When Arafat goes….

An intense debate within the Bush Administration whether to press for the removal of Yasir Arafat as the leader of the Palestinian Authority has effectively frozen the nation’s Middle East policy. That Mr. Bush, during his address to the press after meeting with Hosni Mubarak on 8 June 2002 should reiterate a strategy which excludes Arafat entirely or somewhat dilutes his power confirms a dangerous trend. In fact contemplating his removal is fraught with complexities and in many Arab quarters it is unthinkable.

That debate is premised on the misunderstanding of Arafat’s standing within the Palestinian people. No Palestinian leader is ready to assume his place, though there are many pretenders to the throne. A few like Hanan Ashrawi have been touted as possible successors but in the absence of a serious contender to be ready and willing to fill the void that a vacating Arafat would leave it would be manifest folly to assume that a candidate exists. Palestinians are aware of attempts to foist a quisling in their midst and are extremely sensitive of the idea of removing Arafat however imperfect he may be. Even Palestinians griping loudly about his dictatorial style of governance-and there are many in the sidelines-are not suggesting that he be removed. Haidar Abd-al-Shafi, a respected Gaza doctor and one of Arafat’s most outspoken critics himself admitted truthfully that whenever crucial decisions had to be made, there was no other leader of courage to make them except Arafat. During the years running up to Oslo and beyond whenever an agreement had been reached on an issue, the negotiators would take the matter to Abu-Amar (Arafat is his nom de guerre) to make the final decision.

That was the situation then and that is the situation now. Whilst the Palestinian leadership must make decisions which demand immense personal courage, no body seems ready to share the personal responsibility with Arafat. He stood alone when Oslo and Madrid began crumbling before his very eyes and he stands alone again shouldering all the blame and vilification that the US and Israel can throw at him.

There is no doubt that Yasser Arafat is on shaky foundations, not such much from the US perspective but from the perspective of the Palestinians themselves and that his popularity is waning notwithstanding the orchestrated and stage-managed populist support that we occasionally witness on our television screens.  Palestinian feel betrayed by the lack of progress

But to remove him, is the most dangerous step ever imaginable.

Unlike Unwar Sadat, the assassinated Egyptian president whose audacity won him accolades as a ‘prince of peace’ only from the western world, Arafat has the legitimacy and recognition of the Arab world, his way having been smoothed over by Sadat’s trespass into Jerusalem and his appearance before the Knesset.

At 72 years Arafat’s long march to freedom has become a crawl, if not stalled or paralyzed, much credit therefore going towards his handling of the so called Oslo and Madrid ‘Agreements’.  With progressive old-age and symptoms of Parkinson hanging over his head like a funeral shroud, time is running out for this geriatric. In his waning days, he is more concerned that he be judged as a Palestinian hero than as father of a Palestinian state.

Despite the fact that he is running out of time to prove to his own desperate people that politics and compromise can get results, Arafat is still the man who holds the key to peace on the Arab side, something which Crown Prince Abdulla of Saudi Arabia has made abundantly clear during his recent visit to Washington.

What folly possesses the US to even debate the removal of Arafat?  Is it that self-same folly that took possession of a people to elect Ariel Sharon, a man with a bloody history, a person who has not done anything in life apart from shedding blood and to escalate the Zionist grand vision?

There seems to be growing, albeit misguided, perception that Arafat is the problem that is impeding settlement of the issues in the volatile area. Those who entertain or share this perception scarcely seem to understand the fluid mechanics, which underscore Palestinian politics. The solution, for the immediate future atleast, would be for the US to be wise enough to help Arafat to use the key that he holds in his trembling hands before he throws it away.

I personally do not believe that when Arafat goes prematurely (voluntarily or after being pushed or, ‘bumped’ off the stage like Jonas Savimbi, who was regarded by the world as an obstacle to peace in Angola), that the situation will get any better from the US  or Israeli perspective. It can, and verily will, only get worse given the wider dynamics that are at play in the Middle East. His rule is that of a military junta and his main ally is the US. Together with Israel they constitute an axis that is trying to hold the volatile region intact.

When Arafat appeared before the UN General Assembly in November 1974, he told delegates assembled there that he had come bearing, in each hand, an olive branch and a gun respectively, warning against the former dropping from his hand. Never a democrat,  given Arafat’s style of governance at the head of a puppet-state since Oslo in November 1993, he has estranged himself with consummate ease from the very people he is supposed to liberate and their frustration is manifest in the proliferation of the human-bomb campaigns that have taken place in recent memory.

