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Friday, November 12, 2004

Making Sense of Arafat's Life, Death, and Legacy

To say that Arafat was controversial is understatement. Although it doesn't seem possible, a sick old man that spent most of the end of his life confined in his Ramallah compound, was personally responsible for setting up the conditions and problems we now find our selves. Most of us know little of Arafat's life, the history of modern Palestine, or the geopolitics that formed the area. Some say that Arafat's Legacy Is One of Murder, Deceit and Corruption, yet he is praised by world leaders in glowing terms and was even given a state funeral by the French.

Here is a smattering of information and some opinion:

Stratfor analyzes his life and death:

His death marks the end of an era "that is so obvious that it hardly bears saying. The nature of the era to come bears discussion.

In order to understand Arafat's life, it is essenrial to understand the concept "Arab," and to understand its tension with the concept "Muslim," at least as Arafat lived it out.

The "Arabness" of Arafat's life is more important than the "Muslimness" of his life as he "belonged to a generation that believed in emergence of a single Arab nation, that would encapsulate all religions of the area and would be secular in nature."

His vision originated with Gamal Abdul Nasser, his primary patron and founder of modern Egypt and the idea od rhe United Arab Republic. Making sense of Arafat's life requires knowledge of Nasser's.

Born into an Egypt ruled by a puppet monarchy directed by the British, he became an army officer and fought competently in the 1948 war against Israel, emerging committed to two principles: first to recover total Egyptian independence, and the second was to make Egypt a modern, industrial state along the lines of Turkey under Ataturk. The modern Egyptian military was to be the instrument of change.

Although Nasser was a Muslim, he did not envision an Islamic state and he used Coptic Christians in important positions. Arabism was more important to him than Islam. The creation of a single Arab state centered on Cairo and the ending of foreign imperialism was his aspiration.

The weak monarchies of the area had to go. He used the military to topple the monarchies of Iraq, Syria, and Lybia. He tried to bring down Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf States. The area was in constant conflict until Nasser's death and the rise of Anwar Sadat.

Nasser's ambitions followed closely those of the Soviets as he was a socialist but never a Marxist. He challenged the U.S. and their Middle East clients, the monarchies, and he allied himself with the willing Soviets that wanted to curtail American power.

To Nasser, Israel was the intrusion of British imperialism into the Arab world, and that the complicit supporting regional monarchies were accountable, particularly Jordan. Nasser say several benefits in the destruction of Israel. First, as a unifying point for Arab nationalism. Second, as a tool to prod the monarchies into confrontation mode. Third, it allowed for further modernization of the Egyptian military, and therefore Egypt by enticing a flow of Soviet technology. Opposition to Israel became a useful tool.

It is important to understand that for Nasser, Israel was not a Palestinian problem but an Arab problem. In his view, the particular Arab nationalisms were the problem, not the solution. Adding another Arab nationalism --
Palestinian -- to the mix was not in his interest. The Zionist injustice was against the Arab nation and not against the Palestinians as a particular nation. Nasser was not alone in this view. The Syrians saw Palestine as a district of Syria, stolen by the British and French. They saw the Zionists as oppressors, but against the Syrian nation. The Jordanians, who held the West Bank, saw the West Bank as part of the Jordanian nation and, by extension, the rest of Palestine as a district of Jordan. Until the 1967 war, the Arab world was publicly and formally united in opposing the existence of Israel, but much less united on what would replace Israel after it was destroyed. The least likely candidate was an independent Palestinian state.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization was a Nasser-sponsored creation that prior to 1967 was kept under tight control of Egypt, focusing on the destruction of Israel. After 1967, the young leader of the FATAH faction, Yasser Arafat took control. He was in the same mold as Nasser: moderninzer, secularist, aligned with the Soviets, and anti-American.

Arafat faced two disparate questions in 1967. First, it was clear that the Arabs would not defeat Israel in a war, probably in his lifetime; what, therefore, was to be done to destroy Israel? Second, if the only goal was to destroy the Israelis, and if that was not to happen anytime soon, then what was to become of the Palestinians? Arafat posed the question more radically: Granted that Palestinians were part of the Arab revolution, did they have a separate identity of their own, as did Egyptians or Libyans? Were they simply Syrians or Jordanians? Who were they? This turns out to have a very complicated answer.

In 1967 the Arabs did not hold common cause with the thought of a Palestinian state because each Arab nation had its own faction and problems. Independence for the Palestinians was difficult. The Syrians sponsored a group loyal to Syria. The Jordanians could not go along with the concept as their own claim to power even east of Jordan would be questionable, let alone their claims to the West Bank. The Egyptians were uneasy with the rise of another Arab nationalism. Also, the growth of a radical and homeless Palestinian movement terrified the monarchies.

To rid themselves of Israel which Arafat knew could not be done during his lifetime, he developed a two-tier strategy: on the world stage the PLO would make the claim of the Palestinian people for the right of statehood, and the Palestinians would use small-scale paramilitary operations against soft targets -- terrorism-- to increase the cost throughout the world for ignoring the Palestinians.

