Using and abusing Arafat

James Zogby’s Column

More serious than Israel’s use of overwhelming violence, their destruction of the Palestinian economy or their physical division of the West Bank and Gaza into strangled bantustans, is Israel’s international campaign to delegitimise and dehumanise the Palestinian leadership and by extension, the Palestinian people.

Israel’s campaign has been systematic and quite deliberate. Since the collapse of the Camp David summit, the Palestinians have been blamed for its failure. It is significant to note that the Palestinians have been accused not merely of making tactical miscalculations but of being intrinsically malignant. They have been accused not of driving a hard bargain, seeking to get better terms from the Israelis, but of being unable to accept any peace on any terms.

The rhetoric used by Israel’s supporters and apologists has grossly exaggerated the Palestinian stance. According to Israel’s portrayal, the Palestinians rejected Former Israeli Premier Ehud Barak’s “most generous offer” because in reality “Palestinians still seek the destruction of the Jewish state.”

From that initial charge grew an even more grotesque and highly personalised attack on the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Over and over again, Israeli spokespersons and their supporters ratcheted up the charges against Arafat: “Arafat ordered violence against Israel;” “Arafat sent bombers to terrorise Israel;” “Arafat teaches Palestinian children to hate.”

Increasingly the Israelis and their supporters have felt more comfortable launching shameful verbal attacks against the Palestinian leader. And with that, the charges became more venomous so that today he is a “murderer,” “no better than Ben Laden,” a “liar,” etc.

This campaign of personal vilification of the Palestinian leader has a political purpose – to complete the delegitimisation of the Palestinian National Authority in order to justify its liquidation. The attacks have been repeated often enough that they have garnered currency. Because the Palestinians have not responded to this systematic campaign of character assassination, the malignancy took hold and now shapes acceptable daily discourse. Listening to congressional discussions today it appears that Arafat is not only “not a partner for peace,” he is “the enemy of peace.” There is a popular rhyme learned by children – “sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you.” It is true only to a point. In fact, if the names are vicious enough, repeated often enough, and come to be believed by enough people, these names can create an environment where someone can use them to justify using “sticks and stones to break your bones.”

It is ironic that the Israelis often make this point to the US Congress, accusing the Palestinians of “incitement.” In reality, it’s the Israelis who have engaged in a massive campaign of incitement against the Palestinians. They have delegitimised the Palestinian leadership and gone even further to dehumanise them. In the Israeli lexicon, not only are the Palestinians “murderers,” “terrorists” and “liars,” they have now become “vipers,” “rattlesnakes,” and “beings with souls that are less than human.” In short, Palestinians are not “people like us” and, therefore, anything can be done to them.

Having succeeded in establishing these racist stereotypes the Israelis are now reaping the benefits of their campaign. They are able to use horrific violence against the Palestinians and get away with it, because neither the US administration or Congress feels any public pressure to take firm action to stop them.

There is a line spoken by one of the major protagonists in Peter Weiss’ famous play “Marat-Sade.” He tells how the rulers of their day have told their people lies and have “repeated them over and over again.” Since their subjects had no alternative sources of information “the people believed the lies and repeated them over and over again.”

In the early 1980s a brilliant US researcher, James Paul, carefully documented how the Israeli rightwing, under the guidance of a young Benyamin Netanyahu, had organised a media campaign in the late 1970s designed to define the Palestinians as “terrorists.” They brought together sympathetic US columnists and politicians and designed and implemented a systematic campaign to distort the Palestinian image. Knowing that the field was open to their efforts, since the Palestinians would not contest them, they succeeded. The negative stereotypes they projected not only succeeded in defining the Palestinian reality, but did even greater damage. They laid the propaganda groundwork for the devastating 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the mid-1980s effort to make the Palestine Liberation Organisation illegal in the United States.

All the while, the Palestinians, failing to understand the nature of this insidious campaign, never engaged in a counter campaign, relying instead on hollow political appeals to “international legitimacy” and the like. What they did not understand was that the critical political and information battle that was being waged was not over the definition of “justice,” but over the definition of the Palestinians, as a people.

This was the battle the Palestinians lost in the 1970s and 1980s and it is the battle they are losing now. What the Israelis understood was that if you can succeed in delegitimising and dehumanising your opponent, then your opponent can make no claim to justice.

To demonstrate how effective this Israeli campaign has been, one need only look at recent polling data, which shows that although the Palestinians have been victimised by horrific violence and rights violations for the last 11 months, Americans still, by a margin of three to one, sympathise with the Israelis. During this same time, Israeli leader Ariel Sharon’s popularity in the United States has risen slightly, while Arafat’s unfavourable rating is four-times his favourable rating.

The Israelis know that their campaign to delegitimatise the Palestinian leader has succeeded, which is why they and their US supporters are told to attach his name to all of their attacks and charges against the Palestinians. This is reminiscent of the tack taken by Democrats in the mid-1990s when they attached the name of the unpopular Republican leader, Newt Gingrich, to all of their campaigns against the Republican Party. And so in the current Israeli political lexicon they are “fighting against Arafat’s war” and they claim that they cannot “compromise with Arafat” – and their supporters in the US Congress refuse to give “aid to Arafat” and press President George W. Bush not to meet with or “give legitimacy to Arafat.”

Correcting this sad state of affairs will be a massive undertaking. The Arab League effort can make a critical contribution. A US information and community relations’ campaign is desperately needed to reassert the humanity of the Palestinian people. To succeed, this effort will have to be comprehensive, systematic and sustained. It will have to root out the poison that has so infected the public discussion of Palestinians. And introduce the American people to the Palestinian people they do not know. It can succeed. Indeed, it must succeed, because the consequences of failure or doing nothing at all would leave the Palestinians vulnerable to further devastation.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.