WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of ecstatic Palestinians looked to the Jenin sky, some with tears of joy, to follow the two Russian-made helicopters, donated by Egypt to Yasser Arafat, as they whirled the dust of the West Bank town and landed in an empty lot.
It was November 2, 1995, exactly nine years before the Palestinian leader fell into an irreversible coma last week. Jenin was the first of five West Bank towns to be, as the Palestinians saw it, “liberated.” And the ultimate liberator was Arafat.
The mythical icon of the Palestinian liberation movement, the person who West Bank Palestinians knew only as a two-dimensional poster figure, emerged from one of the helicopters. It was, literally, deus-ex machina.
As he would later do in each of his “liberation” appearances in the winter of 1995, the beaming kiss-blowing Arafat electrified the crowd with victory signs and vague slogans. His speech featured no platform, no plan, not even a call to roll up sleeves and start the work of nation building or, for that matter, building peace with Israel. Instead, he repeated revolutionary catchphrases such as, “Oh, you mountain, no wind shall shatter you.”
After the rally, peddlers sold thousands of blowup Arafat figures for five Israeli shekels each. Hours later, youngsters remained at Jenin’s main square, smoking cigarettes, blowing up the Arafat-head balloons, and coloring in the red-white-green-and-black colors of the Palestinian flag that for so many years were banned in the territories by Israeli military law.
Many frustrated Palestinians soon came to the conclusion that their leader was just that: a revolutionary flag, yet a hollow figure that could not make the transition from commanding a national-liberation movement in exile to governing a semi-state.
Arafat brought with him to Gaza the same cronyism and corruption that characterized his micro-managing approach to running the PLO in Tunis and in Lebanon. As a result, Palestinians in the territories developed an intricate ambivalence toward their leader: profound admiration for him as a founder, a symbol and an unrelenting fighter for the Palestinian cause, coupled with deep disappointment with his lack of governance skills. One Palestinian pollster tells the story of an old female peasant in a West Bank village, who, when asked about her leader, said she was not very impressed with Yasser Arafat but absolutely adores Abu Ammar, Arafat’s nom-de-guerre.
The Oslo accords in the mid-1990s gave Arafat a chance to become not only an effective leader of the Palestinians, but also a trustworthy partner for Israel.
High-ranking Israelis, Palestinians and Americans believed that Arafat would deliver on both fronts — and for good reason. Since 1974, Arafat was the leader, within the Palestinian Liberation Organization, of an evolutionary process that eventually focused on liberating only a part of Palestine, the territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Sixteen years ago, Arafat forced PLO hard-liners to accept a series of pragmatic resolutions at the Palestinian National Council’s 19th congress in Algiers. Late at night, he symbolically proclaimed the independence of Palestine.
Israel cut the electricity to the West Bank and Gaza to prevent Palestinians from watching the live feed from Algeria, and arrested anyone who was caught celebrating. I too was arrested that night in Nablus, with other Israeli reporters trying to cover the celebrations. Israel chose to cover its ears a month later, when Arafat, at a special session of the United Nations General Assembly in Geneva and in subsequent media interviews, condemned and renounced terrorism and confirmed the right of all parties to the Middle East conflict, including Israel, “to live in peace and security.”
So after Arafat signed the Oslo Accord in 1993, committing to a peaceful end to the conflict with Israel, and came to the territories a year later to lead an autonomous Palestinian entity, the Israeli military and political establishment struggled to adjust to a new Palestinian society led by a transformed Arafat. Israeli soldiers and Palestinian policemen — former PLO guerillas — were jointly patrolling the streets of Gaza and Jericho in what seemed to many observers to be the probable beginning of an epoch of peace.
But Arafat failed to deliver security, the chief requirement of the Oslo deal. He also failed to convince the Israeli people that he really cared about their safety or about forging peaceful relations. Time after time, Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, American diplomats and Israeli-Arab advisers counseled him to reach out to Israeli Jews. He didn’t.
The only Jews with whom he had strong relations were the militantly anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta. On the walls of his Gaza office, overlooking the Mediterranean, the only sign of his relations with Jews was an appreciation plaque from the fringe sect.
In 1994 and 1995, I visited his Gaza headquarters twice — once with a group of Israeli professors from Ben-Gurion University, and once with left-leaning Knesset members. Both times, he mystified the visitors by pulling a piece of paper from his shirt pocket in an attempt to prove some bizarre conspiracy theory. Once it was an enlarged picture of an Israeli coin, which, Arafat baselessly argued, carried an ancient map of Palestine, Trans-Jordan and Mesopotamia, and therefore proved Israel’s secret scheme to conquer all the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates River.
More than once, Arafat claimed that anti-Israeli terrorism was the work of Palestinian collaborators hired by hard-line Israeli officials to sabotage the peace process. Israeli doves were appalled.
I once relayed a question that doves often asked to one of Arafat’s aides: Why doesn’t the chairman try harder to show that he understands the sensitivities of Israeli Jews?
Arafat, replied the senior aide, is the leader of the Palestinians, not the Israelis. He saw himself as the leader of all the Palestinians — the pragmatic supporters of a two-state solution, but also those who viewed compromise as treason.
Many believe that Arafat has always had the deepest commitment to the cause of the 1948 Palestinian refugees, who seek to return to Israel proper, as opposed to the territories. Others say that he has hardened his views in recent years, after Israel shunned him and the Americans followed suit.
The prevailing view in the Israeli political and security apparatus in recent years is that the Palestinian leadership, headed by Arafat, is not interested in achieving a state alongside Israel, but in perpetuating the conflict with the long-term aspiration of destroying the Jewish state. Israeli Major General Giora Eiland, the architect of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral approach to dealing with the Palestinians, dubbed this Palestinian strategy “Arafatism.” Not all Palestinians are “Arafatists,” Eiland told a Washington crowd in May. Unfortunately, he said, those who are not are not in power.
It remains to be seen if Arafat’s successors will convince Israeli leaders and the Israeli public that “Arafatism” as a political strategy disappeared with their fallen leader.