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Arafat`s legacy is ignored, but his mistakes should not be
Tony Karon
The National UAE / September 5. 2010 2:50PM GMT

This week`s photograph of four Middle Eastern leaders striding purposefully alongside the US president down a White House red carpet was nearly identical to an image from 15 years earlier. The only man to appear in both pictures was Egypt`president Hosni Mubarak, who last Wednesday joined Jordan`s King Abdullah, the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the US president Barack Obama at a White House dinner to inaugurate a new round of direct peace talks.

The 1995 edition, a signing ceremony for a second phase of the Oslo Accords, featured King Abdullah`s father, King Hussein, the former president Bill Clinton, the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

But the cast of characters was hardly the only difference between the two events. Sure, Mr Obama sought to claim continuity, challenging his guests to continue the work of `peacemakers who dared greatly�`, listing them as `egin and Sadat, Rabin and King Hussein`. Had Mr Obama simply forgotten the name of the guy in what looked like an old British Army uniform and a keffiyeh?

No, by writing Arafat out of the history of the peace process, Mr Obama simply heeded the self-serving American-Israeli conventional wisdom in the post-Camp David era, which blamed its failure entirely on the PLO leader.

Any honest reckoning with those events knows that there was plenty of blame to go around, and most Palestinians do not question Arafat`s refusal of what was offered at Camp David. He may have been a deeply flawed leader in many respects, but it would be foolish to ignore that he, more than any other Palestinian leader, put a two-state solution on the Palestinian national agenda.

Arafat`s name might be taboo in Washington, but his portrait hangs in pride of place whenever Mr Abbas appears in public in Ramallah. That`s because Arafat`s political authority remains vital to sell the idea of statehood in the West Bank and Gaza as victory for a movement founded to reclaim the land lost by Palestinians in 1948. Mr Abbas, whose own political authority among Palestinians is but a fraction of Arafat�`s, desperately needs to claim Arafat`s mantle to sell any political deal with Israel.

Arafat`s omission from Mr Obama`s narrative is just another sign that this is not the same peace process as Oslo. Hokey as Arafat�`s army surplus store outfit may have been, it nonetheless signified that he was arriving at the talks as a combatant.

Mr Abbas, in his black suit, may hold the same offices as Arafat did, but he`s not engaged in any other kind of struggle with Israel. Instead, he comes to the table only as a supplicant, a ward of the West and the moderate Arab regimes, who tells his own people that he has no option but to participate against his better judgement for fear of his administration being pauperised by its donors.

It should not be forgotten, though, that if Mr Abbas arrives in Washington signalling Palestinian defeat, Arafat`s own strategy may have set the stage for that defeat. After failing to get the deal he needed at Camp David, Arafat backed a popular uprising and encouraged its armed component, hoping the resulting crisis would force the US to broker a deal more favourable to the Palestinians. Instead, the campaign of suicide terror inside Israel played massively to the Israelis` advantage. Not only did the Palestinians pay a far higher price in blood, the Second Intifada also brought an epic defeat on the political and diplomatic fronts.

Nobody remembers, now, that Ariel Sharon (and Mr Netanyahu) were far more unequivocal in their rejection of the offer made by Ehud Barak at Camp David than Arafat had been. The security crisis created by the intifada allowed the Bush administration`s Likudniks to put Oslo in the deep freeze, turning the Israeli-Palestinian issue simply into a matter of terrorism - and in a post-September 11 world, most of the West simply fell in line.

On the terrain of violence, the Palestinians are hopelessly outgunned by Israel, which is also able to fit Palestinian strategies of violence into their own narrative of victimhood designed to neutralise diplomatic pressure to end the occupation. It is on the terrain of political pressure that Israel is most vulnerable: that much seems to be recognised now even by many Hamas leaders. The parliamentary speaker Aziz Abu Dweik recently told the Wall Street Journal that the non-violent defiance expressed in the recent flotilla - has done more for Gaza than 10,000 rockets. Not that Hamas is following that logic. The recent attacks on settlers will provoke another cycle of violence that can only imperil some of the political and diplomatic gains the Palestinians have made since the Gaza war of January 2009.

The Obama administration�`s peace effort is not designed to implement a two-state solution; its express purpose is a `framework agreement` to keep the two sides co-operating on incremental improvements in life on the West Bank, while talking about the guidelines for a two-state solution that could be implemented some time in the future. (The Bush administration, perhaps more bluntly, used the term `shelf agreement` for the same idea.) It`s a way for Washington to check the `peace process�` box without actually substantially altering the status quo.

Mr Abbas clearly feels he has no option but to go along with whatever`s on offer, but there`s little reason to believe he will get anything close to the deal he needs. The grim reality facing the Palestinians now is that neither a new round of terror attacks nor Mr Abbas` diplomatic efforts offer them much hope. Still their situation is far from hopeless. The unprecedented international support for non-violent challenges to the occupation, and the diplomatic isolation that caused so much anxiety in Israel during the last 18 months, when Palestinian guns were relatively silent, suggests that their fate may yet rest in their own hands.

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst who blogs at

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