Mr Palestine has done it again. Mohamed Abdel Kauf Arafat Al Quada Hussemi, better known as Yasser Afafat, has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Not only for the first time in his 75 years Arafat has outwitted his enemies and re-established himself as the undisputed leader of the Palestinians. The United States and Israel adamant in refusing to deal with him are the losers. The familiar figure will be with us for the immediate future.
Arafat's political career falls into five phases spinning five decades. But even his place of birth remains unknown. He speaks Arabic with a distinct Egyptian accent, something many Palestinians resent. He has made no effort to clarify the mysteries surrounding his early life.
In the 1940s he was a mediocre student at Cairo University. A tireless workaholic he none the less became head of The Federation of Palestinian Students.
During the 1948 war, Arafat entered Palestine with Egyptian irregulars under the command of the Muslim Brotherhood. But whether he was a Muslim fundamenatilist cannot be verified. Nor is there a way of checking out his exploits.
Back in Cairo after the Arab defeat he re-enrolled in the College of Engineers. Soon after, in 1952, he served with Egyptian volunteers harassing the British army along with the Suez Canal. Again mystery surrounds his rank and performance. He finally graduated in 1955.
The new Egyptian government under Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser replaced the corrupt King Farrock In 1952 and was less tolerant of political activists. For unknown reasons Arafat was imprisoned for two months. He was released without being charged and that too is unverifiable.
A short time after his 1955 imprisonment a chastened Arafat applied for an emigration visa to the United States. The application and and another one for Canafa were turned down.
Eventually Arafat moved to Kuwait with a small group of Palestinian students. They formed Fatah, the Arabic acronym for movement for the liberation of Palestine in reverse. A nationalist movement with no idealogy it was accepted by the moderate Arab governments who feared genuinely revolutionary parties. Here too Arafat's claim that he became a millionaire running a small construction company and organising Fatah is subject to doubt.
In the early 1960s Arafat and Fatah moved to Damascus because Syria had common borders with Israel. Arafat emerged as Fatah's military commander and a member of its executive committee. To many, his lack of organization was apparent and he paid little attention to training his troops or to managing his finances properly. His band of untrained Palestinian volunteers infiltrated Israel but nine out of ten never came back. Still the stunning defeat of the Arabs in 1967 played into his hands. From then on the Arabs favoured guerrila action against Israel.
Arafat moved the bulk of his troops for easier infiltration and stabized himself along the Jordan. On 21 March 1968, the Israelis crossed the Jordan river in force and attacked Arafat's major encampment in the town of Karameh. Unlike the Arab armies his fighters held the line and gave the Israelis a bloody nose.
Suddenly the Arabs had a hero. Arafat appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. Thousands of Arabs and foreigners flocked to join his forces. His reputation placed him ahead of his original comrades and he became the chairman of Fatah. The then leader of the Arabs, though responsible for the 1967 defeat, was looking for a way out of the Palestinian conflict. Nasser lost no time in summoning Arafat to Cairo and offering him the chairmanship of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the umbrella orgainzation representing all Palestinians. With that, the conflict between Israel and the Arabs became a Palestinian-Irsaeli one. It was the beginning of the third phase of Arafat's career.
Still encamped in Jordan but refusing to obey its laws Arafat allowed his followers to behave like a State within a State. In September 1970, having tried and failed to reach a modest operendi with the PLO King Hussein of Jordan ordered his army to clear Jordan of Arafat's men. The bloody fighting which followed cost thousands of lives but the better organized Jordanian army finally prevailed.
Arafat and his fighters moved to Lebanon. It was there that the terrorist organization Black September came into being. Black Semptember reaked havoc and carried out many operations in Europe, including the shameful Munich Massacre. Nasser, the one Arab leader who could have controlled the PLO, died at the end of September 1970 while trying reconcile the Jordanians and Palestinans.
In addition to Black September, Arafat's men in Lebanon behaved the way they did in Jordan. The Lebanese government was based on a system of sectarian representation which was unable to accommodate the stress of tens of thousands Palestinians. This was particularily true after Arafat began supporting the Muslims of Lebanon against its Christians.
