Giving Arafat his due

Print edition : December 03, 2004

Candles for Arafat, in Gaza City. - KEVIN FRAYER/AP

The Palestinian crisis will worsen with Yasser Arafat's death and a changed balance of forces vis-a-vis Israel and the U.S. Its just resolution will demand extraordinarily creative efforts from the PLO and the world community, including India.

IT has become fashionable either to pay handsome tributes to the personality of Palestine Authority (P.A.) President Yasser Arafat while substantially ignoring the cause which he represented, or - more deplorably - to present his death as an "opportunity" for giving a new impetus to the stalled peace process. The first captures the Indian official reaction to the events leading to Arafat's demise. But the second response has increasingly intruded into our media - itself a sign of the growing frequency with which hegemonic Right-wing ideas from the West and Israel are glibly and unthinkingly mouthed by Indian commentators.

The central assumption underlying the second response, shared by both United States President George Bush and Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is that Arafat was "the greatest obstacle to peace". His death, for Sharon, could be a "historic turning point". For Bush, it was "a significant moment in Palestinian history". Bush says there is now a "great chance" to establish a Palestinian state. Both leaders had refused to deal with Arafat in the past few years. And both have instigated the emergence of a new generation of "moderate" leaders, who will be more pliable. Washington has pressed Israel, reports The New York Times, quietly to take steps "aimed at strengthening the standing of Palestinian moderates". The overtures to the "moderates" include Israel's release of $40 million in frozen tax funds to the P.A., and its agreement to consider removing security forces from Palestinian-populated areas to facilitate P.A. elections.

Evidently, the U.S. and Israel hope that the post-Arafat leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) will allow a peace agreement that is favourable to Israel. Now that the PLO's dominant Fatah faction has decided to nominate Mahmoud Abbas (alias Abu Mazen) as its candidate for the P.A. President, the hope certainly has some basis. It bears recalling that Abbas was the principal Palestinian architect of the Yossi Beilin-Abu Mazen Plan of October 1995, which left Israeli settlements, all of them illegal, untouched in return for a permanent "peace". The Plan formed the basis of the failed Camp David talks of July 2000. So, if Abu Mazen has his way against his Fatah-PLO colleagues, Israel's hopes of annexing Palestinian land may well materialise. But the assumption about Arafat being an "obstacle to peace" will remain totally false.

Arafat was not just the Father of the Palestinian Nation, the tallest leader of the movement for its creation, and the person who put the Palestinian question on the world's political map. He also took a giant step in 1988 towards reconciliation with Israel and then did his very best over the next several years to carve out a just peace. He is in the same league as Nelson Mandela, Mahatama Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, or Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong and Amilcar Cabral as the leader of a national liberation movement whose popularity and authority was unrivalled for decades. The charge that he was never interested in peace is, as we see below, malicious, a travesty of the truth, and part of the myth that Israel has woven to prolong its occupation.

How do we understand the legacy of Yasser Arafat? To be scrupulously fair and objective, it is mixed and complex. The positive part of the legacy is well known and documented. Arafat was a fearless fighter for an independent Palestinian state, who united different strands in the national movement, including the population under occupation since 1967, the diaspora, which consists largely of refugees living outside the occupied territories, and the intelligentsia, itself scattered across the globe. He was a political strategist par excellence, who elevated millions of his compatriots from "refugees" - as if they have no distant identity or culture of their own - to the status of a people with a national identity and moral purpose.

If one were to name one single individual who made the world aware of the gravity of the Palestinian problem, with its multiple tragedies of displacement and exile, domination and subjugation, occupation and extreme humiliation, it was Arafat. Since his address in 1974 to the United Nations, peace in Palestine has imprinted itself on the minds of people the world over as the key to the resolution of the many crises that characterise the volatile West Asian-North African region.

Arafat was a man of great simplicity and charm, as well as extraordinary physical courage. He was a hero as much through his ability to lead from the front, as through his stewardship of a national movement. He had an uncanny ability to bounce back each time he was written off - whether in 1982, when the PLO had to quit Lebanon, in 1987, when the popular intifada broke out, or again in 1994, when he returned to Gaza. He did not merely fight short-term battles. He was inspired by long-term strategic perspectives. Arafat imparted a modernist, democratic, and emancipatory thrust to the national liberation movement - unlike most Arab leaders. He forged the PLO into a powerful collective institution with a leadership structure that often successfully transcended personal differences - something few in his part of the world achieved.

