To the casual observer, last week’s attacks on Yasir Arafat’s command compound seemed to portend a heretofore unthinkable development in the latest decade of the Israel-Palestine conflict: the willful elimination of Arafat himself. To be sure, there’s no shortage of itchy Israeli trigger fingers—or Palestinian digits, for that matter—that would love to close the book on the Palestinian president, and it’s not beyond reason to think that Arafat’s time may be nigh.
But in the context of Intifada II, the missiles that slammed into the police complex next to Arafat’s headquarters was a heavy-handed but not entirely surprising way of demonstrating the strong Israeli desire for Arafat to get the more militant elements in his proto-state under control—or else. Yet according to longtime observers of and participants in the Middle East peace process, the idea that a close encounter with air-to-ground ordnance would somehow move Arafat to a swift and sweeping neutralization of the usual suspects is specious, as it underscores the dubious notion that Arafat has something like absolute power over the Palestinian Authority. “Quite frankly, they’re taking the person who is arguably the least powerful figure in this drama and making him into a demigod,” says Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “You could dispense with him totally and completely tomorrow and it wouldn’t do a thing in terms of the peace process.”
It would, however, ensure a whole new round of mayhem and suicide bombings. “That there would be violence is unquestionable,” Ibish says. “It would strengthen the hand of the religious extremists and infuriate secularists at the same time. Even Palestinians who might welcome the end of Arafat’s career would be furious that Israel believed it had the right to forcibly and lethally remove him.”
One could easily expend thousands of words exploring this proposition, but in the short form, it boils down to a couple of key factors. First, when one takes the largely corrupt and autocratic leadership style of Arafat’s Fatah organization and then melds it with the impediments to political development produced by the strategy of Israeli occupation, the notion of an effective environment for Arafat or any other single leader to act consistently and effectively is at best elusive. But perhaps more important is the nature of the occupation itself, and a failure of some to either realize or appreciate the intensity of Palestinian rage that transcends both Arafat and the radicals of Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
“One of the problems here is that when you talk to the Palestinian Authority, you’re talking to one man—Arafat—but the fact that you’re talking to the one man who is the PA in a theoretical, state-to-state sense in no way equates to him being the beloved and respected leader of Palestinians,” says a veteran CIA officer who has dealt with both the Palestinians and the Israelis. “Arafat is a crafty guy who’s not known for encouraging discussion or allowing dissent within his own organization, and his standing with Palestinians isn’t great because they view him as the guy who’s failed to deliver a real solution. There’s only so far he can go. Everyone’s trying to squeeze him into taking a more firm leadership role. Maybe you can force him to do more; he’s certainly got more guns and money than Hamas or Islamic Jihad. And it’s not like anyone is demanding 100 percent success of him; it’s just that he should try, and I think he could have done, and could do, more. But that still doesn’t recognize how righteously pissed the average Palestinian is at 35 years of occupation.”
Or, as University of Virginia visiting professor and terrorism scholar Harold Gould wrote last year, “The root cause of what is occurring in Palestine today is not political chicanery,” but, in part, “a fatal disconnect between ordinary Palestinians and leaders on both sides of the border. Ordinary Palestinians are saying that they have endured enough denigration and are taking matters into their own hands. Arafat no longer is effectively leading the Palestinian masses. He is following them, desperately trying to regain enough credibility and control to restore his authority.” As such, bringing his full force to bear on the militants—who have never garnered the support of more than 30 percent of Palestinians but who are gaining more sympathy born not out of love for Islamist extremism but due to general disaffection—”creates such potential for blow-back on Arafat that it’s not exactly an incentive,” says the CIA officer.
But then misunderstanding or disregarding the relationship between Arafat and Palestinian public opinion isn’t new either. At Camp David II last year, much of the blame for the failure to reach an accord was placed on Arafat; indeed, then-president Bill Clinton was anything but circumspect in expressions of consternation about the PA chief. As University of Maryland professor and Brookings Institution scholar Shibley Telhami has noted, the conventional wisdom in the wake of the collapsed talks was as follows: “The trick was to give him [Arafat] enough incentives to accept Israeli sovereignty on the Old City of Jerusalem, including Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. [Then-Israeli prime minister Ehud] Barak provided him with significant incentives, but he still rejected the deal; therefore, either he did not want an agreement or he was just using Camp David to extract more concessions from Barak down the road.”
The shortcoming of this thesis, Telhami has written, is that it fails to acknowledge the very real possibility that “Palestinian, Arab and Islamic public opinion provided serious redlines for Arafat. . . . Palestinian public opinion polls had shown that, given a choice between an agreement that gave the Palestinians a state without East Jerusalem and no agreement at all, the vast majority of Palestinians would choose the latter.” While examination of the degree to which the Palestinian Authority either encouraged or—once it started—enabled the latest intifada is certainly germane, the real point, according to Telhami, is that “Palestinian public passion, and the heavy price in human lives that Palestinians were willing to accept, could not be merely due to the urging of the unpopular PA.”
And, as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson noted earlier this month, while Palestinian suicide bombings aren’t helping the overall situation, neither are the Israeli military’s bombings, which are “terrorising and terrifying the civilian population” of the PA. While Robinson’s comments went unreported in the American media, the CIA veteran says they highlight a reality that has to be acknowledged. “Since September 11, we’ve set the standard that acts of terrorism, regardless of the cause, are no longer acceptable,” he says. “While that goes for the Palestinians, it goes for the Israelis, too. Which means you have to delegitimize the settlements, which is exactly 180 degrees from where Sharon is going. The settlements are a form of terrorism, too. You have to eliminate terrorism throughout Israeli territory and eliminate Israeli occupation throughout Palestinian territory. But recent history is going to make it easier to deal with one than the other.”