With his intelligence services watched over by the CIA (remember the ‘Tenet Plan’ in the peace saga ?) he has undermined even those brave Israelis who have supported him in the past. Palestinians opposed to his style of governance are tortured to death in Palestinian jails, his thugs and Arafat routinely beat up Palestinian human rights activists and his closest advisers are mired in corruption. In sum, in the refugee camps and in the hot and fetid streets of Gaza, considered to be the world’s largest concentration camp, Palestinians no longer care for his rule or false promises.

So  it does not make sense for the US to remove him from the helm. Nor did it make sense that Sharon humiliated Arafat during the siege at his Ramallah headquarters. Arafat is no Mandela for sure. Given the US’s propensity for nurturing and sustaining tin-pot dictators so long as they tow the US line ( if they do not they are removed from power, like Manuel Noriega (Panama) or treated like vermin ready to be eradicated, like Saddam Hussein an erstwhile ally in its war against Iran) the debate whether Arafat is relevant or not is folly on a grand scale.

The US is thinking along the line of the removal of Jonas Savimbi, long considered the greatest obstacle to foreclosure in the Angolan war and whose permanent removal has seen Unita capitulate and readily rush to the negotiating table ! Such wishful thinking is seriously flawed for, warts and all, Arafat enjoys a much broader international recognition than Savimbi ever did. He is regarded as an international stateman something which Savimbi never enjoyed. Like Che Guevara he is admired and considered as the moral icon against oppression.

And yet when Ariel Sharon almost pulled off the unthinkable with his assault and siege of Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah, humiliating him in the process the question that haunted the world at large then, as it is now is ‘what will happen if, say an Israeli bullet, kills Arafat at this juncture in history or if Arafat is permanently removed from the equation’?

Questions have been asked since the Al-Aqsa Intifada of September 2000 whether Arafat was a partner for peace . Many people thought that the answer was no leading to the election of Ariel Sharon. The Sharon government’s decisions that Arafat was not a proper negotiating partner and that he supported terrorism resulted in the staged, albeit, de facto imprisonment of Arafat in Ramallah.

The Bush Administration quickly swung into that frame of thought. Hence the president’s referral to Sharon as a ‘man of peace’. It believes that Arafat and his regime are corrupt and linked to violence and acts of terror, so it would be better if Arafat was removed and someone else placed in his stead. But who ?

Yossi Bellin, former minister of justice in Israel and one of the people responsible for the secret Oslo talks, feels that Arafat’s removal would be a terrible mistake and that it would not be in Israel’s interest.

To reiterate, Arafat is no Mandela for sure. In fact after the assassination of Chris Hani by Janus Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis, it was the Mandela factor that permitted sanity to prevail allowing the negotiations to remain on track. Arafat, with all his influence and status amongst his people, is scarcely able to contain the human bombs being unloaded in Israeli cities.

This is not the first time that the idea of a successor to Arafat has been contemplated. Israel has unsuccessfully tried to find other negotiating partners. For example during the Madrid Conference of 1991, Yitshak Samir’s government insisted that residents of the West Bank and Gaza be represented within a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation but it soon became clear that such residents were unwilling to assume national responsibilities. They openly declared that they would defer to Arafat’s authority and to no-one else.

So what will happen when Arafat goes?

There will not be  a  Palestinian Quisling at the helm, for certainly, if the US does manage to supplant an heir apparent to Arafat, he would be killed the next day just as Sharon’s Lebanese Quisling, Bashir Gemayil was. This is not another Afghanistan or Uzbhekistan with tin-pot dictators short of reality. 

There would be open, unrestrained warfare from the competing forces of Hamas, Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad, Al-Fatah in a campaign of unmitigated orgy and revenge that would certainly spill on to Israel proper for decades. The life of every Israeli citizen and sympathizer of Israel would become a hell.

When Arafat goes, who will they negotiate with ? To answer this with some degree of certainty is not possible without the psychological impact on Palestinians of promises broken since Oslo and of subsequent betrayals.

So the US and, ironically, Israel need Arafat alive. A dead Arafat will be far more dangerous than a living Arafat who is able and still willing, if the price is right, to make peace. A dead Arafat will only eternalize the conflict.

What folly is there to even contemplate the unthinkable, just as it was sheer folly driven by fear to have Sharon elected, to cause Israelis to prefer building settlements instead of peace and conciliation?

When Arafat goes as the US is contemplating, we will witness another crossing across the unbridgeable to a point of no return.