Yasser Arafat has been a walking symbol. With his own hands he created an image — part Fidel Castro, part Che Guevara, part Marshall Tito — of a man unifying his people under a pseudo-liberal and sole rule. The obscurity surrounding his birthplace, the somewhat hazy story of his life, his pretensions of being an engineer and a general who had never lost a battle, the way he used to repeat the same sentence three times over, his self-styled celibacy — all gave rise to Arafat’s unique image, making him one of the most well-known people in the world in the last few decades.
Arafat’s part in shaping the Palestinian people and in successfully placing the Palestinian issue on the world’s agenda cannot be overstated. In 1968, he took over as the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization; six years later, the Arab League passed its historic resolution that the PLO would be the sole representative of the Palestinian people. When he arrived at the United Nations building in Geneva in 1974, carrying both a gun and an olive branch, he was expressing his attitude: The end justifies the means, and the end is Palestinian independence — which can be achieved by either politics or force, or a combination of the two.
Arafat’s watershed came in 1974, when major resolutions were passed by the Palestine National Council and the Arab League and he made his first appearance before the U.N. The national council resolution marked the acceptance by the Palestinian leadership of the so-called stage theory. The theory argued for the Palestinian people taking any piece of land that Israel vacated in order to use it as a springboard from which to take control of the rest of the area. It was sufficiently obscure to be presented both as a camouflaged, extremist decision and as an astute way of persuading the Palestinian people to make do with less, without giving up on their dream.
The next milestone was the 1988 decision in Algeria by the Palestinian National Council to accept a two-state solution to the conflict and to renounce terrorism, which led to the opening of the American-Palestinian dialogue in Tunis. Five years later and an intifada later, Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, which entailed Palestinian recognition of Israel and a commitment — that was subsequently breached — not to use violence.
As is now clear, the negotiations on the permanent-status agreement and the Camp David Summit in 2000 did not turn Arafat into a De Gaulle. He is leaving this world still clad in military uniform, with the intifada still raging.
Most of us tend to see Arafat in black and white. Some people present him as merely a terrorist, while others present him as a statesman. However, Arafat has been a combination of the two.
The greatest asset he has possessed is his authority among the Palestinians, and the consensus he created around him. He led his people, but was very careful not to go too far, so as not to lose public support.
During the Camp David Summit in 2000, Arafat told President Clinton, “If I accept the proposals that have been made here, then you will have to come to my funeral.” This, of course, is not a serious argument. You can object to a proposal, or support it, but opposition that derives from fear for one’s life from extremists is, in my opinion, unforgivable.
Arafat did not have to accept the proposals made at Camp David by then-prime minister Ehud Barak. In fact, the plan Clinton proposed a few months later, as well as the ideas brought up at Taba in January 2001, was more to Arafat’s benefit. But rather than develop intensive negotiations based on the Camp David proposals, or the Clinton plan, or the talks at Taba, he got scared off.
The question asked repeatedly about Arafat was whether his intentions were “genuine.” Did he arrive in the territories with the aim of fomenting violence, wishing to die as the leader of a national liberation movement? Or did he arrive in the territories with the aim of making peace, wishing to die as the president of the State of Palestine? I believe that he came in order to set up a state, and to be the head of that state. I believe that as far as he was concerned, making peace with Israel was the price he had to pay to reach these objectives. Perhaps the terms upon which he would have been willing to make peace were not yet on the table, but perhaps, at the end of exhausting negotiations, it would have been possible to reach the stage of signing an agreement.
I remember a meeting with him at his office in Ramallah in 1998. It was immediately prior to his Wye Plantation talks with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Arafat asked me what Netanyahu’s true intentions were and whether he genuinely wanted an agreement or merely to appease Clinton. I told him: “Mr. Chairman, many Israelis, and not just Israelis, are asking exactly the same question about you. And I tell them: There is no point in attempting to penetrate a person’s inner thoughts. I presume that if Arafat were to wake up tomorrow morning and couldn’t see any Israelis around him, he would be very happy. Netanyahu, too, would prefer to wake up tomorrow morning and not see any Palestinians near him, but they both understand where they live, and it is necessary to encourage them to reach an agreement whereby both peoples will stop paying the harsh price that they have been paying for decades, for the continuation of the conflict between them.”
“You are right,” Arafat concluded, promising to take part in the summit despite his deliberations. This summit ended, as we all know, in a signed agreement between the two leaders.
Arafat was a very different person at various times during his life. He changed his mind, he took the changing circumstances into account, he allowed for the limitations of his movement’s power and he took into consideration the international arena and his own people — even while his own perspective of events was very subjective, problematic, conspiratorial and strange in the eyes of many, myself included.
It was possible to influence the environment in which Arafat made decisions, for better and for worse. I believe that during the Oslo process — which he did not initiate — we were successful in bringing him around to making positive decisions, just as in other situations, he made decisions that were dangerous both for himself and for his people. But the question that hung in the air during our Ramallah meeting six years ago about Arafat’s “true” intentions — that question remains today.
Arafat is exiting this world with the one asset he cannot bequeath, his authoritativeness. What remains for his heirs, who are presumed to be more pragmatic than Arafat and better accepted by the world’s leaders, is the question of intention: Will they be able to succeed where Arafat has not — signing an agreement with Israel that, in keeping with the Geneva accord, is also acceptable to the Palestinian people?