Arafat and Peace: Impossible With Him, Impossible Without Him

A decade after his death, the long-serving Palestinian leader's twisted legacy continues to dominate the arena of Middle East peacemaking.

Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Palestinian boy touching a mural of Yasser Arafat in Gaza City, November 2009.
Palestinian boy touching a mural of Yasser Arafat in Gaza City, November 2009.Credit: AP
Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman

When Yasser Arafat, the legendary leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the first elected president of the Palestinian Authority, died of still-mysterious causes in a military hospital outside Paris on November 11, 2004, he left behind him a mixed legacy of violence, terrorism, political achievement and a legend that gripped the imagination of supporters and critics around the world.

Those of us who saw him up close caught a hint of the complex character beneath the keffiya headdress that he carefully manipulated into the shape of a map of Palestine just as he manipulated just about everything around him.

He was a man of intense charisma, enormous charm, violent temper and unfathomable ambitions. He created the modern Palestinian national movement almost single-handedly and used it as a vehicle not just for the national aspirations of the Palestinian people and their desire for independence and freedom, but for many other things besides.

The PLO under Arafat was a powerful political tool that swept the Palestinians into the forefront of public consciousness and the corridors of power. It was also a murderous, mafia-like machine that killed at will and amassed vast amounts of wealth, much of it under Arafat’s personal, secretive control. His struggle with Israel went through many stages, some of them contradictory, many of them controversial. He started out by launching armed guerrilla attacks across the border from the West Bank, then occupied by Jordan. PLO tactics morphed into a vicious campaign of bombings, shootings and airplane hijackings, transforming Arafat into the godfather of modern terrorism whose bloody, crowning achievement was the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre.

But Arafat’s violence was never directed only at Israel, or only at his enemies. He was expelled from Jordan in “Black” September 1970 after nearly toppling King Hussein in a bloody coup attempt. He was expelled from Lebanon in 1983 after the creation of Fatah-land had triggered Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and threatened to destabilize that country as well.

He made peace with Israel in the 1993 Oslo Accords only to arrive on his first day in Gaza accompanied in his car by a notorious wanted terrorist. He left the Camp David peace talks in 2000 and fomented the second intifada weeks later that threatened to unravel almost everything that had been achieved at Oslo.

And in the Palestinian Authority he created such a tangled web of overlapping security militias, financial dysfunction and political intrigue that it never really functioned except to keep Arafat in power and his underlings at each others’ throats.

His double-talk and double-dealing paved the way for disaster after his death.

Arafat could have cracked down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Instead, he denounced them in public but privately allowed them to operate so long as they attacked Israel and not him. He was playing with fire. The same Hamas gunmen he tolerated and released from his jails in October 2000 launched an armed insurrection against his own Fatah party and seized control of Gaza in June 2007, condemning his successor Mahmoud Abbas to seven years of political stalemate and sporadic violence.

Abbas, who was Arafat’s longtime number two and the financier behind the Munich Massacre, suffered personally from his master’s slippery ways. Abbas quit as prime minister in September 2003 after Fatah gunmen attacked the Palestinian parliament building, telling a closed session of Palestinian leaders that Arafat had sabotaged his government, siphoned off secret funds for terrorist groups, and wrecked George Bush’s so-called Road Map plan for peace. By the time Arafat died, the two had not met or spoken for months.

But Arafat’s legacy of hypocrisy, infighting and corruption was so strong that it casts a shadow over the behavior of the Palestinian leaders to this day. Abbas and his colleagues regularly indulge in similar double-talk.

Abbas was one of the first Palestinian leaders to warn of the destructive blowback his people would suffer from the violence of the intifada, but years after the end of the intifada, years after Abbas courageously and publicly denounced the gunmen of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, his own government is still naming streets in their honor and paying huge salaries to them and their families. His condolence letter to the relatives of Yehuda Glick’s would-be assassin and his charge that Israel’s recent brief closure of the Temple Mount was “an act of war” shows that the contradictions of Arafat’s leadership did not die with the old leader.

One of Abbas’ first acts after Arafat’s death was to provide spacious accommodation in the Mukata in Ramallah for the paralyzed cofounder of the Al-Aqsa Martys’ Brigades, Khaled al-Shawish. Before that, Shawish had occupied a single room in a wrecked building in the Mukata, from where he issued the official statements of the Brigades, protected by Arafat’s guards. Abbas denounced the Brigades in public, but he moved Shawish to renovated quarters on the ground floor and invited his family to move in as well so he wouldn’t be captured by Israel.

Nor is Abbas alone. Two weeks ago, his possible successor, Jibril Rajoub, told foreign correspondents in Ramallah that Israel had “nothing to fear” from a Palestinian state. This was the same Rajoub who recently announced in Arabic that if he had a nuclear weapon he would bomb Israel.

But while they may copy his style, neither Abbas, Rajoub or any of the current Palestinian leaders can match Arafat’s unique position in Palestinian history. Peace will demand concessions – on refugees, on Jerusalem, on borders, on security and on settlements. Arafat, the transformative figure of Palestinian history, could have persuaded his people to make those concessions had he wanted to. But he didn’t – he preferred permanent turmoil to peace.

Now there is no one in the Palestinian arena with the stature or the courage to make the bold decisions required to end the conflict.

A decade after his death, Arafat’s twisted legacy continues to dominate the arena of Middle East peacemaking. It was impossible to make peace with Arafat. Ten years on, it turns out it’s impossible to make peace without him.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: