Yasser Arafat: the King Lear of Palestine

January 03, 2004 12:00 AM

Ten years have passed since the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were signed in Washington. The dramatic and historic handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in the White House Garden has since become a frequent clip shown among other dramatic scenes before television news bulletins.

To many in America and Europe, especially those who work in the media, the scene was sanctified, easily lending itself to medieval imagery: A tall, white, young Christian leader by the name of William is stretching his hands like a falcon, bringing together two shorter figures ­ a Jew and an Arab ­ like a father presenting a bride to a groom.

What the three figures wore was also significant: Rabin and Clinton wore western suits. Their grey hair was open to the air, declaring their age and wisdom, while Arafat’s keffiya emphasized the exoticism, concealment, danger and potential hostility of the sons of Ismail. The scene fit well into the colonial, racist, Crusader-like world view. It was a trinity coming out of the White House, the Olympus of international politics.

To people in the Middle East however, the scene was much less impressive. It was simply a scene of defeat and surrender. With that handshake, the Palestinian leadership was giving up 78 percent of the land of Palestine, and the right of over 4 million Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and live under a government of their choice.

Yet peace with Israel was damaging to no one more than Yasser Arafat, the most recent King Lear in the Arab world. Arafat had built his legitimacy almost entirely on fighting Israel. Until the 1991 Gulf War, he sided with the party that was bombing Israel and was being bombed by the United States. In one Palestinian film, a character in Gaza is desperately trying to fix his TV to watch the handshake at the White House, and when another character asks him why he was so concerned, the man with the TV answers: “I want to see Arafat in Washington. Do you know what Arafat means!”

The other character then skeptically replies: “And do you know what Washington means?”

The essence of Oslo is that Israel will eventually end its occupation of the Palestinians in return for the Palestinian to occupy themselves. With some simplification, the logic of the agreement was this: Since the Palestinians wanted independence and Israelis wanted security, a Palestinian independence should be designed whose main function would be to secure Israel. Economically, many firms with Palestinian names, and Israeli shareholders, were to be established, thus opening the markets of the Arab world to businesses that are Palestinian in name and Israeli in reality. Security wise, the Palestinians would not have an army, but an extremely strong police force was definitely a requirement, and politically, if the Palestinians accepted Israel, who else in the Arab world would dare not to. In every aspect the Palestinian Authority or even the independent state of Palestine was meant to be a marketing agent for Israel in the Arab world and even in the world at large.

What the PLO got in return was American and Israeli recognition. In the charter of the PLO, the representation of the Palestinian people was seen as a precondition for the liberation of Palestine; the Palestinians had to be recognized as an independent people in order for their rights of return and self-determination to be recognized. Yet, when it comes to the United States and Israel, recognition of the PLO under the Arafat’s leadership (as the soul legitimate representative of the Palestinian people) contradicts the PLO’s mandate of liberation. For, giving up the aim to liberate Palestine is the pre-condition for gaining the enemies’ recognition.

When Arafat denounced terrorism and shook hands with Rabin at the White House, he achieved Israel’s recognition of his representative capacity ­ not liberation. When Arafat denounced armed struggle as a form of terrorism, he was denouncing his own image ­ the image for which he was, and to an extent still is, loved and admired in Palestine and elsewhere. The call for liberating Palestine, all of Palestine, gave Arafat his place in history. In a sense, Arafat is the creation of his cause, the creation of his claim.

But precisely because of this, the Israelis do not believe him; no matter how much he denies his claim now, no matter how many guarantees he gives the Israelis that he has given up, his very existence symbolically challenges the state of Israel.

Because his legitimacy was so much based on resistance, the Israelis do not trust that the Palestinian government, under his leadership, can occupy its own people as efficiently as the Israeli Army. For the last 10 years, Arafat has been tried and tested by Israel, and he has not passed the test yet!

Faced with this position, the task of the Palestinian Authority under Arafat’s leadership becomes a extremely delicate and contradictory. It must prove to the Israelis that an occupation army cannot secure Israel, and thus encourage resistance to the occupation, yet at the same time, it has to prove that it ­ i.e. the Palestinian Authority ­ can do the job much better, and thus crack down on the resistance. For its very survival, the Palestinian Authority has to accomplish two contradictory tasks: It has to have the cake and eat it, too. Either that, or Arafat will become an “obstacle to peace,” attacked by none other than the Israelis, with whom he sacrificed so much to make peace and becoming yet another King Lear in the storms of the Middle East.

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