After the failure or Arab attempts to stop the on and off fighting in Lebanon, which lasted several years, the Israelis decided to take things into their hands and destroy the PLO. In 1982 the government of Monachem Begin invaded Lebanon and tried to end Arafat. The Israeli forces were lead by no other than Ariel Sharon.
It was Arafat's finest hour. His forces acquitted themselves with distinction. Eventually a US-brokered agreement was reached to allow them to evacuate Lebanon and move to Tunisia. It was the beginning of the fourth phase, the era of open and secret negotiations with the United States. America demanded that Arafat stop all acts of terrorism and accept all UN resolutions. The PLO command turned this down but his personal position was unknown. Broke and far from Palestine, it looked like the beginning of the end for Arafat. But out of nowhere a rebellion broke out in the occupied territories and saved him. The intifada (tremor) was a spontaneous uprising against an occupying army. Arafat's claim that he started it is patently untrue. But it did add to his prestige and he used it to declare a Palestinian state.
The creation of a Palestinian state was followed by more negotiations with the United States. In May 1990, a Palestinian fringe group hijacked the ship Achillo Lauro and killed an invalid American passenger. Arafat's refusal to condemn the murder forced the United States to terminate the negotiations.
When Saddam invaded Kuwait in July 1990, Arafat with nowhere to go threw his weight behind Saddam, and near fatal mistake. After the coalition of thirty-some countries ejected Saddam out of Kuwait Arafat was more alone than ever and had no option but to join the U.S.-sponsored peace conference in Madrid in October 1991.
The negotiations between the two sides moved from one capital to another without making progress. Using the deadlock with consumate skill Arafat started negotiating with the Israel government of Itzhaq Rabin under the offices of Scandinavian diplomats in secret. Amazingly Arafat's personal negotiators offered more to the Israelis than the official delegation. The result was the Oslo Accord, an open-ended agreement subject to interpretation. Arafat stabbed the official Palestinian delegation in the back for fear that they might reach an agreement and get the credit for it. Hannan Ashrawi, a member of the official delegation, suffered the humiliation of hearing about the Oslo Accord from Israeli journalists.
Oslo was followed by subsiduary agreements in Taba and Cairo. Elements of the PLO 's security forces began entering and Gaza and Jericho in May 1944. Arafat himself returned triumphal in July 1944.
Arafat's years after Oslo have to be judged in two ways. In accordance to what he got from Israel and the nature of the administration he installed in areas under his control. He failed in both. What the Israerlis ceded to him fell short of what he promised the Palestinians and his nine urity organization behaved like the secret police of dictatorships.
After the assassination of Israeli premier Itzhaq Rabin in May 1996, the elections in Israel produced a Likud victory. Likud prime minister Benjamen Netenyaho was against the Oslo Accord and negotiated with Arafat only to satisfy the Untited States. Moreover Netenyaho approved plans to expand settlements on the West Bank and Gaza. There was very little progress and delay after delay eroded confidence in the agreements. With each side commited to their interpretation of Oslo, the May 1999 date for implementing Oslo became a mirage.
The only hope left resided in the election of Israeli prime minister of Ehud Barrak. He had a reputation of wanting to settle the problem. In response to this , the Palestinian's decided to crackdown on the militant Isalmic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Arafat imprisoned thousands of fellow Palestinians and managed to reduce the level of violence drastically. At least twenty four prisoners died while in police custody. Arafat's popularity plunged. He also rigged the elections to the Palestine Consultative Council.
Visibly and intemperate he also looked the other was while his associates lined their pockets. The security foreces, 45,000 strong, behaved as if they were a law unto themselves. He became more and more isolated and unpopular. And he wouldn't listen to anybody. He got rid of many Pamestinians who helped elevate him to his leadership position.
It is unreasonable to assume that the Arafat who negotiated with Barak late in 2000 did not represent his disaffected people. However, a peace agreement would have gone a long way towards restoring his popularity. But meeting after meeting in the last months of the Clinton administration produced the agreement. Both he and Barak had committed themselves to reaching "a full and final settlement to the problem". It was Arafat and Barak who finally announced that they had failed to reach agreement.
