by Joseph Samaha
The Palestinians have buried with a big effusion of emotion their leader, a terrorist, a murderer of the innocent, a robber of funds, a man who has rejected any peaceful settlement and insisted on the destruction of Israel because of his deep hatred for the Jews. This is one way of looking at the matter. It reflects the opinion of the majority of Zionists and their supporters around the world who saw in the popular funeral of Arafat a cause to acquit themselves from Palestinian demands; and in the cold, official funeral in Cairo an indication of the hatred the Arabs bear for each other; and in the moving ceremony in France a proof of the deep-rooted anti-Semitism among the French.
The Palestinians have buried their president and symbol, the leader of their national movement. He was the man who spent decades in an unremitting struggle with Israel, and passed the last three years of his life under siege in two rooms. It is not unlikely that he was poisoned. He was murdered and the Israelis are the culprits. This is another opinion and it represents that of the majority of the nationalists and Islamists, those who would like to put the Arafat legacy to use in future confrontations.
Few have said the Palestinians have buried a patriotic leader, a realist who has succeeded in placing his people on the political map and fought hard to defend that existence. He rejected any offers that fell far short of the historic rights of his people — those that were not commensurate with his people’s sacrifices or his conviction of what would have been possible to achieve. In other words, the Palestinians have buried a leader who may or may not have made mistakes; at the end of the day, however he remains their best representative, and that is no mean feat.
But many around the world, including the Arab world, said the Palestinians have buried a multifaceted man. He did a lot for his people but failed to complete his mission in the year 2000, squandering opportunities due to his stand regarding the intifada and the Road Map. So it has been said that “his absence opens up a new opportunity” (Brent Scowcroft) because, during his lifetime, he embodied a state of struggle between “half Castro and half Mandela” (Uri Savir). For Israel, he is “the enemy, the partner, the foe” (Haaretz), accordingly, his absence “puts an end to the excuses” (Uzi Benziman). In short, Arafat’s demise “has removed the single biggest obstacle in the way of the achievement of Palestinian sovereignty” (Washington Post).
The ‘Obstacle’ Theory
This was the widespread, even dominant, line taken by many European commentators, and similarly by American commentators and politicians — both Democrats and moderate Republicans — as well as left-wing Israeli writers, and to a certain degree, King Abdullah II of Jordan (“It is a moment of great possibilities”). To these should be added a number of Arab writers who call themselves liberals. The theory of “the obstacle that has to be removed” effectively claims that conditions in the Middle East were pregnant with a settlement, but Arafat was not ready for this birth so he forbade it. He scuppered it from his room in the Muqata’a, where he was languishing for the past three years (out of a total of four years of intifada); even after the occupation forces had destroyed Palestinian installations and institutions and carried out incursions and assassinations and proceeded with the building of the Wall, while rejecting the Road Map and expanding Jewish settlements. Yes, it is Arafat who is the rejectionist, when George W. Bush has espoused Ariel’s Sharon’s policy and identified to a large degree with the Israeli right. He considered Palestinian resistance a problem even as he invaded Baghdad and promised to back Israel in its annexation of settlements and its rejection of the Palestinian right of return. The Arab liberals, just like their peers elsewhere, choose to see only the straw in Arafat’s eye.
A Naïve Logic
In a certain sense, we are witnessing a defining moment, for what is said these days is an indication of the course that events are expected to take. At the same time, it is difficult to turn a blind eye to those who desire peace and bewail the passing of Arafat, but do not hesitate to consider Arafat’s departure a necessary and sufficient condition for the achievement of this highly anticipated peace. This brand of logic leads to the following simplistic formula: The Palestinians choose a moderate leadership that will reject an essential part of Arafat’s legacy. This will resonate positively with the Europeans and Arab regimes who will subsequently pressure the U.S. Bush will find this welcome since it fits within the framework of a more global political orientation encompassing Iraq and Iran. The U.S. will bring pressure to bear on Israel, Sharon will be forced to withdraw, providing the proper conditions for the conclusion of a settlement. And, in the aftermath, the region will wallow in democracy.
Each one of these stages is strewn with mines. To bear fruit, these stages will have to be interconnected, and this will be blatant proof of haste, crying out, “We have had enough, we want a solution”! This naïve scheme springs from the refusal to see facts as they are and from the desire to “finish at any price,” even to the extent of preempting outcomes. This is the quintessential case of blindness for fear that sight would lead to undesirable conclusions which would logically induce the defense, or even the practice, of certain political stances. It is a well-tried example, long followed by Arab regimes, except now they have opponents who term themselves “liberals,” and who maintain the necessity of expediting the break with these regimes in order to reform or change them — jumping on the bandwagon now that these leaders have come under American pressure.
It is possible to “understand” regimes that protect specific interests, but it is difficult to comprehend the self-delusion of some parties that presumably have the best interest of the Palestinians and Arabs at heart. It is as if these wish to sweep one stage of history under the rug, expecting someone out there to come up with a positive answer to all the questions raised by that particular stage, if only it were possible to set in motion a chain of reaction emanating from Palestinian moderation. And thus, after the U.S., with the assistance of Europe, contributes to the conclusion of the national stage, the way is cleared for the onset of a liberal stage; its protagonists are currently in a state of dormancy waiting for someone to set off the whistle of reforms.
These are huge illusions. For one thing, the possibility of a “reasonable” American solution to the Palestinian crisis in the foreseeable future is very slim indeed. Israel, for its part, is not all that interested and the U.S. is not about to pressure it. Arafat’s absence from the scene, if it provides any opportunity at all, it is the opportunity to pressure the Palestinians. For another, the liberal era, when it arrives, will be in the charge of the most inane bourgeoisie of the world, for Arab bourgeoisie wants the maximum of openness with a minimum of freedom and does not object to the use of conservative ideologies as a means of coercion. And finally, is it conceivable that the Arab liberals should avoid formulating their own vision of a solution to the national question if Bush and Sharon were to decline to cooperate?
An Amusing Paradox
Arafat’s absence does not provide an opportunity for the achievement of peace for the simple reason that the obstacle was never from the Palestinian side. To fall prey to this error is tantamount to adopting the Israeli and American narrative of the conflict during its past stage. It is a whitewashing of “Sharonism” and what it stands for, and of the policy of the American administration and what it represents. Therein lies the problem, and it is this that must be addressed. It is one thing to admit to the possibility of a more rational policy on the part of the Palestinians. It is quite a different matter to succumb to schizophrenia and espouse the paradox that the Palestinians have lost a great leader who was personally responsible for standing in the way of his own people attaining their national aspirations.