Brown: A Meeting with Yasser Arafat
Middle East expert Kenneth Brown shares the following guest editorial. (Iraq news follows, below.):
A meeting with Yasser Arafat
I first met Yasser Arafat in January of last year in Ramallah at the Muqata’a, the half demolished headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. I was part of a delegation of a dozen intellectuals, mostly Jewish and living in France, which had been invited to visit Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories by the Israeli group, Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc). One of our many meetings was with Arafat, the elected President of the Authority and Chairman of the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization. He had been a virtual prisoner of the Israelis in the ruined buildings of the Muqata’a since 2001.We sat around a large table with the “Old Man”, as he was called.
After some opening remarks in which he spoke nostalgically of his childhood in Jerusalem and of his Jewish playmates—after all, he had been briefed on who we were—he summarized the present repression and the coming war on Iraq. Then we were invited to ask questions. The main thing we wanted to hear from him was his position on the suicide attacks against Israeli citizens. We didn’t receive a straight answer. His ambiguity on the subject could be interpreted as a tacit acceptance. But one of his associates spoke up against those acts of terrorism. Was he speaking for the President or against him? At that moment, someone entered the room and whispered something to Arafat. Then he announced to us that the Israeli army had just entered Hebron in a murderous retaliation for the killing of settlers. It was perhaps his way of telling us that the issue of terrorism and violence was two-sided.
I left that meeting with the conviction that Yasser Arafat was a prisoner not only of the Israelis, but also of a situation that he could not control. I think he genuinely believed that peace with the Israelis was possible and that no other serious solution existed. I do not underestimate his weaknesses. His absolutist authority over the Palestinian leadership and his use of corruption to maintain his power and authority within the PLO undermined the democracy that very many Palestinians want. These legacies have left profound problems for succession to his leadership. Arafat was a kind of latter-day Moses who took his people out of bondage, but was denied the Promised Land of a viable nation-state, Palestine.
I was led to think about my own road to the Promised Land. I had come a long way since my beginnings as ‘a nice Jewish boy’ from Los Angeles, Bar-Mitzvah and Confirmation at Temple Israel of Hollywood, graduation from Hollywood High and UCLA. I first went to Israel as a visiting student at the Hebrew University in 1956. I was in Jerusalem during the Suez War. The victorious Israelis were full of stories about the savagery and cowardice of the Arabs, reveling in the image of boots abandoned in the desert by fleeing Egyptian soldiers, I remember Ben Gurion addressing a massive crowd in Zion Square, swearing that the Israelis would never give up an inch of Sinai and the Gaza Strip. Shortly afterwards, of course, President Eisenhower commanded them to leave, and in those days Israel submitted to American authority, turned tail and went home.
The university finally opened in December 1956. In my courses on the modern Middle East, there was no mention of Palestinians (and hardly any of “Israeli Arabs”) nor, for that matter, much interest in Jewish history in Arab countries. Had it not been for the presence of some Muslim and Christian Arabs from Israel and Jewish immigrants from North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, it would have been hard to imagine that Israel was in the Middle East at all. The Israeli way of life, felafel apart, was Euro-American. The notion of Palestine didn’t exist. Israelis turned their backs on an Arab world that was perceived as the impotent enemy, implacably hostile and bent on the destruction of the Jewish state.
The war of 1967 changed most of that. As we all know, Israel reconquered Sinai, Gaza and, this time, took the West Bank and the Golan Heights, as well. Now, thirty-seven very troubled years later, more than a generation, the Palestinian leader who emerged from the ashes of 1967 has left this world. Yasser Arafat led a movement that put Palestine at least on the conceptual map and imposed on the conscience of the world, even in Israel, recognition of the existence of a Palestinian people. Meanwhile the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza persists. For all his successes and well-publicized failures, Arafat died ingloriously in a French hospital after three and a half years as a virtual prisoner in what was left of his Ramallah headquarters. That is where he was buried in scenes of great pathos last Friday.
I agree with Michael Warschawski, an Israeli Jew and co-president of the Jerusalem Center of Alternative Information, who has written that Arafat belongs in the pantheon of the great leaders of the twentieth century for having brought about the renaissance or even the ‘resurrection’ of a Palestinian nation that had been stamped out, atomized, dispersed, demoralized, and largely exiled by the creation of the state of Israel. A people made up of refugees and the excluded affirmed itself, in a large measure thanks to Arafat’s leadership, as a nation claiming its right to liberty, sovereignty and a return to its homeland.
It will take a long time to draw up the balance-sheet of Arafat’s place in history. But some of his accomplishments are undeniable. First, recognition of the PLO by the Arab states in 1974 as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Second, global recognition of that legitimacy, crowned by his appearance at the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1975. Third, in the Oslo declaration of 1993, recognition of the Palestinian people and of the PLO as its representative by the Israeli government.
These recognitions were largely achieved thanks to Arafat’s ability to sustain the unity of his people in the face of enormous external and internal pressures. He always refused to submit to the demands of Israel and the U.S. which would have provoked civil war among Palestinians under the guise of the struggle against terrorism. Moreover, he had the merit, questionable to be sure, of refusing to surrender to the capitulations demanded of him by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton at Camp David in summer 2000.
The greatest of the risks Arafat took was, of course, Oslo, “the historic compromise” with Israel, when he bet on coexistence and eventual reconciliation with a state that had been constructed on the ruins of Palestine. He paid dearly for losing that bet by being locked up and largely neutralized in the Muqata’a, accused of having fomented the second Intifada and of being personally responsible for Palestinian terrorism.
What then is my reading of Yasser Arafat from that meeting last year in Ramallah and from contradictory second-hand sources? I am convinced that he spoke the truth when he expressed his readiness to sit down to discuss peace with any Israeli leader, including Ariel Sharon. To be sure, he was always a leader of a people at war, but he was ready to become a partner in peace. At the same time and at least partly as a consequence of the endless conflict, he lacked many of the qualities of statesmanship. Like all political leaders, and especially those at war, his ideological statements at times drew upon myths. But the Israelis have no lessons to teach in that regard. They have been much more successful in perpetuating their own myths and, with the support of the U.S., they have always held the high cards. They remain persuaded that the Palestinians will submit to their might.
The historical record is increasingly clear in one respect: Israel was created by means of conquest and the expulsion of another people. Reconciliation between the two peoples will imply a recognition of that fact of historical injustice. The Palestinians continue to be victims of an authentic tragedy. The absence of order and law in the territorities of the Palestinian Authority is mainly a consequence of the ongoing Israeli occupation. Palestinian suicide bombings must be condemned, but their source should also be understood. Yasser Arafat was a prisoner of the Israelis and also prisoner of a lack of political vision. But in failing to make peace with him, the Israelis missed the best opportunity that history has yet offered to them.
Kenneth Brown lives in Paris where he edits the biannual review Mediterraneans. A former professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester (U.K.), Research Associate in the Middle East Center, University of Chicago, Visiting Professor at the Universities of California, Berkeley and Utah, and Fulbright Professor at the University of Dakar, Senegal, he completed his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies at U.C.L.A in 1969. His latest book, Iraq from Crisis to Chaos, was published in French by IBIS Press, Paris 2004.