Paying the price for personal politics

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After giving a lecture last week in honour of the late Eqbal Ahmad at Hampshire College, the small Massachusetts university he taught at for the last 15 years, I was approached by a young Palestinian couple with a six-month-old child. “Have you heard,” they both asked me in very disconcerted tones, “that Arafat just spent the night at Barak’s house?” When I said that I hadn’t, expressing very little surprise, I was taken aback at how strongly they found the whole idea so objectionable. “Doesn’t he have any pride?” they asked rhetorically. “How far does he intend to go in conceding himself and his people to pacify the Israelis?” It’s at moments like those that you realise how totally identified Arafat is in most people’s mind with the cause of Palestine, the peace process, and the currently sad condition of our people. Instead of seeing him as I think he is, a man victimised by his own vulnerability and selfishness, he is regarded as the embodiment of his people’s surrender and humiliating defeat. Hence the young couple’s sense of pain and revulsion that we seem to have sunk so far as to have lost our essential dignity as a people. I grant of course that they overreacted, but I do not think their feelings should be discounted or dismissed at all: they represent the sentiments of many ordinary Palestinians whose acute, profound awareness of continual loss is aggravated, rather than assuaged, by the peace process.

Certainly anyone who knows anything about the Middle East and has followed the course of the peace process knows the enormous extent to which Yasser Arafat has made the fate of his people, from its smallest daily details to the major issues of its destiny and short-range future, almost entirely his own. The Israelis and Americans have undoubtedly played their hands with this in mind, but so too have all the other Arab and European governments, plus international institutions like the World Bank and IMF whose continued support to the peace process is based on, and indeed completely deeded to, him, his person, his ideas, his commanding influence, which is somehow presumed to be permanent. Thus it is with many charismatic leaders: Nasser, Roosevelt, Nehru, Caesar Augustus, Napoleon, Lincoln, Lenin, Tito, Mandela. The difference between Arafat and all of them is that, as time goes on, it has become increasingly difficult to say what Arafatism actually is, what its ideas, what its vision and contents are made of. No one at all doubts that the Palestinian situation today is indelibly marked by his command of it, and that his style — which, in a perceptive biography of Arafat, Said Abu Rish devastatingly characterises as a mix of sloppiness, improvisation, lack of study or preparation, and secrecy — has simply overwhelmed everything in its path.

Not for nothing, then, did strong, principled individuals like Shafiq Al-Hout, Haidar Abdel-Shafi, Hanan Ashrawi, Abdel-Mohsen Qattan, and a small handful of others who had been close to him move decisively away. There were limits in conscience and principle that they couldn’t go beyond, limits where absolute loyalty to him demanded that they be overstepped, but which as individuals they could not. Look carefully at who is left at his side, from the ministers, employees, business backers, and outright paid hacks who do his bidding and sing his praises at the drop of a penny: hardly any of them can be considered strong or persons of integrity and honesty. Even so, of course there are subordinates in his ministries, embassies abroad, and party cadres who are good people and who feel that they must stick it out and fight for what they consider to be beneficial for the Palestinian cause and people, from within Arafat’s camp. Leaving these people aside, Arafat is the one person everyone obeys, the man who calls the tune and pays the piper. All the rest submit, even though some of them grumble very loudly and criticise his untidy ways unrelentingly. Yet they continue to serve him and to stay among the ranks of the negotiators, bureaucrats, ministers, informers and security men who currently make up the Arafat machine. He alone is in charge. He alone decides what is to be done. His critics have long been accused of “personalising” what they write or say about him, making it seem that to focus on him is the equivalent of a personal grudge. In fact that, like so much else in the PLO, is entirely his doing. Everyone knows that whether it is a decision on the peace process or permission to repair a car or a request for vacation, Arafat must sign a paper or otherwise directly give his approval. No one else knows where the money is, where it came from, and where it is spent except he. Others may know some things, but only the chairman can see — and therefore control — the whole picture.

In this, over the years he has consistently and, in my opinion, consciously diminished the possibility of democratic political participation for his people, who are always on the receiving end, always waiting breathlessly, like spectators sitting outside St Peters waiting for the smoke that announces the name of a new pope, passively, fatalistically, despondently. This lack of popular participation more than anything else defines the Arafat era, both in its pre- and post-Oslo periods. The main difference is that in the past he symbolised resistance and independence; now he stands for exactly the opposite. Thus the slightest, most ordinary event — spending the night at Barak’s house, as people suspected — takes on much more than ordinary importance. And inevitably, among Palestinians, there is a sinking sense that this man knows no limits, has no dignity, will stop at nothing to stay in the losing game with Israel and the US, who clearly wish the Palestinians no good. When his partisans respond that this is the only game in town, the response should be clear that Arafat has made it so. One wonders whether Yasser Abed Rabbo’s recent statement that whatever is agreed upon as a final peace with Israel must be approved by referendum — an excellent idea which I am happy to say I proposed and now endorse — is an idea fastened on by Arafat as a way of saving himself from the disastrous ending for the peace process that now inexorably looms before him and his unhappy people.

