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JERUSALEM ISSUE BRIEF

Vol. 3, No. 13     30 December 2003


Is There an Alternative to Arafat's Leadership?

Barry Rubin


  • Arafat is not a nationalist. If he was, he could have had a state in 1968, in 1979, at several points in the 1980s, and certainly in the year 2000. But he is not interested in the well-being of the Palestinian people, he's interested in the Palestinian cause.

  • In many ways, one of the keys to understanding Arafat is that he is basically an old-fashioned Islamist, influenced by his early connections with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He believes that victory is inevitable and that God will bring him victory. He believes it would be a sin to compromise, and that he has no right to give up anything between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. It is better to leave the battle to future generations than to make any political settlement that limits their ability to fight for total victory.

  • Arafat is also a romantic revolutionary, the Middle Eastern counterpart of Che Guevara who glories in struggle and battling against the odds. He has no desire to become a statesman. He prefers to keep the revolution going.

  • In each phase of his life - in Jordan (1967-1971), Lebanon (1971-1982), Tunis (1982-1994), and the West Bank and Gaza (1994 to the present) - Arafat has ended up destroying his own position because of the belief that violence always benefits his cause, the conviction that he doesn't have to implement his agreements, and the use of extremist front groups to commit violence for which he can disclaim responsibility.

  • The bottom line is: Arafat will not make a deal. Therefore, either an alternative to Arafat is found or we will have to out-wait him, in order to achieve peace.


Arafat: An Islamist Revolutionary

It is very difficult to understand Yasser Arafat, a man who has been on the world scene literally longer than anyone else. He has been a political activist for more than 55 years, the head of his own organization for 44 years, the leader of his people for 36 years, and the head of what amounts to a government for about 10 years. What does he have to show for this? In material terms he hasn't achieved a victory, he hasn't achieved a state, he hasn't bettered the material condition of his people - in fact, arguably, he has worsened it. This is a record of failure unparalleled in the world.

Arafat's successes are the almost single-handed creation of a movement and of an ideological point of view called Palestinian nationalism. He has kept the movement together, kept it independent of Arab states and other states - which is not easy - and has been the director of the most successful, long-term, political public relations campaign in history.

The political worldview of Yasser Arafat is much misunderstood. It is very easy to see Arafat as a nationalist, but he is not. A nationalist is someone who believes that his people are better off in having a nation-state, so obtaining this becomes their highest priority. They want a nation-state as the framework within which they can develop their culture, develop their economy, and be able to live in peace independently from other countries. If this was Arafat's worldview, he could have had a state in 1968, in 1979, at several points in the 1980s, and certainly in the year 2000, but he continues to reject this.

One of the main reasons Yasser Arafat has not behaved in this manner is that he is an old-fashioned Islamist, very much influenced by his early connections with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He's the only Islamist in the PLO leadership, believing that victory is inevitable because God will bring him victory. He does not have to worry about the balance of forces or about defeat. He doesn't worry about how long the struggle will take or about its costs because he is sure he will win in the end, because his goal is God-given and just. He believes it would be a sin to compromise, and that he has no right to give up anything between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Arafat is also a romantic revolutionary, the Middle Eastern counterpart of Che Guevara. Arafat glories in struggle, revolution, battling against the odds. He has no desire to become a statesman, to wear a suit and tie, which to a romantic revolutionary would be proof that he has betrayed his cause.

I have studied Yasser Arafat for more than 30 years, and the pattern of his life may be said to include four phases, in each of which he has made the same mistakes and ended up with a similar result. These phases include Jordan from 1967 to 1971, Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, Tunis from 1982 to 1993, and the West Bank and Gaza since 1994. In each phase he ended up destroying his own position because of the belief that violence always benefits his cause, the belief that he doesn't have to implement his agreements, and the use of extremist front groups to commit violence for which he can disclaim responsibility. It is important to understand that we are not dealing here with a "normal" political leader in many respects.


Arafat Will Not Make a Deal 

The experience of the past decade has taught that no deal can be made with this man, for a variety of reasons. One reason is that he doesn't want to make a deal. He is currently pursuing an anti-state strategy: continuing the struggle, making Israel look bad, mobilizing international support, getting more and more concessions, and not offering to give anything in return. This is his strategy and it has been remarkably successful in some respects.

Despite the fact that one can't deal with Arafat, prime ministers meet him, reporters interview him, and he is given chance after chance. But the bottom line is: Arafat will not make a deal. The only kind of deal he would make would be one that left matters open so that he could pursue total victory, and Israel is not going to make such a deal. Therefore, either an alternative to Arafat is found or we will have to out-wait him, in order to achieve peace.


Reading Palestinian Public Opinion

According to Palestinian public opinion polls, a majority say things like: "We want everything. The struggle should continue. We should continue attacks on Israel even if we have a state and a peace agreement." At the same time, the polls show another opinion held often by many of the same people: "We want this to be over. We just want our kids to go to school. We don't want to face all this violence. We want some kind of an agreement."

The problem is that when the Palestinian leadership only reinforces the hard-line viewpoint, it makes peace impossible and prevents the development of moderate forces. During the period 1994-2000, Arafat made only one speech to his people that preached conciliation. During most of this period, Arafat's main emphasis was on continued confrontation and militancy. This has to be challenged if there is going to be a basis of support for peace.


