Why we are still backing Arafat
Palestinians value their democracy and won't accept a pliant successor
By KARMA NABULSI*
LONDON (2 November 2004) -- Why has Yasser Arafat not "groomed" a successor (like some petty oriental despot), commentators have demanded to know in recent days, and why he is leaving a chaotic power-vacuum? What has been striking about these questions is not so much their wilful ignorance of the Palestinian reality, but the underlying assumptions they reflect.
The first is that the ailing Palestinian leader is now either marginal -- or worse, the obstacle to peace. And the new hero of peace, as championed by the liberal press on the back of the Gaza disengagement plan, is now Ariel Sharon. This shows how closely the debate in this country has come to embracing the Israeli Likud view of the Palestinians.
Most discussion of the Middle East conflict in the west now appears to be based on three premises: Arafat is not a partner for peace, but promotes terror; Arafat will not let go of the "reins of power", especially the security services; and Arafat is undemocratic and is blocking necessary reform of Palestinian institutions.
But it is not the Palestinians who are refusing democracy and representation. They are struggling to hold on to it by any means they can. Instead, it is the US and Israeli governments who are seeking to create institutions that would be undemocratic, and to find Palestinian leaders who will be unrepresentative. We have no vacuum of power. We have the PLO and the Palestine National Council, we have a legislative council in the West Bank and Gaza.
Yet since 2000, the Israeli, US and British governments have been working hard to impose a warlord to run Gaza after the "disengagement" (even though Israel will remain firmly in control there), as well as the remaining enclaves in the West Bank. They have been training him for this task in Britain -- the very man who was responsible for what is widely regarded as having been the most corrupt of the Gaza security apparatuses. They want Arafat to cede control of the PLO, of which he is elected chairman, and the Palestinian Authority, of which he is the elected president, because they have found someone they believe they can control.
Nonetheless, this warlord's putsch for power earlier this year failed, as it was rejected across the board by Palestinians -- both critics and backers of Arafat -- all aware that it was against real reform and the national interest. Yet Mohammed Dahlan is still described in the British press as a "young reformer" and his paid security gangs in Gaza are still portrayed as the "new voices for reform".
When Arafat represents all Palestinians, as he has by refusing exile (he would never have left without an assurance he could return), as he did by refusing to sign away basic rights as demanded of him at Camp David, Palestinians support him. Palestinians know what they lose by continuing to fight for their freedom: their livelihood, their lives. But they support Arafat because he represents them. And because of that basic trust, he is the one leader who has been able to make the most compromises and exact the most difficult concessions from his own people. Arafat is, after all, the architect of the Oslo peace accords, in contrast to Ehud Barak and Sharon, who both voted against the accords in the Knesset.
At the Camp David meetings in 2000, the then Israeli prime minister Barak insisted the Palestinians cede on central issues, such as Jerusalem and refugee rights. Since Arafat refused, Barak has never ceased to brand him a terrorist who wants the destruction of Israel, and blamed the continuing conflict on Arafat's refusal -- rather than on Israel's failure to address any core issue, such as its increased settlement building during the Oslo years.
Bill Clinton and Barak's post-Camp David spin that the Palestinians were offered everything and gave nothing in return has been comprehensively refuted, yet these myths are continually repeated in the UK and US press.
Worse, these claims helped ignite the existential Israeli fears in the aftermath of that meeting, which Sharon fanned into a wall of fire, destruction, expansion and conquest in pursuit of a Greater Israel and the denial of any possibility of an independent Palestinian state.
As Dov Weisglass, Sharon's senior adviser, spelled out last month: "The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state ... the disengagement is actually formaldehyde." Yet political leaders and journalists continue to praise the disengagement as "a first step towards a peace process".
What these defenders of Likud strategy don't grasp is well understood by the Palestinians, who continue to support Arafat. In order to be a leader you must first represent your people, and not abandon them to their conquerors in times of foreign occupation or colonial rule. Arafat seeks peace, but not at any price. You can be a great leader in prison, in a broken-down compound, in hospital, even once you've given your life. That's why the Palestinians overwhelmingly voted for Arafat, and would do so again today.
*Karma Nabulsi is a research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, and a former PLO representative in Britain.
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