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Rabbi Moshe Reiss

ARAFAT: The Destroyer


The supreme irony has emerged: Israel recognized the need for a Palestinian state more than did Yasser Arafat. He not only turned one down, but launched a war rather than accept it. Arafat launched his war in September 2000, concluding that the Palestinian leadership would rather forgo a state than give up the quest for Israel's destruction. Arafat has proven Abba Eben’s comment that the ‘Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity’. The problem is that Israel still needs there to be a Palestinian state for us to remain a Jewish and democratic state.


The Palestinians will elect a Legislative council on Wednesday, January 25.





How Yasser Arafat Destroyed the State of Palestine: 

In a Ruined Country

by David Samuels


He was the father of the Palestinian nation, and the successor to the Muslim conquerors of Jerusalem, Omar Ibn al-Khattab and Saladin. His official title was Rais of the Palestinian Authority, a title that is ambiguously translated as "Chairman" or "President."


Unlike his Hero’s he did not conquer Jerusalem.


As much as any other man, Arafat was responsible for the making of the modern Middle East. The raids he launched on Israel from Gaza, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon in the 1960s helped to precipitate the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which stripped the Arab regimes of their credibility and set the stage for Arafat's emergence as the Arab Che Guevara.


It took Arafat more than an hour each morning to arrange the tail of his kaffiya in the shape of Palestine and pin it to the shoulder of one of his tunics, which his guards bought for him in military-surplus stores in the cities they visited.  He completed his fanciful outfit with a pin in the shape of a phoenix, symbolizing the rise of the Palestinian people from the ash heap of history, along with a variety of military ribbons and decorations that testified to his self-appointed status as he himself proclaimed "the only undefeated general in the Middle East."


Inside the pockets of his jacket were the small black notebooks in which he wrote about money. When he was in doubt about a particular sum, he would withdraw a notebook with a flourish, cite a specific figure, and then put the notebook back in his pocket. Inside the notebooks were the codes that unlocked the secret bank accounts to which only he had access.


At his death in November 11, 2004 the idea that Arafat might have expired from natural causes was deemed too farfetched for serious consideration.


Dennis Ross noted "The first time I went to complain to him about the bombing—the first set of bombings were, I guess, in April '94, in Hadera and Afula—and I'm with him, and he leans over like this and he whispers, 'You know, it's Barak. He's got this group, the OSS, in the Israeli military, and they're doing this.' And I said to him, 'Don't be ridiculous.' I said, 'You know the Israelis are not killing themselves.' This was classic Arafat, never wanting to be responsible."


Roed-Larsen the most visible representative of the United Nations in the Middle East met weekly and often every other day with Arafat for more than a decade. When I asked him for a decision he would "Usually he would say, 'I agree in principle,'" Roed-Larsen told me, "which means 'No.' Or 'Why not?'—which also means 'No.' Or 'I have to think about it.' Or 'It's not me, it's Hamas.' Or 'I'm doing my best'  . . He lied all the time. And he knew it. . . .'It's not me—it's al-Qaeda.' 'It's the Iranians.' 'It was a Lebanese ship.' 'It's the Syrians.' All that kind of stuff. Of course everybody around him knew he was behind it. He didn't tell any of his closest companions. Because he always operated with layers and layers and layers and layers. He was extremely compartmentalized. His dirty-tricks domain—he didn't inform any of his ministers. They didn't have a clue about it. He had a financial cupboard. He had a dirty-tricks cupboard. He had a white-business cupboard. He had a black-business cupboard. Everything was compartmentalized. He was a master manipulator, and in a way he was a master politician who made catastrophic mistakes in both moral and political terms. He thought he was immortal; he trusted that he had God's hand protecting him for everything. And he goes away in the middle of the biggest defeat of his life”.


Al Masri, a leading Palestinian financier, who in his home has what he claimed is the oldest mirror in the world was an associate of Arafat. "Yes, the Palestinians missed a lot of opportunities, but don't blame us," he tells me. "We were a million people in this land, and the Israelis were less than a hundred thousand people. But they came here very determined, and they worked very hard. Then they committed a few massacres that made people afraid, and then our stupid leaders told the people to leave. We always tend to say it's a Zionist plot with the British. What we call a plot, they call a plan."