However, there is a negative, dark side to the Arafat legacy too. That lies in two things. First, his dependence on a network based on patronage and loyalty, which led him to condone corruption within the P.A. and dole out undeserved favours to small coteries, which weakened the PLO's credibility. (For further discussion, see Frontline, August 13. Also various issues of Electronic Intifada and Edward Said's criticism of the Arafat leadership.) Second, Arafat made a series of strategic compromises that led to the deeply flawed Oslo accords of 1993, and after their collapse thanks to Israeli non-compliance, to the Road Map and yet other compromises that further weakened the PLO's bargaining power vis-a-vis Israel. This paved the path to a political blind alley, to greater suffering for the Palestinians, and a further setback to the cause of justice for them.

Today, with over 700 "closures" in their own territory, with their villages cut off from one another, with the Apartheid Wall half-complete, and with no freedom of movement whatever, the Palestinians face their grimmest-ever crisis.

Arafat's strategic failures recently encouraged Israel to adopt a warlike posture, which aggravated conditions of daily life in the occupied territories, especially since the second Intifada beginning September 2000. The changed balance of forces has allowed Sharon to formulate a plan for unilateral "withdrawal" from the Gaza Strip (called "reoccupation" by many Palestinians), which will weaken the prospect for a negotiated settlement of the Palestinian question. The plan is part of Israel's comprehensive strategy to continue its occupation under more favourable conditions while freezing the peace process. As Sharon's senior adviser Dov Weisglass openly says: "When you freeze the peace process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state... ." Sharon too is explicit: the withdrawal will "severely harm Palestinians" and end "the dream of a Palestinian state".

Why, then, did the Israeli Right so detest Arafat? The short answer is, Camp David, the talks sponsored by President Bill Clinton in July 2000 and attended by Arafat and Sharon's predecessor Ehud Barak. An elaborate myth has been built around what transpired at Camp David, which has acquired bizarre characteristics because Barak presented no written proposals. Broadly put, the myth is that the Israelis made extremely far-reaching, and eminently reasonable, offers for a lasting and just peace, which Arafat rejected, proving that he wants the conflict to go on and the "terrorism" of extremist groups such as Hamas to continue.

Arafat had gone along with many compromises and accepted collaboration as inevitable even before Oslo. But so odious was the "Barak plan" that he could not swallow it; he knew he could never sell to his people or the PLO leadership. Arafat's reluctance, and eventual refusal, to go all the way down the road of defeat impelled Israeli leaders to demonise him.

For many Israelis, including supporters of a land-for-peace strategy, the failure of Camp David was a turning point. Michel Warchawski, an astute analyst of Israeli politics and part of the radical peace movement, told me in Jerusalem in April: "So powerful was the propaganda around Camp David that many critically minded Israelis came to believe that their dream of peace had been stabbed in the back by Arafat. Sharon cynically seized on this mood and staged his infamous provocative march upon the Haram-al-Sharif in September 2000, with Barak's full support... . One could see the consequences of this incendiary move. But after Camp David, there was no widespread condemnation of Israel's war against Palestinian civilians that followed... ."

The generally accepted myth is that Barak "broke every imaginable taboo" and offered concessions that no Israeli Prime Minister offered before, or could offer in the future. He would return 90 per cent of the occupied West Bank and all of Gaza to the Palestinians. In return, he would annex 10 per cent of the land with the big settlement blocs, where 150,000 Israelis live. On Jerusalem, Barak agreed to divide the city and recognise part of it as the capital of a future Palestinian state. But the Palestinian negotiators, the version goes, rejected these "generous" proposals, making no constructive counterproposals. This showed they were unwilling to accept Israel's existence.

