by Menachem Klein
At an early stage of his life, Yasser Arafat became an icon. That’s how he survived politically, despite his personal limitations. He wasn’t necessarily the brightest of the young Palestinian activists at the end of the 1950s, and his deficiencies were known to all of his colleagues. But as happens frequently in history, he was the only one who agreed to devote all of his time to the new organization, Fateh, while the others preferred to develop their own personal careers. His friends in Fateh and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were aware of his periodic lack of credibility, and his occasional tendency toward embarrassing public appearances. The Palestinian public was not always inspired by his speeches, but no one could compete with the fact that his image became a national symbol. His symbolic standing was built upon his image as a struggler/warrior. His image as a warrior received expression in his clothing: a military suit with all its badges, the pistol that was always close to him when he felt his life was in danger, the stressing of the jihad motifs, self-sacrifice and martyrdom in his speeches. Arafat was perceived in the eyes of the Palestinian public as someone who was sacrificing his life for the Palestinian revolution.
Even his deficiencies became national property. The maneuvering, the manipulation, the divide-and-rule method, the bringing close (patronage) and the rejection, together with the delays, the hesitation, the preference for improvisation and the taking advantage of tactical opportunities rather than strategic planning, the use of false argumentation and empty slogans, the tendency to satisfy the listener, to use double and ambiguous meanings, were perceived by the Palestinian public as a means of survival in a hostile and alienating world. He projected a lack of credibility: yes and no at the same time. His awkward speechmaking, his tendency to repeat key sentences over and over to compensate for his oratory weaknesses, his tendency to appear like a helpless unfortunate who doesn’t understand why people are asking of him something beyond his abilities — expressed the situation of the Palestinian nation after the 1948 defeat. Alongside these phenomena, he also had expressions of forcefulness, aggressiveness, and a readiness for extended struggle that symbolized the Palestinian determination to correct the historic distortion of 1948.
The construction of this symbolism was aided by the fact that Arafat was frequently expelled from the Arab countries that hosted him, and he even survived a number of assassination attempts and accidents. If Arafat hadn’t become a national icon, his invented biography, which said he was born in Jerusalem rather than Cairo, would have been a joke.
Arafat’s Unique Leadership Style
Arafat’s leadership didn’t stem from an extraordinary personality, from tradition or religious authority, or from the fact that he was the head of a prominent family or tribe. He was not the type of person who could develop an ideology that would be the basis of his leadership. As an icon, Arafat was not a charismatic personality. He wasn’t Che Guevara, and he didn’t symbolize the romance of the Palestinian revolution. He also couldn’t be imagined as a sex symbol. On the contrary, his image projected asexuality. The romance of the Palestinian revolution came from the abstract, idealistic messages of the revolution — justice, freedom, self-determination, struggle against the occupation and imperialism, and the correction of an historical injustice. In the 1970s and 1980s, many in the West were captivated by the charms of these idealistic messages, but not by the physical image of the person who personified them.
Arafat wasn’t a leader who caused all to melt in his presence, or to be paralyzed with fear. On the contrary, the Palestinian leadership always argued with itself and with Arafat. Among his colleagues in the leadership, alongside his underground name Abu Ammar, he was also known as al-Khit’yar (the old man) and al-Waled (the father). Those names expressed the fact that he was about five years older than his founding colleagues in Fateh, as well as his status as a father and as the one who gave birth to the Palestinian revolution. In essence, among his colleagues he was always considered the first among equals. That is why Arafat had to build coalitions, and to convert his dependence upon coalitions and the agreement of his colleagues into a symbolic value. Thus the arguments in the organization were another form of struggle, alongside the fact that they served as a means for building a national consensus around the leader. From a symbolic point of view, Arafat was not seen as someone who forced himself on the movement, but as someone who expressed the national consensus on its behalf.
Arafat’s watch always showed the same time: five minutes to midnight — a time of emergency that called for a closing of the ranks against external threats. To justify the time and to create a reality that justified his symbolic status, Arafat created a sense of disquiet, of bureaucratic chaos and tactical maneuvering. A constant dispersal and reassignment of authority generated an ongoing sense of instability, the fear of losing status and a multiplication of competitors that reinforced his position as the one at the top. These tactics provoked internal criticism, but they also confirmed his status as a symbol. His leadership style also upset many, who protested against his one-man rule, and the personal element — in the decision-making processes and because his policy periodically strayed from the consensus.
