For almost four decades, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has dominated the Palestinian national movement. Arafat himself, and his kuffiyeh, beard and khaki clothes, have all come to epitomize the Palestinian people and their national struggle. It is he who has determined the traits and direction of the fight with Israel and this longevity despite one obstacle after the other is not only due to Arafat’s charismatic character and good luck, but also to his strategic instinct and tactical ingenuity.
Arafat’s strategic will to survive revolves around three interrelated areas. These are: self-preservation; preventing the dissipation of the Palestinian cause; and the achievement of real gains for the Palestinian people on the land of Palestine (it is often said that Arafat likes to compare himself to Haj Amin Husseini, in that he, too, desires to leave behind tangible and concrete accomplishments for the Palestinian people, however limited).
Tactically, Arafat is a master. He will do whatever it takes to maintain his hold on the reigns. For this reason, Arafat early on realized the importance of controlling money and the media. He has commanded them and used them to achieve his tactical purposes and strategic goals.
Although Arafat is possessive and has authoritarian inclinations, he is not a dictator.
Instead, from the beginning Abu Ammar has been pragmatic, able to talk and willing to maneuver. He has also been willing to offer the necessary concessions even when they came too late, burdened the Palestinian people and cost them heavily. Still, Arafat has never been dogmatic. He understands his limits and has tried to stretch those limits, with varying success. At the moment it appears that he is trying to stretch those limits farther than they can handle.
As a pragmatist, Arafat has been conciliatory and not dismissive. Although he always made political decisions on his own, he tried to make these decisions by preserving legal frameworks and appeasing the political factions, powerful people and VIPs around him. In turn, this meant he was always the center of an internal polarization that led– among other things–to Arafat’s turning a blind eye to great excesses. There have been double standards in policies, which reaped corruption and the buyout of personal interests. Palestinian public finances reflect this situation (by no means a problem particular to Palestinians, but one that is growing).
Sharon’s record of installing willing Arab leaders–the Jumayils in Lebanon in 1982 and 1983, and the In short, Abu Ammar has always constituted the compass among Palestinians for determining what is possible. He has worked to expand possibilities and whatever internal problems this caused for him, he always patched things up with incredible conciliatory talents. While he could not be diverted from his aims, his conciliation guaranteed him a satisfactory level of acceptance and loyalty among Palestinians. Hidden within this cycle are an amalgam of internal dysfunctions and problems that continue to multiply. This is the anomaly–troublesome, but enduring.
The Palestinian condition is desperate and complex. In a region where ultimate pride lies in statehood and a world deeply involved in the Cold War, Abu Ammar set off on a national liberation movement, using all of his tactical abilities, political pragmatism and conciliatory talents. Despite the tremendous difficulties he faced internally, regionally and internationally, he has always able to maneuver and create the allies needed for his survival. He adapted himself to change and moved from one phase to the next absorbing every loss as if it were a victory.
In this fashion, Arafat was able to paint himself as the one and only leader of the Palestinians, imposing himself not only on the region, but on the entire world. He was able (as he always says of the Palestinians) to impose himself as an indispensable quantity necessary in every equation related to the fate of this region or others. Arafat has, therefore, achieved his first two goals of survival and the preservation of the Palestinian cause. Now he must produce the third component of lasting results in order to secure his place in history.
Despite repeated political concessions (in 1969, 1974, 1979, 1988), the world has not yet allowed Arafat to achieve this last component. That was his goal when he lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state. He realized the price that would be paid, but thought, as always, that once he put down the first bricks, the building would grow.
Abu Ammar was able to maneuver much and expand the patch of land under the Palestinian National Authority little. But he was not able to expand his political abilities into achieving the aspired-for Palestinian state.
Until, of course, Ehud Barak came to power in Israel. After the assassination of the skeptic Rabin, and the tenure of a hesitant Peres and loud-mouthed Netanyahu, Barak began talking about a comprehensive deal that would result in a Palestinian state. Arafat (now over 70 years old) was the closest that had ever been to his last goal. Still, Barak demanded one condition–an end to the conflict.
As usual, Arafat tried to maneuver. But Barak refused and, with active American help, he trapped Arafat. His offer to accept a Palestinian state came with a number of conditions, most importantly, those related to Jerusalem and the refugees. Arafat rejected the offer at face value, but not in essence. He wanted Barak to come back with something better. But Barak did not really want to reach a settlement and instead burned himself out politically. He and Clinton painted a negative picture of Arafat and international support for Palestinians began to crumble.
The situation called for a Palestinian uprising and it came. But with it, it brought Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The two bitter enemies met again and the conflict, previously camouflaged by the peace process, rose to the surface and exploded.
Sharon’s personal vendetta against Arafat and political objections to the Palestinian cause are married together. As such, Sharon launched an escalating systematic campaign to eliminate the possibility that the Palestinian Authority would become an independent state, preferring a framework of autonomy under Israeli sovereignty. At the same time, he began to politically strangle Arafat, weakening him towards collapse– either by forcing him to carry out Israeli demands to act as an Israeli tool, or by bringing him down.
Arafat is trying to use all his tactical talents in maneuvering with Sharon to get out of the present crisis. But the situation, internally, regionally and worldwide, does not leave him much leeway. Rather, he is only facing more pressure. In light of a disintegrating relationship with the Arab world, Arafat has lost all of what he needs to move. What is required of him exceeds the limits of his pragmatism and his ability to justify compromise.
As such, Arafat has come back to defending, not the last of his three strategic components, but the first–his own leadership. It is a battle that will determine his own fate, and therefore, the future of the Palestinian cause.
Ali Jarbawi is a Palestinian political analyst and director of Abu Lughod Institute for International Studies at Birzeit University.