The signs remain unconvincing and bad, in fact, that he is now doing little more than conceding everything to the Barak steamroller. Take the volatile prisoner issue. Netanyahu had agreed at Wye that 750 would be released of the thousands of political detainees held by Israel. He released 250, of whom 149 were common criminals. Then Barak agreed recently to release 350, imposing a whole new set of conditions (that they shouldn’t be from East Jerusalem, or Israel proper, or men with “blood on their hands”, a ludicrous notion that simply overlooks the buckets of blood on Barak’s own hands; he is after all the killer of Kamal Nasser and Abu Jihad), then changed the number to 200, then, in a gesture of ill-concealed contempt, released 199, as if to say, you can’t have the satisfaction of even a full 200. Barak hasn’t backed down on the settlements at all, and has gone on record advocating an increase in their size, as well as saying plainly that he plans to annex the biggest ones directly to Israel, plus stating that he plans to conclude a “peace” with Arafat without actually settling the border, water, and refugee issues at all. And for all this, he receives in reply endless testimonials of friendship and trust from Arafat, who seems to be more concessive the more he gets cuffed around and his people more debased. The idea that in the end Israel might recognise and define (yes, define) a Palestinian state ruled by Arafat is the final indignity. That a country like Israel, one of whose purposes has been to obliterate the Palestinian presence, should have found a Palestinian leader willing to be complicit in the abandonment of his own people’s self-determination: surely no Israeli could feel more triumphant, more vindicated in a sense of final victory. We admit, Barak may sometime say, that we haven’t been all that nice to the Palestinians, but look, here we are giving them a state. What can they be complaining about, specially after our Supreme Court repealed its own rulings on torture after 12 years of approving the practice and after it more or less instructed the Knesset to pass a law directly authorising torture for Palestinians only? How ungrateful can these people be? After all we did turn a desert into a garden, and we have established a democracy here: besides, even Arafat seems to agree with us.

This, then, is the ultimate end for personalised politics: that a man can so wrap himself in the mantle of self-delegated absolute authority that he can be used by his enemies to expedite the surrender of his own people — without a sense of dignity, without a squeak of complaint, without anything more than obeisance and gratitude to the leader of the military occupation force and his colonial settlers who still sit on Palestinian land and who still deny four million refugees their right of return. What has Arafat got in return? A general’s uniform, a provisional state called Palestine, a permanent interim agreement, a standing invitation to the Clinton White House (which Roger Tamraz could have bought for him for a great deal less than he paid for it), and the misfortune of his people, who will rue the day that they let him go on like this for far too long. We are still owed some explanation of where his negotiating practice is taking us, and where he guarantees we will end up, those of us who live in the diaspora. All he can muster is one personal appearance after another in places like Stockholm, Beijing, Vienna and Cairo, plus a few empty formulas and broken-down clichs.

Finally, therefore, the personalised politics of Yasser Arafat have taken us where neither the British, nor the US, nor the Israelis had been able to take us for the past 100 years. For that, alas, we have only ourselves collectively to blame. When will we wake up and say the “no” that he is now totally unable and unwilling to say? Because he has made the Palestinian cause his own, it is time, I think, for Arafat to step down and resign in dignity. There is little doubt that his circumstances will compel him to sign what the Israelis and the US want him to sign. He is neither able to stop this nor, frankly speaking, capable of seeing what he has done. He is now a frail old man, dubiously equipped to lead the Palestinian struggle, too flawed and too compromised to do anything more than oversee the fulfillment of an Israeli plan finally to be rid of us as a serious nationalist force. This will not work, however, even if the peace papers are signed. It is not too late to enjoin Arafat and his entourage to seek the help of people like Salman Abu Sitteh, Youssef Sayegh, Shafiq Al-Hout and others like them whose knowledge and commitment is beyond question but who are outside the Authority’s limited umbrella. After all, in negotiating the right of return, refugees’ losses, Jerusalem, water and final borders, improvisation and ill-prepared decisions will not suffice.

If I were in Arafat’s place, I would now be frantically calling on every competent and honest Palestinian lawyer to guide me in what should happen next. The stakes are too high, the technical knowledge too specialised, and the complex meaning of what faces us as a people too intricate to be left to poorly educated lieutenants whose main qualifications seem to be passive loyalty to Arafat and a ready smile. When all this is done, then Mr Arafat can retire gracefully and leave the unravelling of the mess to a younger, more capable leadership. This is the price we have had to pay as a people for personalised politics and the absence of democratic participation: it has been as much our fault as it has been his.

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