It was a painful and unexpected piece of news. Why the two leaders refused to resort to a step by step peace effort is baffling. The inherent difficulty of reaching a s comprehensive agreement should have told them something. When the negotiations finally broke down it was because having failed to agree on some vital issue they kept moving from one problem to another. It was the refugee problem which capped it all and forced them to admit failure.
When Sharon won over Barak in the next Israeli parliamentary elections the writing was on the wall. Sharon's policies and military behavour had been questioned for almost fifty years but from one thing he never deviated. He has been opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state for most of his life. With world public opinion solidly behind solving the Arab-Israel problem, Sharon was forced to go thorugh the motions and accept the basic attitudes of Oslo. But his was a superficial acceptance. In reality he has used massive retaliation against the Palestinians and continued to increase the population of the settlements. A totally frustrated Arafat responded by starting a second intifade and releasing Muslim militants.
If Arafat and Sharon misjudged the temper of each other then it was President George W Bush who followed policies which made reaching an agreeement difficult. Gratuitously Bush refused to meet with Arafat. This move, intended for internal consumption in the U.S. ignored the fact that President Clinton received Arafat on a regular basis without suffering for it. If nothing else the unnecessary non-acceptance of Arafat by the U.S. delayed the negotiations. Meanwhile George W Bush was making it clear to the Arabsthat he was not an honest broker by describing Sharon as a man of peace.
It didn't stop there and Arafat contributed to the stalemate by putting the negotiations in the hands og a buffoon, Saeb Irekat. As usual his desire to control things led him to depend on weaklings. The on and off negotiations produced very little while the militancy on both sides grew by the day. Palestinian suiced bombers kept up their relentless attackes against Israeli civilian centres. As if the military of the Arabs and Islamic Jihad was not enough, Fatah produced their equivalent and created the Masjad Al Aqsa brigade under Marwar Brughout, at best an unintelligent extension of Arafat. The Israelis responded by unleashing an assassination campaign against people suspected of sponsoring terrorism. Israeli helicopter gunships roam the skies of Gaza and the West Bank unopposed. Relying on good intelligence they targett and kill Palestinain militants. Every once in a while the move into supposedly Palestinian territory occupy villages, rase housed, kill suspects and subject the rest of the population to humiliation. The cycle of terror and the horror continues. The Israeli are demanding a stop to bombings and the removal of Arafat. The Palestinians want the Israelis to stop their settlement activities and stop their targeted assassinations. In the background the Bush administration has supposedly a solid plan for peace, what they call a raod map. There is nothing new or clever in it. The principle of exchanging land for peace has been the cornerstone for all negotiations since the Rogers Plan, the proposals of Nixon's first Secretary of State in 1969.
Recently relentless, the U.S. pressure forced Arafat to appoint Ahmad Abbas his prime minister. The dukk, dreary Calvin Coolidge of Palestinian politics couldn't move anything forward. A PLO oldtimer he ran head on into Arafat who still had the loyalty of a higher percentage of Palestinians. Bereft of support Abbas resigned after two months. Arafat then appointed another non-entity, Ahmead Korei, to replace him. Korei is an Arafat lacky. The U.S., having backed Abbas and lost, doesn't know what to do. Combined American-Israeli on Arafat has once again made him popular. Helpless in the face of continuing the bombing, the Israelis have taken a decision to deport Arafat.
But will they? And where does the U.S. fall? We have this administration to thank for restoring Arafat's popularity. The U.S. government and Israel are unable to accept that their opposition to Arab leaders makes these leaders popular. This is why Saddma Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Arafat are the three most popular leaders in the Arab world. But it is Arafat we have to deal with noww. And he is as merciful and unpredictable as ever.
Arafat's revolutionary career was a success. He created a solid Palestinian identity. But he is a failure as a negotiator and head of state. How he is handled now will determine his place in history. A practitioner of the big lie, a throw back to another century, a manipulator at a time the Palestinians need a statesman, and a man of little understanding of history, he's still MR Palestine. With the equally shallow and more than suspect Sharon in office, the chances of the two men agreeing is nil. It it back to Washington but this administration lacks the will to move things forward.
© Said K Aburish