December 14, 2001
Yasir Arafat’s position as the father of the Palestinian liberation movement is
rife with startling comebacks. But after a week in which fresh attacks by
Islamic militants prompted Israel to sever ties with its former negotiating partner
and launch the most sustained assault on his administration to date, an
increasing number of people in the region have begun to prepare for the
once-unimaginable: a post-Arafat era.
Among those taking part in the debate is Said Aburish, a Palestinian
analyst who authored the biography ‘Arafat: From defender to dictator’
He spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Dan Ephron about why he believes the
Palestinian leader’s days are numbered. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How risky is Israel’s move to cut off relations with Arafat?
Said Aburish: I don’t think there’s any doubt the Israelis want Arafat out of the
way because they are convinced he will be replaced by someone less
demanding. I happen to disagree with that. The only alternative to Arafat is the
fundamentalist movement. I think this reflects the level of misunderstanding
between the two sides. The Palestinians have never understood the lack of
Israeli trust, the security concerns, and the Israelis have continually
miscalculated the Arab side.
That leaves Arafat sandwiched between Israel and the United States on one
side and Hamas on the other. Can he extricate himself?
I think he’s finished. I think he’s living on borrowed time. Because if he accepts
what the Israelis are demanding, he becomes a policeman for them. If he turns
it down, the peace process is finished … I don’t think Arafat will disappear
overnight but one way or another, the Palestinians will look for someone to
To what extent are his troubles bound up with his own personality, his
tendency to put things off and never really make the tough decisions?
Arafat is in a bind because he’s committed himself strategically to accepting the
[United States] as the ultimate arbiter in the Middle East. He did not count on
the changes in U.S. policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians, the way Bush is different
from Clinton for instance …
The moment he conceded the right to arbitrate to the United States he
really committed himself of accepting what the U.S. dictates.
Is there a way to heed Israeli demands but also bow to the will of his people?
No. We’re talking about the basic [peace] agreement which was signed in
1993. Eight years on, he doesn’t have anything to show for it. He signed a
vague open-ended agreement thinking it would yield results, but it hasn’t.
The economic situation has declined, so there are no fruits of peace. It
hasn’t worked as far as people on the ground are concerned.
Some of that is certainly circumstance, but you also talk in your book about the
psychosis of Arafat, his deficiencies as a leader.
He is one of the most unorganized people in the world. He’s not a manager.
The entire Palestinian budget is still organized in little pieces of paper he keeps
in his breast pocket. He is much more at home being a nationalist leader than a
He applies himself to a final agreement for the Arab-Israeli conflict
without any care as to the situation within the territories he controls. He
overlooks corruption, the violation of human rights, the lack of organization.
You cannot explain to Yasir Arafat that the administration cannot accommodate
80,000 civil servants, for instance.
What specifically could he have done to make things better for the Palestinians?
I do believe that if Arafat had been a better manager, had he delivered to
Palestinians a better economic situation and more democracy, more protection
of human rights, that his claims to the Israelis would be much stronger.
As it is, what are we trying to save for the Palestinians, Arafat’s
leadership? The Palestinians are no longer interested in that. I think you’ll find
50 percent of the Palestinians sitting on the fence right now. He has lost their
support. They haven’t moved to Hamas because they are basically secular, but
they no longer support Arafat.
Is the current situation similar to Arafat’s last days in Beirut?
I think this is much more serious than Lebanon in 1982 because his problem
now is with his own people. This time he has lost his constituency. Like it or
not, commanding respect and commanding a following with the Palestinian
people is extremely important.