In Exile, Arafat Lost His Hold Over the Streets

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Yasser Arafat and his urbane negotiators are not the Palestinians who waged the last intifada — and that fact may be a key to understanding the inner workings of the current uprising. While it's widely recognized that Arafat may not be able to stop the current rebellion even if he chose to, what's less commonly recognized is that this is not simply because the next generation of intifada-ists who have taken up the stones of their older siblings will be disinclined to accept the old man's leadership. Every popular uprising, after all, has a leadership of its own, which organizes the street confrontations to channel anger for maximum political effect. And what may be most important about the current intifada is that its leaders are, in many cases, the same men who rose to leadership positions on the violent streets of the 1987–1991 uprising — men who may be increasingly reluctant to take orders from Arafat and his leadership circle, most of whom lived in exile during the last struggle.

Many of those who led the last intifada believe it was their efforts that saved Arafat and the PLO and made the peace process possible, and yet there's widespread resentment in their ranks at being sidelined politically once the exiled leaders arrived home.

To be sure, it's unlikely that Chairman Arafat's headquarters would have moved from Tunis to the West Bank without the intifada. The PLO's efforts to launch guerrilla warfare against Israel from neighboring Arab states had been singularly unsuccessful. Arafat's headquarters had been in Jordan in the late '60s and Lebanon in the '70s and early '80s, but by 1987 he was billeted in far-off Tunisia with few instruments to pursue his nationalist struggle. Then came the uprising in the West Bank and Gaza. The young men of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 may have suffered heavy casualties as they hurled stones and gasoline bombs at a well-armed adversary with little patience for their protests, but they also created a political crisis for Israel. It was the intifada more than anything that forced Israel to abandon efforts to foster an alternative leadership in territories under their control, to acknowledge the PLO as the legitimate representative of Palestinian aspirations and to open negotiations.

Then as now, the Israelis were able to contain the rebellion through force, but they were unable to end it — and the continued application of force was hurting Israel politically. That led the Israelis to begin tentative informal discussions with the PLO in 1989. Although the Palestinian delegates to the initial formal talks in Madrid in 1991 came from the West Bank and Gaza rather than from PLO headquarters, they all took direction from the leadership in Tunis.

Fast forward three years to the implementation of the Oslo Accord, and Yasser Arafat comes home, bringing with him a leadership corps from exile and setting up the Palestinian Authority as envisaged by the accord. But the top positions in Arafat's administration all went to returning exiles and Arafat cronies, while the local leaders who'd earned their stripes and scars in the heat of the intifada, and often did time in jail for it, were mostly overlooked or incorporated in subordinate roles in the Palestinian Authority. In many cases, it is those same shunned local leaders who are today once again running things on the seething streets of the West Bank and Gaza.

Arafat certainly needed the current rebellion to strengthen his hand at the negotiating table against proposals on Jerusalem he deemed political suicide. But its continuation precludes a return to the negotiating table, and therefore makes the attainment of his cherished dream of a Palestinian state increasingly unlikely in his lifetime. Even then, the Palestinian leader may have little option but to act as a spokesman for the intifada, for fear of simply sidelining himself.

The challenge to Arafat is partly generational. The kids on the streets are unlikely to listen to the cautionary advice of elders who they see as enfeebled by decades of Israeli occupation. In the face of their powerless parents, the "authority" projected by demagogues hawking martyrdom and the promise that sacrifice and confrontation will earn their freedom has an irresistible appeal for many young Palestinians. And, of course, parents may have a hard time stopping their children from doing what they themselves grew up doing — after all, the occupation began 33 years ago. Arafat should know better than anyone, because he was once a young rebel himself, rejecting the moderation of his parents' generation, taking over the PLO in 1968 and reorienting it toward independent armed struggle.

But it's not as much a generation gap as a gulf between the experience of different elements of the Palestinian leadership. Those who grew up under Israeli occupation are increasingly skeptical of the abilities of the leaders who came from abroad. They see themselves as the ones who know how to handle the Israelis, and they believe that the returning exiles have achieved pitifully little after seven years of negotiation. A growing number of Palestinians blame not only the Israelis, but also their current leadership for their current plight, and that makes the current intifada also an implicit protest against the Palestinian establishment.

So while the leaders around Arafat, in between saber-rattling, insist that peace talks can be resumed if the Israelis withdraw their forces to their pre–September 27 deployments, those leading from the street, such as Fatah activist Marwan Barghouti, insist they'll fight on until Israel has fully withdrawn from the West Bank and Gaza. Implicit in the current violence, therefore, is a power struggle within Palestinian ranks. And with Arafat aging and ailing and his immediate aides unable to command the loyalty of the streets, there's little cause for optimism that the Oslo Accord will be revived.