"No doubt Arafat was a great man," al-Masri says. "No doubt he had vision. Most of the people that you see now being very important, I see them wanting the grace of Yasir Arafat. They want to be in his grace. Ah, he thought money was power," al-Masri adds, with a wistful glance around his study. The money he spent to buy the loyalty of his court, al-Masri gently suggests, could easily have paid for a functioning Palestinian state instead.


"With three hundred, four hundred million dollars we could have built Palestine in ten years. Waste, waste, waste. I flew over the West Bank in a helicopter with Arafat at the beginning of Oslo, and I told him how easy we could make five, six, seven towns here; we could absorb a lot of people here; and have the right of return for the refugees. If you have good intentions and you say you want to reach a solution, we could do it. I said, if you have money and water, it could be comparable to Israel, this piece of land."


For those at the top of the heap the rewards were much larger and more systematic. The amounts of money stolen from the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people through the corrupt practices of Arafat's inner circle are so staggeringly large that they may exceed one half of the total of $7 billion in foreign aid contributed to the Palestinian Authority. The biggest thief was Arafat himself. His corruption was of a sober-minded type. He was a connoisseur of power, who used the money that he stole to buy influence, to provoke or defuse conspiracies, to pay gunmen, and to collect hangers-on the way other men collect stamps or butterflies. Arafat had several advisers who oversaw the system of patronage and theft, which was convincingly outlined in a series of investigative articles by Ronen Bergman that appeared during the late 1990s in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.


The Oslo Accords created something called the Palestinian Authority, but to this day there really is no such thing. The assertion that the Palestinian Authority does not exist may seem strange to Western ears, because honorifics such as "President Yasir Arafat" and "Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath" have been employed so often over the past ten years that it is hard for all but the most devilish skeptics not to assume the existence of a state apparatus roughly equivalent to that which operates in the United States or in Western Europe. Instead what exists on the ground is a vast and scattered archipelago of randomly located government ministries, competing security-services headquarters, and prisons that operate according to no coordinated plan. In the slow-moving offices of the major ministries, located in the al-Tiri district of Ramallah, you can find the murafiqoon of the dead leader—his companions of the last four decades, the veterans of the legendary victories and defeats and thousands of late-night meetings and press conferences. The one constant among the crystal eagles, EU paperweights, inlaid mother-of-pearl clocks from Syria, and other mementoes of their travels is the standard-issue high-definition photograph of the golden-domed Mosque of Omar, in Jerusalem, set against a cloudless blue sky.


Young Fatah cadres in the West Bank and Gaza soon found that the corruption of their elders was matched by a complete lack of positive ideas—however farfetched or loony—about the form that a future Palestinian polity might take. There would be no Year Zero of the Palestinian revolution. Western-style parliamentary institutions did exist but had little power. What followed Arafat's return to Palestine was a decade-long thieves' banquet at which Fatah's old guard divided up the spoils of Oslo and treated ordinary Palestinians as conquered subjects. When the second intifada, popularly known as the al-Aqsa intifada, started, the members of the young guard, most of whom were now firmly anchored in middle age, rallied around the Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti—whose fiery denunciations of official corruption had led to frequent clashes with Arafat—in the hope that violence would serve as a catalyst for change. Here again, the young guard of Fatah would become little more than cannon fodder for their elders; Barghouti was arrested by the Israelis in 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield, for masterminding terror attacks, and was sentenced to five consecutive life terms in prison.


"Arafat's great secret is patience," Yasir Abd Rabbo explains, of the man he served for more than three decades. "He does not cut even a thread to a fly. He keeps lines open with everybody. He is Arafat the progressive, Arafat the Islamist, Arafat the conservative, and Arafat the enlightened. So he was with the Saudi kings and with the kings of the Kremlin at the same time, with Fidel Castro and all kinds of imams and the pope. The one main issue he did not compromise in his life was the independence of the Palestinian movement. He believed since the beginning that if he did not preserve the independence of the Palestinian movement from the other Arab regimes, he will be doomed."


Ramduh Nofal says that the impetus for the violence was the statement by the newly elected Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that he would not speak to Arafat directly. Arafat was furious at the slight. "I was with him in his office," Nofal recalls. "He got up and walked around the desk. He was very, very angry. Finally he calmed down a bit and he pointed to the phone on his desk. He said, 'I will make Netanyahu call me on this phone.'"


