The Many Minds of Arafat

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Yasser Arafat must have had an objective in mind when he sat down in late September with leaders of the Tanzim, the Palestinians' grassroots militias, and instructed them to prepare for possible confrontation. Maybe he thought a judicious application of violence could strengthen his negotiating hand with the Israelis. Or he wanted to restore his footing with Palestinians alienated by the deeply frustrating process of peace. Or he had given up hope of ever negotiating a settlement acceptable to his people and decided to let them express their profound dismay.

Whatever his intent, Palestinian anger has set off an explosion with fallout far beyond anyone's imaginable game plan. The Palestinians-and the Israelis-have rushed into a mind-set in which bloodletting has overtaken common sense, religious and ethnic hatred have overwhelmed political disagreement. Each vicious act has inspired vicious reprisal, locking the combatants in a circle in which neither is ready or willing to desist first. In the process, both have inflicted wounds that cut to the core of their dilemma: how to coexist. Logic, even self-interest, has been sacrificed to emotions run out of control.

How did this happen? What brought Palestinians and Israelis to a place where communicating a point entails raw violence? How did seven painstaking years of building toward peace smash apart in two weeks? Why did Barak and Arafat, who had just taken the unprecedented step of dining together at Barak's home three weeks ago, preside over the worst bloodshed between their peoples in three decades? What went so awfully, fatally wrong?

The story seems to begin on Sept. 28, when Israeli hard- liner Ariel Sharon decided to pay a provocative visit to the Jerusalem site both Jews and Muslims hold most holy. But that's only the last chapter in a crisis that traces its roots back to Maryland, at Camp David, in July.

Arafat did not want to be there. He had warned President Clinton that he was not ready for the hard decisions of a final settlement, and the cia had been advising the Administration for some time that ordinary Palestinians were even less so. Arafat, aging and in uncertain health, was tired of the continuous pressure to compromise principles he held sacred, especially after all the concessions he had already made. His people were fed up with a process that had won them only the shards of an independent state and a life in which checkpoints and expanding Jewish settlements rubbed their noses daily in the continuing indignity of occupation. But Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak had urgent reasons to get a deal done: fearful violence could quickly erupt, Clinton had a legacy to secure before leaving office, and Barak needed to fulfill his promise of peace to hold on to his.

Many Israelis assert, especially now, that Arafat never-ever-intended to make peace. He just wanted to spin out a process that had proved immensely rewarding, elevating him to the heady level of statesman, Nobel Prize peacemaker, a strutter on the world stage without the distraction of workaday governing. But Barak's intimates say that back in July they genuinely didn't know his end game. "He went through all the rounds of talks," says an Israeli official involved in the negotiations, "and we never had a clear indication that he wants an agreement that is obviously a compromise." It is just as possible that Arafat believed he could eventually accomplish the impossible-to push and provoke Israel, with the help of Washington and an eager international community, into giving the Palestinians most, almost all, maybe even all, they demanded. Hadn't Barak eventually offered Syria all of the Golan Heights and withdrawn from all of Lebanon? Arafat has so often fluctuated between romantic and realist, freedom fighter and peacemaker, that few could be certain which psychology held the upper hand.

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What is clear is that Arafat concluded he couldn't do the deal on the table that day in Maryland. Not when he saw that the "best offer" Barak was making did not give the Palestinians true sovereignty over their whole share of Jerusalem. But Barak felt he was going way beyond his own political brief when he proffered what Israelis considered a dangerously generous proposal.

Arafat had reason to anticipate something more daring. Israeli negotiator Yossi Beilin says that under the informal paper he drew up with Arafat lieutenant Abu Mazen in 1995, both sides would have their capital in greater Jerusalem, residents of East Jerusalem would be Palestinian citizens, and the Temple Mount would be declared by Israel to be "extraterritorial." As Beilin told Time, "we would withdraw our sovereignty over it. Our sovereignty is only on paper anyway, the gesture would be very significant to Palestinians and wouldn't cost us anything."

When Barak proposed so much less, Arafat felt cheated. He said no, but Clinton and Barak thought it was another bout of brinkmanship. But for Arafat, Barak's plan was a deal he could not swallow. What looked impossibly generous to Israelis looked impossibly meager to him. In his mind, insiders say, he was guardian of the Holy City not just for Palestinians but for all Arabs, even all Muslims. He wanted history to rank him with Saladin and Caliph Omar bin Khattab, who centuries before had rescued Jerusalem from infidels. He feared that if he compromised, he would be deemed a traitor to his people, to all Islam. He feared that he might even be killed for it, as Anwar Sadat had been assassinated by embittered Egyptians for his imperfect peace.