The icon of total dedication to the national liberation struggle was based on the blurring of the borders between the personal and the national. This was epitomized by Arafat’s dress, his place of residence, his lifestyle and his work habits. In all of them, the personal and the national were one. The formal position became personalized, and the specific person underwent a process of symbolization. The same was true of his personal space, which became public space. His home served as a public space, as both a reception center and an office where Arafat and the Fateh leadership worked. Arafat’s burial in the courtyard of his house-office-prison expresses this very well, as it expresses the fact that he was a fighter who struggled. As an icon, Arafat continues to struggle from the grave, until he is transferred to the Temple Mount/Haram el-Sharif. In other words, the final resting place of Arafat, the leader, will not be realized until one of the highest goals of the national movement is achieved.
Work patterns that for Europeans, Americans, Israelis and some members of the Palestinian elite seemed problematic, like patronage, lack of delegation of authority, difficulties in managing systematic work procedures with institutions that function in a way that are open to external regulation, all stemmed from the identification of the personal with the national, and they converted his image from a burden into an advantage. As external criticism of his work patterns and pressure to change them increased, so did his symbolic image as a fighter who struggled against external forces. However, the development of the symbol was not the only dimension of Arafat’s public image. During the past few years, Palestinian criticism of his flaws as a leader also increased. Paradoxically, the more he became a target of Israeli and American pressures, the more his image as a symbol grew. But his image as an effective leader at the head of a system providing services to the Palestinian public and bringing it closer to a realization of its national goals decreased.
From Abu Ammar to the Ra’is
Before the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established, Arafat’s underground name Abu Ammar was preferred to his real name. His nom de guerre had a meaning that was connected to the symbolization of Arafat. In the seventh century, Abu Ammar was a Muslim warrior in the Prophet Mohammad’s army. Beyond the identification with an early warrior, the name creates a connection between the symbolic warrior and the religious tradition. Arafat was a religious man who had a basic knowledge of the Koran which he gained during his childhood in Cairo. He succeeded to symbolically channeling his basic religious education and his deep religiosity by means of passages from the Koran that he inserted into his speeches. That is how religion was mobilized to serve Palestinian nationalism, and to give legitimization to the icon. After the PA was established, the title ra’is (president) replaced the name Abu Ammar. The title expressed not only his symbolic standing, but also the struggle for national self-determination. At the time that the Oslo Accords were being formulated, Israel opposed the idea that the head of the PA would be called “president,” because it had a political significance. The compromise was the use of the Arabic term ra’is, which also means “chairman.” The insistence on the use of the title “president” in all of the languages was part of the symbolization of the role and the man.
As long as Arafat was outside of the Palestinian territories, he was careful to maintain his people’s financial dependence on him, as well as written and verbal contact, mainly by means of the telephone. This helped him overcome the physical distance from the territory and the public living in it. It also reinforced the symbolization of Arafat as the personification of the collective. He was perceived as a consulting leader, who loved to be among his people and to grant a sense of equality without any patronizing or formal mannerism toward his aides, his guests and his bodyguards. His folksiness blended in with the chaos and disorder of his work patterns and the organization of his bureau. He was always surrounded by many people and every meeting with him became a symposium within which many things would be occurring simultaneously. Many people came and went with their many different requests, demands, complaints and suggestions.
He was surrounded by dozens of advisers, family members and visitors, and telephone calls frequently interrupted any conversation with him. This flawed functioning of the Palestinian establishment and Arafat’s work patterns were converted into symbolic capital. They were perceived as popular leadership, without any elitism, that was responsive to hardships. The creation of the PA as an establishment removed Arafat from the public, and his contact with it was no longer direct as it had been in the past. In the beginning, Arafat used to travel through the districts under his authority, but he soon gave this up. Alongside the national symbol, a consciousness arose that some of the branches of the establishment were suffering from corruption, and that it wasn’t as efficient as it should be. Arafat, the symbol, could not be separated from these phenomena. The siege that Israel placed on him and the destruction of the Palestinian governing mechanisms by Israeli forces cut the thin physical threads that tied him to his people. What remained was the symbol, which burst forth at Arafat’s funeral. The contrast between the hundreds who came to bid him farewell when he left for medical treatment in Paris, and the hundreds of thousands who burst into the Muquata’a area to disrupt the funeral arrangements gave powerful expression to this. The masses wanted to physically touch the symbol. The funeral released the symbol from the constraints of the establishment, and turned Arafat into a shahid (martyr), someone who sacrificed his life for the nation, who continued to struggle from his gravesite. The widespread public belief that he didn’t die, but was killed, poisoned by the Israelis, is not only a product of a natural suspicion of Israel and of the conspiratorial thinking prevalent in broad levels of different Arab societies, it also suited the fact that Arafat was an icon. The icon doesn’t die, melt or evaporate. It fights on. The belief that he was poisoned revives the symbol within the Palestinian consciousness and discourse.