Arafat ordered demonstrators into the streets, and told them to provoke the Israelis. When violence erupted, the Israelis were blamed. "I was sitting with him again when the phone on his desk rang, and he looked at me and said, 'It's Netanyahu.' And it was him."


The second intifada also began with the intention of provoking the Israelis and subjecting them to diplomatic pressure. Only this time Arafat went for broke. As a member of the High Security Council of Fatah, the key decision-making and organizational body that dealt with military questions at the beginning of the intifada, Nofal has firsthand knowledge of Arafat's intentions and decisions during the months before and after Camp David. "He told us, 'Now we are going to the fight, so we must be ready,'" Nofal remembers. Nofal says that when Barak did not prevent Ariel Sharon from making his controversial visit to the plaza in front of al-Aqsa, the mosque that was built on the site of the ancient Jewish temples, Arafat said, "Okay, it's time to work."


When it became clear that Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli opposition leader, would win the Israeli elections in February of 2001, Nofal went to Arafat and urged him to call off the intifada. "There were a lot of people sitting around, including Saeb Erekat and Yasir Abd Rabbo," Nofal remembers.


"I told him, 'Abu Ammar, I need the security to speak openly.' The Bedouin say, 'Give me the security to speak freely.' He said to me, 'Speak.'


"I said to him, 'Abu Ammar, Barak will lose, Sharon is coming, the military work is not our field. It is Sharon's field. He needs it. So please, Abu Ammar, let us go out from this field, and leave Sharon as the hayawan muftaris [the flesh-eating animal] to play alone.'"


"Those who were sitting around Arafat, they said, 'Ah, you are afraid of Sharon!'" Nofal recalls, shaking his head. "'Sharon will not stay in power. Barak stayed eighteen months. Sharon will stay nine. And if we conquer him, this is the last bullet in the Israeli gun!' They said, 'So, khalas [enough already]—why are you afraid?' I said, 'I am afraid that he will destroy us in these nine months, and I doubt that he will fail.' At that time Arafat kept silent. He was listening. But most of those around opposed what I said."


"And I think Saudi Arabia also played a role in Arafat's decision to keep the intifada going," Nofal says, agreeing with a similar analysis presented to me by Abd Rabbo. "Clinton put his initiative on the table on the eighteenth of December, after three months of intifada. Arafat visited Saudi Arabia. At that time the Saudi Arabian leadership told him, 'Wait, don't give this card to Clinton. Clinton is going, Bush is coming. Bush is the son of our friend. We will get more for you from him.' Then we discovered that Saudi Arabia couldn't do anything, that it is not a matter of personal issues or friendship. And Sharon succeeded very well, and put us in a corner."


Iyad Sarraj, a human-rights activist and the director of the leading mental-health organization in Gaza; when he complained about the poor state of civil liberties under President Arafat, he was jailed three times, beaten, and tortured. A handsome secularist in his forties stated:


"Palestinians have lost the battle because of their lack of organization and because they have been captives of rhetoric and sloganeering rather than actual work," he says. "I believe that the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians in one way or the other is between development and underdevelopment, civilization and backwardness. Israel was established on the rule of law, on democratization, and certain principles that would advance Israel, while the Arabs and the Palestinians were waiting always for the prophet, for the rescuer, for the savior, the mahdi. Arafat came, and everyone hung their hats on him without realizing that there is a big gap between the rescuer and the actual work that needs to be done. This is where the Palestinians lost again the battle. They lost it in '48 because of their backwardness, ignorance, and lack of organization in how to confront the Zionist enemy. They lost it when they had the chance to build a state, because the PA was absolutely corrupt and disorganized."


Early on in the Oslo process, Muhammad Dahlan, a key security advisor, sometimes called the crown Prince of Gaza  said,he remembers being alone with Arafat when Prime Minister Rabin called the Palestinian leader on the phone and asked to change a key point in the Oslo agreement. Arafat agreed on the spot. "He thought it was the fish market," Dahlan adds.


Copyright © 2005 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.

The Atlantic Monthly; September 2005; In a Ruined Country; Volume 296, No. 2; 60-91



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