"Yasser Arafat is behaving as if he were Marie Antoinette, despite not resembling her in any aspect. When the French Revolution began ..., she asked: `Why are they rebelling?' And she was told that they have no bread and are hungry. She replied: `Let them eat cake.' The Fatah rebels were torching the Palestinian Authority office in Khan Yunis when Arafat asked his famous question: `Crisis? What crisis?'"
This is how columnist Huda Al-Husseini opened her bitingly critical piece this week in the London-based Arabic daily, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat - an article that no longer needs to be described as courageous in light of the Palestinian and Arab discourse developing against Arafat.
Palestinian public criticism didn't begin only now. Some two years ago, former Palestinian minister Nabil Amr, who lost his leg this week after being shot by "unknown assailants," was the first to publicly voice his opinion about the rais. Amr signified the internal rebellion in Fatah that intensified to the point at which Arafat was forced to make a few changes in his governing apparatus - even if only for the sake of appearance.
The demonstrations against corruption didn't begin in Gaza just over the past two weeks either. We saw similar ones 18 months ago and before that. Palestinian public discourse, and the Arab discourse in general, against the Arafat regime - which includes the franchisees, close associates, the members of the big families, the people on the outside and other cronies - has thickened and deepened. The intifada began to raise heavy questions, and with them came suicide attacks, too.
It appears that not only has this Palestinian discourse become legitimate, it is starting to be the central discourse. Mohammed Dahlan, for example, attacks the Fatah leadership and the man at the top in open interviews. The www.removearafat.org Web site features reactions and articles from Palestinian and Arabs, alongside translations from the Israeli press against Arafat. The international Arab press likens Arafat and his leadership to the leadership that caused the loss of Palestine to Israel in 1948.
Such discourse isn't heard or expressed in most of the Arab states; when it is, it is usually seen in underground newspapers and on global Internet pages. A civil uprising against the government in Arab states usually develops on the backdrop of economic decrees, and is immediately stopped when the government meets the demands of the public. The Palestinians, on the other hand, or so it appears, are the only Arab society that is not completely controled by the intimidation of the government, and the only one for which democracy is not an empty term or another American interest that has to be opposed.
The latest uprising against corruption and leadership methods is not intended to appease the United States or Israel; it is the public's authentic reaction, on its own behalf.
This is also the time to examine an appropriate Israeli response to this development among the Palestinian public. It is possible, of course, to continue to lay back on the waiting-room couch in the expectation that the Palestinian public will get rid of Arafat. It is possible also to continue to present the disengagement plan as the appropriate response and, at the same time, to continue to count and recount the outposts that have yet to be removed. Or wait for the end of election season in the U.S., until the appointment of a new or old American president, to wage battles against Europe, to drag out the coalition negotiations, and to wonder again and again "if the Palestinians are ready to make peace."
On the other hand, we can talk to the Palestinian people, present it with the political menu it can expect, and allow new voices to be sounded that will serve as an appropriate echo to that same Palestinian discourse.
But it appears that this is a fruitless expectation. The political idleness in Israel prefers to rest nostalgically on that same "97 percent" that Ehud Barak offered Arafat, and to continue to present the offer - whether it was realistic or not - as everlasting justification and proof that the Palestinians will never, but never, be partners for dialogue - even if they manage to get rid of Arafat.
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