Unfortunately, Arafat's No Nelson Mandela

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"The problem with Yasser Arafat is that he's no Nelson Mandela." I've lost count of how many times I've head that complaint, both from Palestinians and Israelis.

It's an apples and oranges comparison, of course, given the widely different historical and political contexts that produced the PLO chairman and the imprisoned guerrilla leader who led South Africa's peaceful transition from apartheid. But the fact that it occurs so often on both sides of the intractable Middle East divide makes it worthy of examination.

The Israelis see in Mandela a leader who took a principled decision to make peace with his enemies, and kept his word. The Palestinians see him as a nationalist fighter who refused to compromise his principles even when that meant immense personal suffering — and as a leader guided by those same principles when making the historic compromises necessary to minimize bloodshed while pursuing his goals. And in both instances — and others — Arafat falls short by comparison.

Intifada as a bargaining chip

Arafat's leadership abilities are once more in the spotlight, as the latest cease-fire effort plunges him into yet another strategic crisis. While many of those who have waged the intifada on the ground these past nine months believe that a long-term, low-intensity war will eventually drive the Israeli soldiers and settlers out of the West Bank and Gaza — as it did in Lebanon — Arafat's agenda has been somewhat different. He can only achieve his goal of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza through negotiation with Israel and the international community, and so as much he chants the slogans of struggle he has, throughout, looked upon the uprising that has killed almost 500 Palestinians and more than 100 Israelis and ruined thousands of lives and livelihoods, as a means of improving his bargaining position. He has spent much of the uprising shuttling around foreign capitals trying to win support for renewed negotiations, hoping the uprising would function strengthen his hand at the table.

Last weekend he called it off, "in the higher interests of the Palestinian people," after the Europeans made it clear that funding for Arafat's Palestinian Authority would be withheld if he failed to take steps against terrorism. But the Palestinian leader has a problem, of course, because while a recent opinion poll in the West Bank and Gaza found that 76 percent of Palestinians support suicide bombings inside Israel, only a minority would give Arafat's notoriously corrupt administration a positive rating.

Palestinians are angry at Arafat, too

Indeed, as much as it suited Arafat's immediate agenda, the intifada was also viewed by many observers of Palestinian politics as an outpouring of anger against the Palestinian Authority. And many grassroots leaders of the uprising have made clear that they have no interest in a return to the negotiating table, regardless of Arafat's own intentions.

That's a major problem for Arafat, since any cease-fire would ultimately require the Palestinian Authority to begin re-arresting the Hamas and Islamic Jihad members released when the current intifada began. Arafat will have to convince his own security forces, who have been on the frontline of confrontation with Israel, that they need to once again round up some of the Islamist militants alongside whom they've fought these past nine months, in order to ensure Israel's security — and in exchange for no political gains beyond, perhaps, the easing of some of the collective punishments imposed by Israel in response to the uprising.

Arafat's dilemma is, in many ways, of his own making. And the Palestinians, who will at some point in the not-too-distant future have to choose his successor, may want to pay close attention to Arafat's mistakes — and, perhaps, to Mandela's example.

Pulling the keffiyeh over Palestinian eyes

The problem is ultimately a lack of communication. Arafat never made clear to his own people the massive compromises involved in the Oslo Peace process — the fact that the Palestinians were signing away their claim to most of historic Palestine, and that the best the millions of Palestinians descended from those made refugees by Israel's foundation in 1948 could hope for under the circumstances was some form of financial compensation. Arafat told his people that he was in negotiations with Israel that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian State with Jerusalem as its capital. On the ground, though, all they could see was the arrival of a class of PLO bureaucrats from Tunis who began to rapidly enrich themselves on the aid money pouring into the Palestinian Administration, and the continued expansion, at their expense, of Israel's settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

In contrast, Mandela negotiated with a lot more transparency, and always held himself accountable to his supporters, working to persuade them of the necessity of compromise rather than simply pretending it wasn't happening. He had rejected terrorism on principle: his soldiers were always under orders to avoid attacking civilians, even when their unarmed supporters on the ground were being massacred by the apartheid regime. And the South African leader also always displayed a keen understanding of his adversary's motivations and concerns, which gave him the ability both to read their tactics and articulate positions that could assuage their fears.

Arafat proclaimed his intention to fly the Palestinian flag over Jerusalem, but sent one of his lieutenants, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to negotiate a formula for "sharing" the Holy City that involved the Palestinian Authority setting up shop in the village of Abu Dis, which falls outside of Jerusalem's current municipal boundaries and declaring it their capital. When details of the plan leaked, Arafat denied and disowned it. And that may have been symbolic of his leadership style throughout the negotiation process.

No wonder, then, that Arafat hit a wall at Camp David, when the Israelis put their final offer on the table and it fell well short of what Arafat — or any other Palestinian leader —would be able to accept and survive politically (or even physically). He'd been speaking out of two different sides of his mouth all along, but now the game was up. And that left him no room to maneuver, except stir up confrontation in the hope that it would force the Israelis and their American backers to offer him a better deal.

Little gained, much lost

That hasn't happened. In fact, he's being offered a lot less than last year, and it's unlikely that any Israeli government will ever again trust him as a negotiating partner. But the Israelis still need him, because he remains the frontline of their defense against Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Ultimately, Arafat's primary weakness may be his distance from his own people. Mandela came of age politically in a mass movement based in the dusty streets of South Africa's townships, before finding himself forced underground and eventually jailed. Circumstances forced Arafat, by contrast, almost from the outset to engage in the underground politics of conspiracy — small groups of trusted insiders launching guerrilla attacks and melting back into the civilian population. Later, as the leader of an exiled Palestinian movement more often than not at odds with its Arab hosts, those methods kept Arafat alive and maintained the coherence of a movement attempting to represent a nation that straddled the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza and a diaspora scattered across the Arab world.

But once back home, Arafat's time-honored methods translated into rampant cronyism and a singular failure to nurture a democratic political culture in the areas under his control. And while that may have kept things stable, for a time, it appears to have worked against Arafat when the time comes to take unpopular decisions.

Of course, the Israelis would be wrong to think a Palestinian leader who was more like Mandela would be more pliant. Quite the contrary. They'd find it a lot harder to conclude a deal with a Mandela, or any leader of more democratic bent than Arafat. But in the end, they'd be able to rest a lot more assured that such a deal would hold.