After Arafat

The attempt to replace Arafat has failed, but the struggle to succeed him has now begun. What will happen if Arafat dies or becomes disabled? Arafat's successor would probably be chosen by the Fatah Central Committee, and will be male, Muslim, a member of Fatah, and a resident of the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Abu Ala is a reasonably likely candidate for this position, particularly because he is not strong. Those looking to succeed Arafat want someone who is not too strong so that they can try to become the real leader. The problem is not just that Arafat has not designated a successor. It is that he has blocked the development of anybody who could be a successor.

Abu Mazen is another candidate. He is secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee where he has been Fatah's representative for many years. But how his recent failed term as prime minister will affect this issue - perhaps destroying his chances - is not clear yet.

If Arafat hangs on long enough, the succession will skip to a younger generation, with two major candidates being Mohammed Dahlan and Marwan Barghouti. Dahlan was the protege of Abu Jihad, Arafat's favored person in the leadership. Dahlan almost became the adopted son of Arafat, then he broke with Arafat, and was slapped in the face by Arafat. Dahlan's position on the peace process is basically: "Let's end this thing, let's make a deal." He's a tough guy, with a good base of support, good connections with security services, and he comes from Gaza.

Marwan Barghouti (now in Israeli custody), on the other hand, in a sense is going in the other direction, with the expressed position: "I'm ready to make peace with Israel but we can only do so after we've militarily defeated Israel." So even though on paper his position looks more moderate, it's basically a position for armed struggle. Barghouti was the military architect of this intifada and Arafat was the political architect. Barghouti represents the line of continued struggle, and Dahlan represents taking another road.


Why Have the Palestinians Kept Arafat?

Why have the Palestinians kept Arafat for so long? One reason is the fear that without Arafat there would be anarchy. Fear of civil war is a key factor why, for example, Feisal Husseini refused to go for the leadership himself, and why Abu Ala absolutely refuses to do anything effective to stop terrorism.

Arafat may have created a situation in which no one can rule effectively after he's gone. That doesn't mean that there will be civil war, it means that there will be no real leadership. Even if a leader is chosen, he may not feel that he has enough power to make a deal.

Arafat is a master at dealing with people, both in the West and in domestic Palestinian terms. He knows how to bring people up and push them down. Palestinians know that their careers are dependent on his favor. One example is Jibril Rajoub, formerly the CIA's favorite Palestinian. U.S. taxpayer's money paid for the filing cabinets in his office. He once expressed relatively moderate views and was estranged from Arafat, but now Arafat has brought him back as the head of his national security council, and Rajoub is now giving interviews calling on Arabs to rise up and kill American soldiers in Iraq.

A Palestinian once told me, "Egyptian politics is like the pyramid. Mubarak is at the top and there's a very wide base. Syrian politics is like the Eiffel Tower, Assad is at the top and there are a few people on each level. Palestinian politics is the shape of Yasser Arafat. Yasser Arafat is Palestinian politics and that's all there is to it."

For Arafat, control of information is also very important. To this day, Palestinians have no idea what was offered at Camp David or in the Clinton Plan - that President Clinton and Prime Minister Barak offered an independent Palestinian state in all of Gaza, the equivalent of all of the West Bank, most of east Jerusalem, and sovereignty over the al-Aksa mosque.

For Arafat, money is political. He wants funds to subsidize the people who support him, to give money secretly to support his forces in Lebanon, and to finance secret activities in east Jerusalem. What happened to the $3.5 billion given to about 2 million Palestinians in the 1990s? Did it go to build anything productive? Were Palestinian living standards raised? Why didn't Arafat use any of the money to help his people? Because he's not interested in the Palestinian people, he's interested in the Palestinian cause.

One of the biggest changes in the last three years has been a total turnabout in the relationship between the PA or the Fatah leadership and Hamas. During the 1990s, Arafat sought to win over and co-opt Hamas, and to make it his junior partner - a loyal opposition. Today, however, Arafat and Fatah are in complete alliance with Hamas.

It is not a question of "Can Arafat stop these extremists who are staging terrorist attacks?" These attacks are coordinated; there are regular meetings between Arafat's people and Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Arafat basically tells them when he doesn't want them to attack, like when Colin Powell is visiting. This alliance is extremely important and extremely dangerous. Those people who are most worried about it are some in Fatah and the Palestinian left who don't want to see Hamas take over one day, and who think Arafat's strategy is a disaster. This has been an incentive for some of them to see a negotiated end of the conflict, or at least a real ceasefire.  

*     *     *

Professor Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel. He is the author of Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography (Oxford, 2003). This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on the author's presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on December 3, 2003.


Dore Gold, Publisher; Lenny Ben-David, ICA Program Director; Mark Ami-El, Managing Editor. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (Registered Amuta), 13 Tel-Hai St., Jerusalem, Israel; Tel. 972-2-5619281, Fax. 972-2-5619112, Email: jcpa@netvision.net.il. In U.S.A.: Center for Jewish Community Studies, 5800 Park Heights Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21215 USA, Tel. (410) 664-5222; Fax. (410) 664-1228. Website: www.jcpa.org. © Copyright. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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