By Barry Rubin
Six years ago, on November 11, 2004, Yasir Arafat died. On that occasion, former President Bill Clinton explained why he wouldn’t attend Arafat’s funeral: “I regret that in 2000 he missed the opportunity to bring [Palestine] into being….” Not Israel, but Arafat did so.
Today, the Arafat era’s lessons have been largely swept under the rug: his persistent mendacity, use of terrorism, cynical exploitation of an “underdog” posture to garner sympathy, and unfailing devotion to the dream of wiping Israel off the map. The placing of that last priority over creating a Palestinian state is why there is none today. Not Israeli policy, not settlements, but the preference for total victory over compromise.
At Arafat’s funeral, one of his lieutenants, Saeb Arikat, proclaimed: “Give him the honor he deserves!” Let it be so.
As the editorial in the London Times put it, he was the man who “threw away the best chance in a generation for an honorable settlement to the Middle East conflict.” In the New Yorker, David Remnick accurately wrote, “Rarely has a leader blundered more and left more ruin in his wake.”
Yet, too, perhaps, as never before in modern history, have so many relentlessly airbrushed away a leader’s career of faults and crimes. What was especially remarkable in so much of the coverage and discussion was the virtual erasure of a career in terrorism which had spanned forty years. There were no scenes of past carnage shown; no survivors or relatives of his victims interviewed. In political terms, his dedication to the elimination of another state and people, consistent use of terrorism, and rejection of peace were thrown down the memory hole of history.
The timeline for Arafat’s life prepared by both the BBC and the Associated Press omit any mention of terrorist attacks and skip the fatal year 2000 altogether. In its timeline the Associated Press only invokes the word terrorism to claim that Arafat had “renounced” it in 1988, though this had not prevented the PLO from committing scores of attacks—usually with Arafat’s blessing—thereafter.
Arabs, who knew him and his history better, were more critical. An article surveying Arab reaction in Cairo’s al-Ahram newspaper concluded that most Arab officials’ private reaction was one of “relief.” They said he had been an obstacle to achieving peace “largely for the sake of his own glory” and called him a man “too self-centered to really care about the misfortunes of his own people.” Not a single interviewee expressed a word of sorrow.
At the time of Arafat’s death his people still did not have a state, a functioning economy, or the most elementary security after following his leadership for thirty-five years. Much of that situation remains the same today.
Yet Arafat’s narrative had largely triumphed, certainly in persuading those who wanted to believe it that the movement he shaped and created was noble and sympathetic, a victim of other’s treatment rather than of its own policies.
Arafat was widely proclaimed a hero of national resistance for opposing an occupation that could have already ended on more than one occasion if he had chosen to achieve a negotiated peace. He was hailed as the victim in a war which he had begun and continued despite many opportunities to end the fighting. He was said to be striving only for a state when he had long invoked the idea that a separate state living peacefully alongside Israel was treason.
He was said to be popular and loved by his people even though—despite his considerable degree of real support—he stole so much from them and was ridiculed by them in private. In fact, Arafat’s performance in Palestinian public opinion polls had never been impressive. Even a British reporter who revered him admitted that Arafat didn’t have support from his people. “Foreign journalists,” she recounted, “seemed much more excited about Mr. Arafat’s fate than anyone in Ramallah.”
At the time of his death he was more popular in France, where almost half the population saw Arafat as a great national hero, than among his own people. In a June 2004 poll, only 23.6 percent of Palestinians named him as the leader they most trusted. Actually, Arafat’s popularity rating among Palestinians was lower than that of President George W. Bush among Americans, though the U.S. leader was—in sharp contrast to Arafat–widely portrayed as being reviled and mistrusted by a large part of his people.
But Arafat had always been able to outlive his own history. He had indeed created a Palestinian nationalist movement, organizing and uniting his people. Yet having so much authority over it, Arafat had to be held responsible for its shortcomings. Was it really so impossible that things could have been otherwise, that even the violence might have been tempered by some moral or pragmatic restraint, and that the goals would have been moderated at least far earlier in history?
Did the creation of Palestinian nationalism really inevitably entail Arafat’s virtual creation of the doctrine of modern terrorism; betrayal of Jordan; contribution to destabilizing Lebanon; or support for unprovoked Iraqi aggression? Did it really require the systematic killing and glorification of killing of civilians from its beginning to the last day of Arafat’s career? Did he really have no way to urge his people toward a peaceful compromise or to rule them well when given the chance to do so?
Since Arafat’s death, most of the leadership of Fatah and the PA has made clear their interpretation of Arafat’s legacy was the need to fight on for total victory, no matter how long it took or how much suffering or lives it cost. One Palestinian leader recalled that when, in 1993, he had reproached Arafat for signing the Oslo accords, Arafat replied that by making the agreement, “I am hammering the first nail in the Zionist coffin.”
Actually, though, Arafat biggest achievement may have been hammering the last nail into the Palestinian coffin.