Arafat in the Eyes of the Israelis
The formulation of the reports on Arafat’s death in the Israeli mass media and the graphics in the tabloid press expressed deep-felt wishes rather than hard facts. “Finished” shouted one tabloid paper. A few days later, it declared with a sigh of relief: “Buried.” The reports weren’t based on medical bulletins, but rather on a mixture of suppositions, leaks, expectations and emotional positions. As Arafat’s medical condition worsened, Israel declared he had died. It was an ongoing death, almost like a wish for the confirmation of a kill. And, as expected, those in the Palestinian establishment who found it difficult to digest the very fact of Arafat’s hospitalization because of his difficult and unclear illness, announced from Paris that Arafat had been revived, and was joking with his doctors. This was a war between two opposite symbols and a struggle between two emotional and cultural systems over Arafat the symbol. Ever since the renewed outbreak of the intifada in 2000, Arafat became once again a demonic icon within the Israeli political culture, at both its elite and its popular levels.
The same characteristics that turned Arafat into a positive national symbol in the eyes of the Palestinians turned him into a demonic icon in the eyes of the majority of the Israelis. His Muslim beliefs were converted into proof of the identification between the ultimate national goals of his movement and those of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements. This demonizing granted a damaging, sneaky and cruel power to Arafat the symbol and the movement he led. His personal traits were melded with his work patterns in the melting pot of Israeli symbolization. They became the proof that he was a permanent revolutionary.
As the symbol of Palestinian nationalism, Arafat was perceived as someone who, via cleverness and terror, aspired to replace Israel by means of an actual return of the 1948 refugees to their homes, and via the demand to recognize the principle of their right of return.
Arafat’s lack of readiness to accept Israel’s demand for sovereignty over the Temple Mount and the harsh rejection of any historic Jewish connection with the place served the shapers of opinion as a justification for his image as a demonic Palestinian icon. The Palestinian side seeks the moral and political defeat of Israel, because it doesn’t recognize the national existence of the Jewish people. The Palestinian insistence on the Temple Mount and the way that Arafat and his colleagues expressed their position reflect the fact that Israel is immersed in a confrontation with a fundamentalist national-religious culture.
No Demonization without Alienation
There is no demonization without alienation. Arafat’s work habits were perceived by Israelis as expressing a non-Western and non-modern essence — the lack of a readiness to adjust to the Western cultural norms of telling the truth, delegation of authority and acceptance of public criticism, democratization and transparency. The Palestinians would have to become Finns before this demonic label could be removed and it would become possible to achieve a political settlement with them. At the least, it would be necessary to wait one or two generations, until the passing of the generation that experienced 1948 as the shaper of its personal and collective experience. Making something strange is a means in the struggle against evil forces. The demon has to be marked, isolated and removed, its passing must be yearned for and its death, expulsion or disappearance from the arena will remove the problem and protect us. The determination by ministers at the end of 2000 that Arafat had finished his historical role and the decision by Ariel Sharon’s government that Arafat was no longer relevant should be viewed as the creation of a charm to expel the demons. But in actuality, the Arafat icon continued to preoccupy Israel.
Sometimes Personal and Sometimes Collective
The demonization in the Israeli discourse was sometimes personal and sometimes collective. The movement between the negative symbolization of Arafat and the negative symbolization of the entire Palestinian leadership or generation was rapid and simple. The framing of Arafat’s satanic image since the summer of 2000 wasn’t done by right-wingers alone, as they did throughout the Oslo period, but by the entire establishment: prime ministers, ministers, heads of the army and intelligence, shapers of public opinion, senior officials and even academics. They all took part in the framing and promotion of Arafat’s demonic icon. Arafat is a terrorist and a revolutionary, who refused to part from the original means and goals of the revolution. He misled Israel and the world, pretended to be moderate and fraudulently received a Nobel Peace Prize, until his mask was removed. In the narrative developed by Ehud Barak, he was the one who courageously, at great personal risk, revealed Arafat’s true face, with his generous peace offer that Arafat couldn’t evade. The bloody intifada was the answer that came from the depths of Arafat’s being, and from the authentic realms of the national movement. According to Barak, the mask wasn’t an instrumental tool of the Palestinian essence, but rather the expression of a society in which lying and falsehood are the norm. This is another facet of demonization — the mask can serve both as a means of camouflage and as an authentic expression. These are demonic qualities and not flaws in the logic of the speaker. On the contrary, Barak should be praised because he was able to understand this, while others were blind to it. Not only did Barak reveal Arafat’s demonic face, he also served the good of his people. He awakened us from our illusions and forced us to understand that our national home is a villa in a jungle, and not an apartment in a building in which all of the tenants have begun to behave toward each other in a reasonable manner, as the innocent, mistaken and misleading leftist architects of Oslo believed.