The Soviets were delighted to help as this strategy would also strike against Europe and the United States in a hope to cause pain and destabilization of the West, and their cost was negligible. Arafat became a revolutionary aligned with the Soviets.

There were two operational principles. The first was that Arafat himself should appear as the political wing of the movement, able to serve as an untainted spokesman for Palestinian rights. The second was that the groups
that carried out the covert operations should remain complex and murky. Plausible deniability combined with unpredictability was the key.

It was important to create the concept that there was an independent Palestinian people as distinct from other Arab nations. Terrorism gave Arafat leverage to assert that Palestine could take its place in the Arab world in its own right.

This idea caused problems in other Arab countries such as Jordan. The majority of the population is Palestinian, but the Ha-shemite kingdom are Bedouins driven out of Arabia. Why was this monarch ruling Palestinians? Using this logic, Arafat made his move, combining hijackings of Western airliners with a Palestinian uprising in Jordan. He failed and thousands of Palestinians were slaughtered by Hashemite and Pakistani mercenaries. (Coincidentially, the military unit from Pakistan was led by then-Brigadier Zia-ul-Huq, who later ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988 as a military dictator.)

Arafat's logic was perfect. His military capability was not.

He next created Black September to wage covert war against Israel and the West. This group was responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, a defining moment and setting the tone for the next and present generation as Israel launched a counter-operation to destroy Black September. The pattern of terrorism and counter-terrorism swirling around the world had begun. The PLO was embedded in a network of Soviet Sponsored terrorist groups that ranged from Japan to Italy. Israel became a part of a multinational counter-attack. There was no definitive victor.

But Arafat won the major victory. Nations are frequently born of battle, and the battles that began in 1970 and raged until the mid-1990s established an indelible principle -- there is now, if there was not before, a nation called Palestine. This was critical, because as Nasser died and his heritage was discarded by Anwar Sadat, the principle of the Arab nation was lost. It was only through the autonomous concept of Palestinian nationalism that Arafat and the PLO could survive.

And this was Arafat's fatal crisis. He had established the principle of Palestine, but what he had failed to define was what that Palestinian nation meant and what it wanted. The latter was the critical point. Arafat's
strategy was to appear the statesman restraining uncontrollable radicals. He understood that he needed Western support to get a state, and he used this role superbly. He appeared moderate and malleable in English, radical and intractable in Arabic. This was his insoluble dilemma.

Arafat led a nation that had no common understanding of their goal. There were those who wanted to recover a part of Palestine and be content. There were those who wanted to recover part of Palestine and use it as a base of operations to retake the rest. There were those who would accept no intermediate deal but wanted to destroy Israel. Arafat's fatal problem was that in the course of creating the Palestinian nation, he had convinced all
three factions that he stood with them.

Like many politicians, Arafat had made too many deals. He had successfully persuaded the West that (a) he genuinely wanted a compromise and (b) that he could restrain terrorism. But he had also persuaded Palestinians that any deal was merely temporary, and others that he wouldn't accept any deal. By the time of the Oslo accords, Arafat was so tied up in knots that he could not longer speak for the nation he created. More precisely, the Palestinians were so divided that no one could negotiate on their behalf, confident in his
authority. Arafat kept his position by sacrificing his power.

By the 1990s pan-Arabism had been displaced by Islamist religiosity. Hamas represented the view that there is a Palestinian nation, but it should be part of the Islamic world, under Islamic law. This idea runs counter to Arafart's thinking that he learned from Nasser.

However -- and this is Arafat's tragedy -- by the time Hamas emerged as a power, he had lost the ability to believe in anything but the concept of the Palestinians and his place as its leader. As Hamas rose, Arafat became entirely tactical. His goal was to retain position if not power, and toward that end, he would do what was needed. A lifetime of tactics had destroyed
all strategy.

His death in Paris was a farce of family and courtiers. It fitted the end he had created, because his last years were lived in a round of clever maneuvers leading nowhere. The Palestinians are left now without strategy, only tactics. There is no one who can speak for the Palestinians and be listenedto as authoritative. He created the Palestinian nation and utterly disrupted the Palestinian state. He left a clear concept on the one hand, a chaos on the other.

It is interesting to wonder what would have happened if Arafat had won in Jordan in 1970, while Nasser was still alive. But that wasn't going to happen, because Arafat's fatal weakness was visible even then. The concept
was clear -- but instead of meticulously planning a rising, Arafat improvised, playing politics within the PLO when he should have been managing combat operations. The chaos and failure that marked Black September became emblematic of his life.

Arafat succeeded in one thing, and perhaps that is enough -- he created the Palestinian nation against all enemies, Arab and non-Arab. The rest was the endless failure of pure improvisation.

(c) 2004 Strategic Forecasting, Inc. All rights reserved.

Was Arafat a hero or a cad? A murderer or a freedom fighter? Who is really responsible? Arafat or rhe Arabs? What should happen to or for the inhbitants of Palestine? All these questions have more than one answer and represent multifacted, complex problems that must be solved.


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