This account was circulated, largely uncontradicted, in the Israeli media - itself selectively briefed by Barak's officials. It is only later that special assistant to Bill Clinton on Arab-Israeli affairs Robert Malley disclosed the truth: the Palestinians did not reject Israel's right to exist, but rather, accepted a two-state solution "based on the June 4, 1967, borders... . They accepted the notion of Israeli annexation of West Bank territory to accommodate settlement blocs. They accepted the principle of Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem - neighbourhoods that were not part of Israel before 1967. And, while they insisted on recognition of the refugees' right of return, they agreed that it should be implemented in a manner that protected Israel's demographic and security interests by limiting the number of returnees."

Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded Yasser Arafat as Palestine Liberation Organisation Chairman.-ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

Since then, Tanya Reinhart in her book Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 (LeftWord, New Delhi, 2003) has carefully documented what offers were made by Barak & Co and why they were rejected by Arafat. Barak insisted on what was called "an end of conflict" declaration, which would nullify the United Nations resolutions (194, 242, 338) that have been the basis for all negotiations so far. Contrary to the dominant myth, he offered nothing on core-issues of land and resources.

He proposed that "the big settlement blocs - in which 150,000 of the settlers are concentrated - be annexed to Israel in the final agreement. In the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan, only the settlements themselves were to be annexed... ." Barak offered not to cede East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, but only the village of Abu Dis, neighbouring Jerusalem - to be named Al-Quds ("the holy city"). Israel has since not moved an iota beyond the declaration that Jerusalem would remain "the unified capital of Israel forever". As for the rest, there was verbal jugglery with "authority", "control" and "autonomy", all euphemisms for municipal powers and responsibility for health and education, with no real sovereignty!

Arafat may have gone along with Barak had his proposals replicated, and were not worse than, the Beilin-Mazen plan, which he had approved. That was not to be. The talks collapsed.

Today, the U.S. and Israel can be expected to revive similar proposals. After all, only in April, Bush and Sharon signed an unprecedented joint document, which accepts Israel's occupation as virtually irreversible and declares it is not "realistic" to expect it to vacate all settlements or allow Palestinian refugees the right of return. This forms a far worse foundation on which to revive the peace process than in 2000.

That is where the true failure of the Arafat leadership's political strategy lies. It became excessively dependent on U.S. mediation on the patently false assumption that Washington - where the Jewish-Zionist lobby is extremely powerful, as are born-again Christian-Zionists, who now form an important component of the Republican Party's social coalition - could play the honest broker. This did not happen in the past and is most unlikely to happen now.

WHAT Palestine needs at this hour of crisis - when it faces the imminent danger of its land being broken up into a series of Bantustans with no contiguous territory and without sovereign control over borders or natural resources - is genuine, honest international, multilateral mediation. To be effective, the effort to initiate such mediation must come from both state-level actors and civil society organisations (CSOs). A strong Palestine solidarity campaign must be built which has the same base, reach and power as the Anti-Apartheid Movement. We Indian citizens have a special role to play here given our historic ties with the Arab world, and the PLO's popularity in the country. In September, there was an Anti-War Strategy Session in Beirut where CSOs and progressive political parties focussed on the Palestinian issue. The forthcoming Anti-War Assembly (Hyderabad, December 10-12) offers a good opportunity for a follow-up.

However, state-level action is indispensable. This cannot be expected to come primarily and strongly from the European Union - although France played a welcome role in pressing Sharon to let Arafat be moved. The E.U. has shown itself too weak-kneed on Palestine to be assertive against the U.S. and Israel. Yet, there is tremendous sympathy for the Palestinian cause throughout the world's public and in many governments.

That is where India can usefully come in. The United Progressive Alliance promised a return to the "traditional" position of support to Palestinian nationhood. In practice, it has not pursued this, nor reviewed its predecessor's strategy of building close military relations with Israel. True, External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh led a delegation to Arafat's funeral and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid him a rich tribute. Originally, Sonia Gandhi was to be part of this delegation. She dropped out because the External Affairs Ministry decided that would not be in keeping with the high status India wants to accord to relations with Israel. Since then, Natwar Singh has "clarified" that India's strategic ties with Israel would remain unaffected. The two states are about to hold two rounds of high-level talks very soon.

This points to stiff resistance on the part of the Indian elite to any proposal for weakening its bonds with Israel and the Western states, and taking a principled position on Palestine. That resistance can only be broken if citizens organise themselves on a platform inspired by justice for the Palestinians. That would be a fitting tribute to Arafat.

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