Diplomats involved with Arafat have a fistful of theories to explain his Camp David decision. He remains an unreconstructed revolutionary who cannot bring himself to sign a paper saying "It's over." He is a deer caught in the headlights, who gets hysterical and indecisive in the clutch, as earlier negotiations have sometimes shown. More practically, he realized how cut off from the peace process many Palestinians had grown, holding it in horror or contempt or deepest skepticism. Or Arafat may simply have arrived at a chilling truth that day: that Palestinians and Israelis can never reconcile their competing claims to Jerusalem. Symbols as potent as the Holy City could not be fairly divided. Arafat's no was an assertion, says an Israeli official, "that he cannot be associated with these concessions."

If history were written today, Israel and its allies would blame Arafat for missing his best opportunity to found a peaceful Palestinian state. But Palestinians and their Arab brethren would-and do-say history will praise him for having the dignity and strength not to sell them out. When he returned from Camp David, crowds hailed him as "the Saladin of this generation!" Everything that has happened since reflects these opposite visions of reality.

Arafat came home bitterly disgruntled. He was cast as the intransigent spoiler. Clinton publicly lavished praise on Barak for his flexibility and chided Arafat for his lack of it. Much of the world embraced the Israeli interpretation that their awesome generosity had been stupidly spurned. Clinton seriously underestimated how entrenched Arafat was in his positions before the summit, and still thought he could budge him afterward. U.S. officials expected that Arafat would come forward with a counteroffer. Then Clinton could stage-manage a split-the-difference agreement giving both sides cover for daring but conflict-settling compromises.

But Arafat never called. He went on a tour of the Arab states, and they heaped praise on him for his steadfastness, so unlike the cold shoulder he had suffered for a decade. But when he tried to translate that into approval for the unilateral declaration of a state in September, Washington sent its diplomats ahead to squelch the idea-and Arafat was forced to shelve it.

So the Palestinian leader sat in Gaza brooding on his next move. The U.S. phoned with an assortment of "bridging" proposals-complicated custodial arrangements dividing holy-site sovereignty with the U.N., with Islamic representatives, even with God. According to a Palestinian negotiator, Arafat angrily told Clinton, "If you want to give sovereignty over al-Aqsa to God, then would you accept that the White House be put under God's sovereignty too?" Palestinians resented summitry that they found humiliating, as if the U.S. were ordering them to comply-and anger bubbled up in the streets. Besieged by political troubles, Barak warned that the window for a peace agreement was quickly shutting in Israel.

 

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Arafat was thoroughly on the defensive, beset too by the frustration building up among his people. And they have often resorted to rage. Rock throwers in the street have a number of tactical attractions. In the asymmetric struggle with the mighty Israeli army, the Palestinians would appear the victims. That would galvanize sympathetic Arab and European pressure behind his cause. A judicious level of violence had wrung Israeli concessions before: the Jerusalem tunnel uprising in 1996 had forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to follow through on a delayed territorial withdrawal. And it could serve as a safety vent for all that frustration long pent inside Palestinians.

That's when Arafat decided to marshal his Tanzim forces-maybe 2,000 street enforcers armed with automatic weapons and more or less loyal to his Fatah wing of the hydra-headed Palestinian cause-to prepare for an appropriate opportunity. Arafat, the Tanzim bosses say, explicitly warned them that clashes would come because Israel "wanted" to spark violence. It is tough to draw a solid line between Arafat's meetings and last week's violence. The Tanzim, to be sure, has its own agenda.

For Arafat, it was a chancy gamble to risk so much on a chaotic army of armed and unarmed rioters rampaging in a mix of calculation and spontaneity. He nominally controls, all told, a host of 10 to 13 security organizations, totaling perhaps 40,000-modestly armed police in blue, secret-service agents in black, paramilitary commandos in green, and plainclothes spies, each owing allegiance to a variety of factional masters.

The Tanzim (which means the "organization") is led by rival warlords who pose a threat to Arafat's authority. Marwan Barghouti, 40, who helped orchestrate the six-year intifadeh from exile in Jordan, built himself a nice power base in the West Bank Tanzim until Arafat slapped his face a year ago for daring to challenge the Palestinian Authority. Then Arafat elevated another activist, Hussein Sheikh, to take over Barghouti's work among Fatah. And then Arafat changed tack again, publicly kissing Barghouti on the forehead late this summer. Both men claim to lead the Tanzim, both see their prominence in the violence as the path to power. Add to them the radicals of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, bent on wiping out Israel-and diminishing Arafat's authority-and the mix is impossible to control.

When Sharon went to the Temple Mount to say "It's ours"-in-your-face confirmation that the Palestinians would never get a deal on Jerusalem that they could accept-it was pure provocation. Palestinians would inevitably express their anger. The Chairman was apparently ready to seize on it too. As a Tanzim chief tells it, Barghouti had visited Arafat in his Ramallah office the day before. "What do you think of Sharon's visit?" Barghouti asked. Arafat allegedly responded, "I want to light a fire, and I want it to burn the Israelis."