During the years of the cheap “enlightened occupation,” the Israeli experience totally denied the existence of the Palestinian “Other.” Arafat symbolized the unseen occupation. The change came when Israeli self-confidence began to waver following the Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack in 1973, and it continued with Arafat’s first appearance before the UN General Assembly in 1975. Palestinian terrorist actions struck over and over again on the door of Israeli consciousness. Israel even found it difficult to ignore the strengthening of the support for the PLO in the Occupied Territories and among the Arab states. The disappearing occupation became the present occupation. Arafat’s presence in the Israeli consciousness was reinforced by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon during the year they prepared public opinion for the 1982 war, with its original far-reaching goals. Begin called him the man with the hair on his face, the Hitler sitting in his Beirut bunker, thus granting him a demonic visage in all its glory. The failure of the war to lock the demon in his basement was a turning point. Geographically Arafat was exiled to Tunis, but his reach extended to the Occupied Territories. The first intifada forged him as an icon at the forefront of the Israeli consciousness.
A demon can be dealt with by reduction, by describing it in all its ugliness, weakness and absurdity. Reduction of the demonic icon neutralizes its negative potency and converts it into something under control. This method was used in the years following Oslo. The desire to pacify the demon and to domesticate it was behind the shaping of the Arafat puppet on the “Chartzufim” satirical puppet show — an old, sick and naïve man, whose bite wasn’t so bad. Humor was used as a weapon to neutralize the demon. It’s hard to see such expressions as a humanization of Arafat. The failure of the Camp David summit, the government propaganda and the psychological pressure of Palestinian terror converted the farcical puppet image into something that hid the previous demon. For a brief period, the previous image of the old, sick, harmless man from the Oslo period returned when Arafat was filmed in pajamas and a woolen hat when he was taken from the Muquata’a by helicopter to the hospital in Paris. Arafat’s hospitalization became the inspiration for jokes on the popular Yatzpan TV show. The deterioration in his health turned that strategy into a very brief, passing episode that was replaced by the hope that the icon would disappear.
The Symbiotic Connection with the Palestinian ‘Other’
The struggle with the Palestinian demon is not carried on with a being that is outside of the collective self, but rather with the dark, repressed side of the Israeli experience. The attitude toward the Other as a demonic icon is an opposite discourse with the collective self. The demonized Other is created by the collective self to enable it to be destroyed over and over and to cleanse the Israeli self.
The subject helps this process because it is not free of flaws upon which it is possible to build a satanic image. This is another variation on the theme of the symbiotic connection with the Palestinian Other that has existed since the beginning of modern Zionism. Zionism tried to cope with the Palestinian side of its self-identity in a number of ways, i.e. the struggle between the native who is competing with the immigrant who wants to become a native. Sometimes Zionism assumed the role of educator and the civilization domesticator of the Arab Palestinian (and also of the Oriental Sephardi Jew), and sometimes it converted the Other into an object of imitation, as it drew upon elements of its spoken language and popular culture, and sometimes it even saw it as a preserved, ideal model for the ancient Hebrews. In each of these instances, Zionism created an antithesis to the Palestinian Other, and built a hierarchal relationship with it. Even when it drew from it culturally, Israeli Zionism placed itself higher on the values ladder. Empowerment, imitation and borrowing are strategies that contain elements of identification, alongside elements of envy, mockery, admiration and anger. However this demonic foreignness expresses the difficulty of trying to become liberated from the Other within ourselves. The mental wall that Israeli society has built between itself and the Palestinian Other, and its current expression in a physical fence/wall, are expressions of an attempt to resolve the dilemma of the self via an act of redemption.