Arafat: Then & now
Economics & development
People in the news
by Mark Perry
I FIRST met President Yasser Arafat in Tunis on a warm autumn evening in 1989. He rose from behind his desk, smiled at me and shook my hand and we talked for a moment. His office was spare, his desk piled with papers. In the corner a television barked out the news. His aides stood nearby.
“Have you had dinner?’
“No,” I said.
“Good, come with me.”
We walked out of his office and down the hall and he did something then that I found strange, but which I grew to appreciate through the years – he reached out his hand and held mine and walked with me, down the hall and then down the stairway and out to a waiting line of cars. We traveled for several miles through Tunis and stopped in front of a large building. Ahmad Qrei’ was standing on the steps. I was introduced and we all went inside to a large dining hall filled with long wooden tables. There must have been 500 children waiting for their dinner.
Arafat motioned me to a place at one of the tables next to a five-year-old girl. All of the children were standing, politely, waiting for Arafat to speak – except for the girl, who was gulping down her food. “She couldn’t wait,” the boy across the table said to me in perfect English. He flashed a smile and laughed. Arafat spoke then, reminding the children to pay attention to their teachers, to finish their lessons, and to show respect for the memory of their parents – most of whom had died during the civil wars in Lebanon. The girl, now finished with her dinner, tugged at my sleeve and pointed: “Chairman Arafat,” she whispered. I nodded: “That’s right,” I said. And then she tugged at my sleeve again: “Daddy,” she said.
Yasser Arafat’s contribution to the Palestinian national movement is undeniable. For many, many years he has not only been the symbol of the movement, but the embodiment of its aspirations: he has been “daddy.” Whether he hangs on to life now (or not) it is obvious that his immediate influence has ended. The reality of this has sparked the usual vitriol in the American press (The Washington Post’s normally reticent Jackson Diehl called him a “warlord,” while the New York Times' Thomas Friedman was nearly overcome with glee), as well as an avalanche of speculation that a new Palestinian leadership would be able to more credibly negotiate an end to the conflict with Israel. Senior Washington policymakers, some of whom have played significant roles in mediating the conflict, have their doubts. The passing of Arafat is more like most California earthquakes, they say: there’s a lot of movement, but not much really changes.
This pessimistic judgment is based far less on the capability of the emerging Palestinian leadership than it is on Bush administration’s willingness to pressure Israel to take the steps necessary for a return to negotiations.
“I think it will be very difficult for George Bush to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to agree to return to the negotiating table,” one former ambassador to Israel told me this week. “There is no constituency for it – most of his base supports what Israel is doing, Sharon compares his war on the Palestinians with the American program in Iraq, and Sharon will argue that he should be allowed to complete his withdrawal from Gaza prior to the opening of any negotiations. And that will be that.”
Another former senior diplomat – and NSC official – was even more blunt: “Bush will tell Sharon to start negotiations. And Sharon will say ‘no.’ And what will Bush do?”
As yet another security official noted: “Starting negotiations is one thing, but moving them down the road is another. If you think Arafat was tough on the question of the right of return, you should meet Abu Mazen.”
Administration officials strongly disagree with this assessment: Elliott Abrams, who is the responsible action officer in the National Security Council on the conflict, has told associates that President Bush “is going to make negotiating the end to the conflict a top priority, the priority, in the next four years.” Abrams is pushing to become US ambassador to Israel in advance of the Bush administration push (“he calls it his dream job,” a colleague notes), but is silent on what precisely the White House will propose to get the talks started.
Most administration officials expect that Bush will tell Sharon that Arafat’s passing has “created a new reality in the region” that Israel can use to its advantage. Among the administration’s arguments, according to a high-level US State Department official, is that Sharon must now show that “he is as capable of rewarding Palestinian leaders for good behavior as he of punishing leaders for bad behavior. This is what the administration’s argument boils down to.”
Such statements, however, bring groans of disbelief to veteran Middle East diplomats: “This administration just doesn’t get it – this is what failed at Camp David: that somehow self determination is a reward that Israel and the US can hold out to the world. The view is offensive.”
Additionally, while administration officials hint broadly that Sharon owes Bush a debt of gratitude for his support over the last four years, Israeli officials have issued some broad hints of their own: that negotiations will begin only when the Palestinian leadership takes steps to “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure” and when they have enacted “serious democratic reforms.” Bush has agreed to this formula, saying that until these steps are taken, he will support Sharon’s argument that the Palestinians have not taken the minimal steps to become a credible partner. The Israeli position has put Bush “in a bind,” a former administration official says.
“What Sharon is really saying is that the new leaders have to turn their guns on Hamas. They won’t do it. And so Sharon will say, ‘see, I don’t have a partner on the other side. How can I negotiate people who refuse to fight terrorism? And Bush will have to agree.”
What the Bush administration has missed in all of this, informed diplomats claim, is the importance of what is coming to be called “the Lewis rule” – named for former US ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis.
“When people say that we should impose a solution on the parties to the conflict, what they really mean to say is we should ‘impose a solution on Israel.’ And that we cannot do,” Lewis told me many years ago. It is not simply the case that Israel is the unstated “third rail” of American politics (“you touch it and you’re dead”), Lewis argues, it is also that the US should not expect the two parties to accept any solution that they cannot credibly sell to their own people. This is as true for the Palestinians as it is for Israel, a fact often forgotten by America’s political leadership. No Palestinian leader, and certainly no successor to Yasser Arafat, should be expected to accept any political settlement that steps over the lines set down by the PLO and endorsed by the PA – a confirmation of UN resolutions 242, 338 and (of course) the right of return.
“We often forget that the Palestinian leadership has a constituency of their own that they have to answer to,” Lewis says. “If they concede their principles they’ll be gone.” That may be truer now, with Yasser Arafat passing from the scene, than at any time in the past:
“Beware of people who begin their sentences with the words ‘now that Yasser Arafat is gone,’” one former Clinton Middle East negotiator says. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. When we talk about Arafat’s legacy we’re talking about a set of principles that defined the Palestinian identity and that he held in common with an entire leadership. Even if they are so inclined – and they are not – they will never accept a settlement that he rejected. They will not be a party to their own extinction. The Bush administration is about to learn this lesson.”
-Published November 10, 2004©Palestine Report