Our shadow

(5 November 2004) -- The anticipation expressed by various experts and commentators of the demise of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was not anticipation of a joyous event, but a fear of what the future without him holds in store. Even those who did not hesitate to engage publicly in plans for his "targeted assassination" went all out to offer him medical and logistical assistance. This was an attempt to remove any pretext for blaming Israel for standing in the way of efforts to save Arafat, but perhaps also a sign of some covert awe of the enemy who is at his end.

The obsessive preoccupation with the implications of his demise and with the pathetic "legacy" he leaves behind -- governing a persecuted and impoverished nation -- proves the real status of the prisoner from the Muqata. The very people who made sure to convince the entire world of Arafat's "irrelevance," and to humiliate the leader of the Palestinian people, recognize the historical status of the man who for half a century has embodied the wishes of an entire nation.

When all is said and done, Arafat is the shadow who follows us, and the stations of his life -- from the Arab revolt to the Al-Aqsa Intifada -- are the stations of our lives in reverse. Without him -- and without the generation he led -- there is no meaning to our history, to our sacrifices and to our victories. Anyone who scorns his enemy dwarfs his own victory and empties his history of meaning. We walk, and with us walks our shadow -- the Palestinian people; we beat the shadow with a big stick, but it doesn't leave us alone.

What will we do when the sun rises and we discover that the shadow, which is embodied in the figure of the "two-legged beast," has disappeared? To whom will we give the job of the demonic villain? Nobody can fill the shoes of the person who played the role so perfectly.

The person who understood this best was former prime minister Ehud Barak, who wove the myth of Arafat "the refusenik from Camp David": the man who was offered the moon, but refused, and began a war of terror to achieve through blood what was not achieved through negotiations. Who doesn't believe in this myth? And it's no wonder; otherwise, how would we be able to deal with the violent reality, with the cruel repression and with our tortured conscience?

We need a scapegoat on whom to cast the blame for everything, and to clear our consciences. Now, when he has tired of the job of demon and discovered that he is mortal, we are looking for an heir -- not a partner but the scapegoat, which carries our sins, our frustrations and our hatred.

And this is not the first time Arafat has served to salve our conscience. The distress of the Palestinian people, and his personal distress, forced him, on the eve of the Oslo Accords, to give up the sharpest weapon he had, namely to grant legitimacy to the Zionist entity. Although it's true that the Palestinians are an occupied and vanquished nation, only they, the victims of the Zionist enterprise, were capable of granting this legitimacy. Arafat -- with the support of many of the activists of the first intifada, and as opposed to the view of others -- decided to recognize Israel, in return for recognition of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization).

This recognition released a sigh of relief in leftist circles, since this saved them from guilt feelings over the fact that the realization of the Zionist enterprise was bound up with the destruction of the Palestinian people; if Arafat recognizes Israel, they are free of the moral dilemmas imposed on them by the conflict and their victories in it.

It didn't take long for Arafat's historic move (in cooperation with the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin) to be forgotten. New moral dilemmas made it necessary to renew the definition of Arafat as a terrorist and the PLO as a terror organization; the desire for recognition was replaced by "there's nobody to talk to," and the partner became a humiliated prisoner. Only few understood that granting legitimacy to the Zionist entity is not an irreversible step. And in fact, the retreat from "mutual recognition" harmed Arafat and the Palestinians, but it also harmed Israel, which has never faced doubts about the legitimacy of its actions to the extent that it does today.

Arafat was fated to serve as a symbol in his life and in his death. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon apparently sensed that when he declared that as long as he himself is alive, Arafat will not be buried in Jerusalem. In his haste to humiliate the sick Arafat, Sharon provided a clear symbol of the destiny he shares with many of the Palestinians: lacking a homeland, lacking a cemetery in which they can join their ancestors. How civilized it could have been had we shown understanding and empathy for our shadow -- the vanquished leader -- for his suffering, his successes and his failures.

Haaretz newspaper, Israel

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