Arafat's Squalid End
How he wasted his last 30 years.
So much ink: so many clichés. Arafat—terrorist or statesman? When asked on screen, I tried to give the shortest answer I could. Yasser Arafat will be a figure in history, all right. He qualifies not because he changed any geography or any regime, but because he altered our cosmology. At least until the 1967 war, and probably even until the 1973 "Yom Kippur" or "Ramadan" war, the outside world had been inclined to look upon the original 1947/1948 war, and its outcome, as a battle between "the Jews" and "the Arabs." This mental mapping, with a small Zionist island amid a vast sea of swirling Arab regimes, semiautomatically enlisted the latent sympathy for the underdog that was the least one could expect after the Jewish experience in Eastern and Central Europe. Israel was a state of the stateless, created by an early United Nations resolution, and entitled to the usual presumptions concerning self-defense. You've heard it.
This approximate narrative was rendered increasingly hollow and increasingly debatable once the terms were shifted. Make it Israel versus "the Palestinians" and immediately the sentimental picture is altered. We suddenly saw two peoples, of roughly equivalent population, contesting for one land. Tragedy, as Hegel said, is a conflict between two rights. By the time Arafat had left the podium of the United Nations (holster at his side, olive branch in his hand) in 1974, it was widely understood that everything since the Balfour Declaration had implicitly called for a two-state solution. And that was a historical achievement, however crudely it was called (or recalled) to our attention.
I don't normally agree with Michael Oren, whose history of the origins of the 1967 conflict is typically evasive when it comes to the expulsion and dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs 20 years previously. But he was correct in saying, in last Sunday's Washington Post, that there is something lame in crediting a man who dies in 2004 for "symbolizing" a moral and diplomatic accomplishment achieved in 1974. In other words—by all means we got the point about the two peoples. But what then?
You may, as the "leader" of one such people, wage an uncompromising struggle to regain all you have lost and invite the world's sympathy and solidarity. Or you may extend your hand for an historic compromise. But you cannot do both. I would strongly recommend that all those who read this get hold of a copy of Edward Said's book The Politics of Dispossession, published 10 years ago, and scan its pages. You will see Arafat up close, as the symbol of his people, the prince of procrastination, the acme of corruption, the master of deceit, the demagogue of "resistance," and the consummate artist of the double-deal. (You will also read, as one should stipulate, about an Israeli policy that never ceased to expand settlement and colonization even as the most urgent negotiations with European and American statesmen were in progress.)
But has any national movement ever been so appallingly led? Edward Said asked many times, in public and private, where the Mandela of Palestine could be. In rather bold contrast to this decent imagination, Arafat managed to be both a killer and a compromiser (Mandela was neither), both a Swiss bank-account artist and a populist ranter (Mandela was neither), both an Islamic "martyrdom" blow-hard and a servile opportunist, and a man who managed to establish a dictatorship over his own people before they even had a state (here one simply refuses to mention Mandela in the same breath).
There was a time when the Palestinian cause, throughout the Middle East, was generally identified with larger causes than itself. Its diaspora, made up of thousands and thousands of intelligent and educated and ironic people, was on the whole a force for good in the Gulf states, in Jordan, in Lebanon, and elsewhere. If you voyaged to some dark and decrepit state in the region, and could get rid of your clinging official "minder," it was in some Palestinian apartment that music would play, drinks be served, books be passed around, and humorous remarks made with courage. It became the fashion among some Arabist reporters at this time to allude to the Palestinians as "the Jews of the Middle East."
Well, Arafat certainly destroyed that dream. His grandiose death-or-glory campaigns made life infinitely harder for the Palestinian populations of Jordan (in 1970) and in Lebanon. Even those conflicts had at least some tincture of revolutionary ardor, in which some Palestinians—not of Arafat's faction—played a role. But the nadir was reached in 1990, when "the Chairman" ranged himself on the side of Saddam Hussein and stayed with him on the obliteration and annexation of Kuwait. Suddenly, the PLO was implicitly and sometimes explicitly in favor of the erasure of an existing Arab and Muslim state, a member of the Arab League and of the United Nations.
There were two results of this. First, the enormous Palestinian population of Kuwait—numbering between 300,000 and 400,000 people—was abruptly subjected to another nightmare. It suffered from Saddam Hussein's aggression, and it suffered again from Kuwaiti fury at a perceived Palestinian "fifth column." Second, the stupidity of Arafat's bet on the wrong Iraqi horse was compounded further. In order to recover his lost credit with the Saudis and others, he began increasingly, and corruptly, to sound the note of the "Islamist" trumpeter. (Twenty percent of Palestinians are formally Christian, and a large number are secular, but I think it is pretty safe to say that the "Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades" and other surrogate groups would not care much to be called "the Jews of the Middle East," in any tone of voice.)
A short time after the end of the Gulf War in 1991, I was introduced to Sari Nuseibeh, who is one of the most brilliant intellectuals of the Palestinian movement as well as—by virtue of his ancient lineage—one of the Arab aristocracy of Jerusalem. (He was, until Sharon closed it down, a senior member of the Palestinian Authority in that city.) Looking back, he said, he realized what the PLO should have done. They should have offered an armed detachment to the Coalition forces in Iraq, and taken part in the liberation of Kuwait. Think of the implications. ... Imagine what a different world we might be inhabiting if Arafat had been capable of even thinking like that.
The famously "generous" terms offered to Arafat by Clinton and Barak were not as generous as all that. But his response was even more contemptible than is usually reported. He suddenly announced, first, that he represented the world's billion Muslims on the issue of Jerusalem and, second, that his own life might be in danger if he signed the wrong deal. Clearly, Arafat has never had—and could never have received—any general mandate from the Muslim world on Jerusalem or anything else. And as for the threat to his life—was this not the same man who used the word "martyr" in every other sentence and announced from his besieged compound that it was his highest desire? Willing to die in a pointless scuffle but not willing to risk anything for an agreement? In cold fact, Arafat was protected from "martyrdom" at Israel's hands, as he well knew, by an edict of President Bush to Sharon. The charming conclusion of this drama is now the widely spread rumor that the chairman was martyred after all, having been poisoned by the Jews: a rumor itself perhaps designed to pre-empt any discussion of his AIDS-like symptoms at the end. What a squalid and ignoble terminus, to a life of steadily diminishing returns.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Yasser Arafat by Jamal Aruri/AFP/Getty Images.