General Montgomery had a photo of his opponent, the German general Erwin Rommel, on his desk. When he was asked why, he explained that at every stage of the campaign he would look at the picture and asked himself:
What does he think? What does he feel? What will he do?
It’s hard to imagine Ehud Barak putting a photo of Yasser Arafat on his desk. What for? Why should it be important what Arafat thinks? He, Barak, will tell him what to do.
Montgomery defeated Rommel and chased him out of North Africa. Barak, so it seems, will be evicted by Arafat from the Prime Minister’s office.
This week, again, all of Israel was busy guessing what Arafat will do: say Yes to Clinton? Say No? Perhaps? Save Barak? Bring Sharon in instead? Even the most self-important commentators were wandering around like blind men in a forest.
The Israeli attitude towards Arafat merits a psychological, and perhaps psychiatric, study. It seems as if all the fears and hatreds accumulated on our side during the 120 years of the conflict between the two peoples are being projected unto this one person.
One could say that the one thing uniting Right and Left in Israel is the hatred of Arafat. They differ only in the explanation. The Right hates Arafat because he is a “murderer”, a “terrorist” whose “only desire is to kill Jews”. The Left hates him because he is a “dictator” who “violates human rights”. It would be difficult to find even one article dealing with the Palestinians by an Israeli “leftist” without a reference to “the corrupt regime of Arafat”, now an obligatory phrase reminiscent of a Christian crossing himself.
There’s no use in reminding the Right that Nelson Mandela, Yitzhaq Shamir and Menachem Begin were “murderers” and “terrorists”, not to mention Bar-Kochba and the Maccabees. Every leader of a national liberation movement can be called thus. Also, there is no use in reminding the Left that Kohl and Chirac have presided over corrupt regimes, that in the US presidents and senators are openly bought by lobbies, that in Israel billions are spent to bribes the religious parties while every fourth child lives under the poverty line.
The media people mention daily, as a self-evident fact, that Arafat “has broken every agreement”. It would be a waste of time to remind them, too, that Israel has not implemented the third withdrawal from most of the occupied territories nor opened the four “safe passages”, to mention only two of the many violations of the agreements, compared to which the Palestinian violations seem pale indeed.
No agreement compels Israelis to love Arafat, nor Palestinians to love the Prime Minister of Israel, whoever he may be. But, as Montgomery realized, making slight of your opponent can cause you to make mistakes of historic proportions.
At this point in time, the political life of Barak depends on the decisions of the Palestinian leader. It is Arafat who will decide who the next Prime Minister of Israel will be, since the election results depend on whether there will be an agreement or not. But Barak understands Arafat as he would understand an alien from Mars. Since coming to power, he has been wrong in practically all his calculations.
It starts with his misunderstanding of Arafat’s standing within the Palestinian people. He is not a dictator. Like Washington, Ataturk and Ben-Gurion, he is the “father of the nation”. No Palestinian leader is ready to assume his place. Even Palestinians griping loudly about the Authority – and they are many – are not suggesting that he be replaced. When asked about it, they say: No, Arafat must remain, but he must do this and that…
Haidar Abd-al-Shafi, the respected Gaza doctor who is one of Arafat’s most outspoken critics, once complained to me about Arafat’s way of making all the decisions himself, but added honestly: “The truth is that we have to blame ourselves. Whenever the need arose to make a courageous decision, all the others disappeared and Arafat was left alone. He was the only one who had the courage to decide.”
I can testify to this myself. Over the years I have submitted to the PLO leadership in Beirut and Tunis ideas and suggestions for bringing peace nearer. Every time, when we reached agreement between us, they said: OK, now let’s take the matter to Abu-Amar, so he can make the decision. That’s the situation now, too. The Palestinian leadership must take a historic decision that demands immense personal courage. But nobody is ready to share the responsibility with Arafat. He stands alone again, and all the responsibility rests on him.
This does not mean that he can decide whatever he wants. Arafat listens to the feelings of the people. He has very sensitive sensors. Therein lies his unique strength. When he feels that the people are ready for the next step, he moves forward. When he feels that he has moved forward too much, he stops, and sometimes moves backwards. This can drive his interlocutors, and sometimes even his own people, up the wall, but that’s the character of his leadership.
For 50 years he has led the Palestinian struggle for liberation, and for 25 years he has directed the transition from armed struggle for the dismantling of Israel to the effort to reach a political solution with Israel – an immense revolution in the position of the Palestinian people. In this he has kept ahead of most of his colleagues and used all possible methods – diplomacy, violence, ruses, intifada and agreements. But not for a moment did he let the historic aim of the Palestinian people – the establishment of a state with its capital in Jerusalem – out of his sight.
It is ridiculous to think that he would now give up this aim because Barak wants to be reelected or because Clinton’s term of office is nearing its end. Of course, this provides an opportunity, and Arafat would seize it if he were given an offer he could accept. But when all that is offered is that he declare the “end of the conflict” in return for a piece of paper without maps and a detailed solution, he will prefer to wait for the next President and the next Prime Minister. After all, since the start of his leadership, Arafat has survived Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton, as well as Prime Ministers Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Meir, Rabin, Begin, Shamir, Peres, again Rabin and Peres, Nethanyahu and Barak. In this time he has led his people from the brink of extinction to the threshold of independence.
I have many good suggestions for Barak, Clinton and their successors. But my very first suggestion is: take a good photo of Arafat and put it on your desk.