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Bush May Have Given Arafat Yet Another Life

June 30, 2002|MUHAMMAD MUSLIH | Muhammad Muslih is a professor of political science at Long Island University. He recently co-authored a book on the evolution of Arab thinking on the refugee question and is currently writing a book on radical Islamic movements in the Arab world.

NEW YORK — "A mountain unmoved by winds" is a popular Arabic expression meaning steadfastness in the face of adversity or victory under siege. In barracks and in parades, in press conferences and in the principal Palestinian towns that came under the control of the Palestinian Authority after the 1993 Oslo accords, Yasser Arafat repeatedly used this expression to give Palestinians confidence in his ability to confront all challenges and to build the foundations of their national state. Today, the expression tells the story of a leader to whom many Palestinians are indifferent. Yet, regrettably, the Bush administration might be giving him new political life.

There are two narratives of Arafat. One is the story of a hero, the only leader available, a statesman, a democratically elected president of the Palestinian Authority, the symbol of the Palestinian movement and, above all, a patriot devoted to the Palestinian cause and to saving his people from the brutality of Israeli occupation. The other is one of the inept leader, the dictator, the promoter of corruption, the protector of Israel's security, the supporter of terrorism, the pathological liar and the spoiler who cannot be a peace partner.

But a closer look into the political life of Arafat reveals a more nuanced narrative. Arafat's world transcends Palestinian politics. It is one in which formal accords can be less important than unspoken agreements. It is also one marked by Arab, Israeli and Western hypocrisy. The polemics of the Palestinian revolution aside, Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization protected U.S. personnel and interests in Lebanon from 1973 until 1982, when Israeli armor ousted the PLO from the country.

Arab oil money nurtured the corruption of his diaspora-based regime in the 1970s and 1980s. Arab recognition of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in 1974 signified that Arab officialdom was abandoning its responsibilities toward Palestinians. Arafat shouldered that responsibility himself, and time proved that it was too much for him to handle. Western and Israeli support for Arafat after Oslo reinforced his autocratic tendencies and his tolerance for corruption. Four events mark this evolution: the promotion of security (mainly that of Israel), the containment of the Islamists, the silencing of all forms of opposition, and Israel's grant of special privileges to Palestinian Authority officials until the eruption of the intifada in September 2000.

Arafat's life also parallels the fate of a generation of Palestinians: the rising tide of self-assertion and armed struggle in the 1960s and 1970s and the ebbing of that tide in the early 1980s; the hopes generated by Oslo and the collapse of these hopes seven years later, which created the conditions for Arafat's decline.

Before President Bush's speech on the Middle East last week, in which he implicitly called for Arafat's ouster, Palestinian support for Arafat hovered around 30%. His diminishing popularity is easily explained. Arafat's pursuit of peace has not materially improved the lives of most Palestinians or brought the freedom they covet closer. He has not protected them from daily suffering and humiliation at the hands of the Israelis. He has relentlessly maneuvered around real reform. The government he heads is inept and corrupt. Finally, Palestinians are increasingly aware that Arafat's diplomatic style is shortsighted and has caused great harm to their national interests.

These experiences have brought many Palestinians to a new realization: It might be harder to build on the foundations of an old house than to build a new one from scratch. The Palestinians who want cosmetic reform are a minority. They constitute Arafat's inner circle. Some of them are frequent visitors to Washington. They will always be ready to defend him and advocate his cause.

Yet, many Palestinian intellectuals, academics and political activists, whose views span the spectrum, increasingly and publicly talk about a parliamentary system of government in which a democratically elected legislature would be the real source of power and in which the president, be it Arafat or someone else, would have only ceremonial powers.

Separation of powers, transparency and accountability, civil liberties and an independent judiciary--Palestinians want to bring these principles together in a constitutional government. Some have even called on Arafat not to run for public office in the presidential and legislative elections scheduled to take place in January 2003. The thinking of these Palestinians holds out the hope--and promise--that this dark Palestinian time may be ending, that a new Palestinian order is on the verge of being born.

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