers?

Sharon’s spokesman doesn’t really believe that Arafat sent the bombers. He’s just ‘on message’ — the message being that we must discredit Arafat because he’s still the really dangerous Palestinian, the one who wants to make a deal. Sharon isn’t interested in making any deal that gives the Palestinians a viable country in what remains of their original territory, because that would block his purpose of incorporating much of that land into Israel. So his goal is to paint all Palestinians who want to make a deal as unreasonable terrorists who have no interest in a deal.

Yasser Arafat is his own worst enemy, of course. He was a brilliant guerilla/terrorist leader, cunning, long-sighted, and staunch in adversity, but he is an inept negotiator and a dreadful administrator.

The reason everybody has all but given up on the Palestinian Authority is that Arafat never graduated from being a guerilla leader: he maintains control over his administration by appointing three, or four, or five men to do the same job, setting them against one another so that only he can adjudicate the disputes. When you finally get in to see him, five or six hours after the agreed time, you are likely to find him personally signing cheques for only a few hundred dollars: Arafat is a bandit chieftain who never managed the transition to real power.

The last and greatest service he could have done for the Palestinian people would have been to die in the siege of Beirut twenty years ago, leaving it to a younger, better educated generation of Palestinians to negotiate a land-and-peace agreement with a triumphant but still vulnerable Israel. Alas, he didn’t.

So there he sits still, a trembling, superannuated relic who now serves mainly as an Israeli bogeyman. But did he really send the bombers to the Tel Aviv bus station to kill all those foreigners? Don’t be silly.

Comfortable people in safe places see the phrase ‘enemies of peace’ as mere rhetoric. I mean, nobody could really be the enemy of peace, could they? But there are people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who are genuinely the enemies of peace — or at least, of peace on any terms that would be acceptable to the other side. They are the whole-hoggers, who don’t ever want to compromise on the territory they believe is theirs, and many of them are quite willing to kill in order to prevent the wrong kind of peace. On the Palestinian side, most of them are Islamists, but some are not.

The al-Aqsa Brigades who claimed responsibility for Sunday’s Tel Aviv bombings are not Islamists. They are a faction that still has a formal connection to Arafat’s Fatah organisation (unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who do not) But either al-Aqsa are a very stupid group of people who have let their anger lead them astray, or they have consciously gone over to the side of the Islamists who dream of a total victory over Israel in the long run, and fight to prevent a negotiated peace in the short run.

The effect of these attacks, obviously, is to improve Ariel Sharon’s chances of being re-elected at the end of this month, which would guarantee that there is no risk of a negotiated peace that gives Palestinians only part of Palestine for the indefinite future. It was never likely that the peace candidate, Amram Mitzna, would win, but you can’t be too careful. So the bombers are out in force, just as they were in 1996 when there was a risk that the peace candidate, Shimon Peres, would win against Netanyahu. Terrorism is never ‘blind’; it is politics by other means.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“The reason…power”)