Israelis certainly believe Arafat issued such an order. Ironically, both the Tanzim and Israel share an interest in pinning direct responsibility on him for the conflagration that ensued. For the Fatah men, it legitimizes them in Palestinian eyes and buffs their leader's sagging popular strength. For the Israelis, it gives a person to blame and call on to stop the violence. They can criticize Arafat both ways: What kind of partner is he if he won't call off the uprising? What kind of a partner is he if he can't?


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As he watches the fires burn brighter, Arafat may be afraid to speak out. He stands to lose enormous prestige and authority if he tries to quell the uprising and fails. For many of the men and boys who took to the streets on Sept. 28, the "Liberation Battle" has taken on a terrible momentum. Each stone-throwing demonstration leads to a death that leads to a funeral that stokes passions higher.

If that had been all, it might have subsided once anger exhausted itself. But then the Israeli Arabs, fed up over years of discrimination, joined in frightening neighbor-to-neighbor mayhem within the confines of Israel itself. And Israel went from assertive riot control with rubber bullets to aggressive military operations using live ammunition, helicopter gunships, tanks and rockets. The ratio of dead-more than 100 Palestinians to half a dozen Israelis-underlined the imbalance of forces.

And to the basic intifadeh-style riots, the Tanzim added a new dimension of its own, leading a full-fledged shooting war on Israelis at night. The militias claim they are behind most of the gun battles at Israeli checkpoints and shoot-ups on Jewish settlements. Barghouti shows up at Palestinian funerals to make inflammatory speeches, his deep suntan attesting to his constant presence at clashes. The insistent calls on Sheikh's cell phone, announced with the electronic ring of Jingle Bells, keeps him in instant touch with the field. Both men are far closer to the action than Arafat and have their own power bases to service. Barghouti has gloated quite publicly about his hard-nosed intentions. "The intifadeh has to continue," he said as Palestinians hurled stones on the day Barak had ordered them to stop. "This will destroy the peace process. This will open the gate to more escalation."

The exact circumstances of each attack are the work of local leaders. In Bethlehem, Tanzim boss Ali Ahmed proudly tells how he ordered a group of five gunmen on a mission last week. "This evening it's Gilo," he said. "Go and shoot." The idea was to spread panic in the middle-class Jerusalem suburb with random nighttime gunfire. He recalls watching the red tracer lines stream toward the Jewish neighborhood as his men fired off 150 rounds. "It felt so good to be hitting them," Ahmed says.

It takes no orders at all to inspire the impressionable Palestinian children who make their way to the front lines. Boys like Imad, a nine-year-old throwing stones at Israeli soldiers as he trots home from school, are egged on by nonstop TV footage played against patriotic songs. Imad proudly claims he averages three hours a day in the clashes. "I'm not afraid," he says. "What is death? I'd be on the television, and my friends would be carrying me."

The Palestinians are feeding on their own violence, on the frenzy of the crowds, on the ferocity of the Israelis, on the daily funerals of fresh martyrs. And Arafat is nearly as much the target of their wrath as Barak. Their message to their leader is simple: We don't want your peace process anymore. It hasn't brought us what we hoped for. It takes guns, not peace talks, to win. As a Palestinian youth tearing down Joseph's Tomb last week told a reporter: "This peace? We don't want it. We will fight until we have liberated all the land."

That leaves Arafat sitting in his spartan office in Gaza amid the turmoil, partly ambivalent, partly impotent. The face he shows to those around him suggests a man in his element. Assesses Qais Abdul Karim, a faction leader who has seen Arafat three times since the trouble began: "He's once again the fighter we knew before." But the face he turns to foreign diplomats urging him to turn off the violence seems that of a troubled man looking for a way to climb down. Early last week, says a close aide to Arafat, he warned his top security officials that the international sympathy so savagely earned could easily switch off. "I don't want anybody to make a mistake that would cost us all we've achieved," he reportedly said. And then came the televised murders of the two Israeli soldiers.

So, what is it that Arafat or the Palestinians have "achieved"? By his lights, he has won some transient glory as the indomitable defender of Muslim rights and has gathered newfound support for himself among Palestinians and Middle East Arabs alike. Right now ordinary Palestinians seem further than ever from realizing their legitimate aspirations. Boys in the streets talk wildly of "war" and "victory," but war is suicide when one side has stones and the other Stingers, and the victory they crave is total ownership of a land they can only share.

Between them, the Palestinians and the Israelis have killed the fragile trust each side had so grudgingly come to place in the other as a partner for peace. The two leaders now harbor such mutual animosity, they may find it hard to be in the same room. Yet they have agreed to sit down at a makeup summit to see if they can at least agree to cease hostilities. It will be long after that before we know if Arafat's gamble proves unconscionably foolhardy or a path back-not to peace but to the compromises necessary to achieve it.

-With reporting by Lisa Beyer/New York, William Dowell/United Nations, J.F.O McAllister/ London, Matt Rees and Jamil Hamad/ Jerusalem and Douglas Waller/ Washington


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