Arafat’s tragedy

He helped to found the idea of Palestinian independence, but ended up as a mouthpiece of great power politics.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), has died in Paris at the age of 75. He helped to found the idea of an independent Palestinian state, but ended up as the mouthpiece of great power politics, sustaining a conflict whose solution was endlessly delayed.

Born in Cairo, Arafat grew up in Jerusalem under the British Mandate. He returned to Cairo as a teenager, where he volunteered in the wars the Arab kingdoms launched against the fledgling state of Israel in the 1950s.

Successive defeats demonstrated to many Palestinians the importance of taking control of their own struggle, after the example of the Algerian freedom fighters. In 1968 Arafat led the organisation Fatah to victory against the Israeli army at Karameh in Jordan. Contrasted with the poor performance of the Arab regimes’ armies, the Palestinians were confident.

Arafat’s rival within the PLO, George Habash, led an uprising of Palestinians against the Jordanian King, on the grounds that the ‘liberation of Palestine will come through Amman’. It was ruthlessly crushed in the ‘Black September’ of 1970, leaving thousands of Palestinians dead and the movement once more in the doldrums. But after they suffered another defeat in the Yom Kippur war of 1973, Arab leaders met in Rabat in October 1974 to declare Arafat and the PLO as the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people’. Days later, Arafat addressed the United Nations’ General Assembly, demanding the immediate return of Palestine, to US embarrassment and Israeli outrage.

But Arafat’s dilemma was that in gaining control of the movement by the endorsement of the Arab regimes the Palestinians had fought against, it was the movement that was changed. No longer solely an expression of Palestinian interests, it had become an Arab-backed lobby against Israel. As they each in turn made peace with America, and even Israel itself, the Arab leaders funded the PLO as a sop to their own unrequited national pride. Arafat’s strident performance at the UN persuaded a generation of Palestinian leaders that international diplomacy would yield results that popular mobilisation had not. But exiled in Lebanon, the PLO leadership was dangerously isolated from its own popular base. And then Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 led to the expulsion of the PLO, reducing it to a travelling circus touring Arab capitals and lobbying diplomats, while ordinary Palestinians launched an intifada (uprising) in the PLO’s absence.

With the decline of Soviet influence in the Middle East and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s/early 1990s, the PLO began talking directly to the USA in the hope that it would rein in Israel. The price was high. ‘Arafat has already removed his shirt. Does the United States also want him to take off his pants?’ Egyptian President Mubarak asked US envoy George Schultz in December 1988. At issue was Arafat’s statement delivered in faltering English: ‘I announce terrorism’, and then correcting himself, ‘I renounce terrorism’ – where he seemed to accept the Israeli case that the Palestinian struggle had all been meaningless violence. The declaration was drafted by US diplomat William Quandt, provoking Nayaf Hawatmeh to protest at the Palestine National Executive in Tunis: ‘You can’t simply read from an American script’ – but he did. What Arafat sold the Palestinians was recognition of Israel and a two-state solution.

On 13 September 1993, Arafat was finally rewarded with an agreement, signed with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, complete with a handshake on the White House lawn choreographed by Bill Clinton. Returning to the West Bank in 1994, Arafat’s diplomacy seemed to be paying off. But Israel proved unwilling to give ground. Even the benighted Gaza Strip, returned to the Palestine Authority, was subject to continuing military incursions, and settlements were still being built on the West Bank.

Israel’s demands that the Authority curb Palestinian attacks were unrealistic, as the PLO was losing authority to the Islamic Hamas group – which, ironically, Israel had initially and secretly funded to create a counterweight to what it saw as a Soviet-influenced PLO. In 2000, the USA and Israel provoked an end to negotiations (over Jerusalem and the Palestinian right of return), setting the scene for a more aggressive suppression of the ‘second intifada’.

The Palestinian Authority that Arafat led from his election in January 1996 failed to push independence closer, because it was too weak either to win out or to police an Israeli-imposed settlement. Increasingly, Arafat’s struggle descended into a formula of verbal intransigence that only masked the absence of a real strategy. Weakened by Parkinson’s disease, his speeches to visiting politicians were often drafted by Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN Special Representative to the Middle East.

But then that was Arafat’s tragedy – having set out to win independence for the Palestinians, he was left reading the script written for him, first by the Arab regimes, then by the USA, and in the end by the United Nations.

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Topics Politics


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