By Max Boot, the Olin Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
January 13, 2003
IN AN INTERVIEW LAST MONTH with Britain’s Sunday Times, Yasser Arafat
rebuked Osama bin Laden for seeking to exploit the Palestinians’ cause for his
“Why is bin Laden talking about Palestine now? . . . He never helped us.
He was working in another, completely different area and against our interests,”
Arafat was quoted as saying. “I’m telling him directly not to hide behind the
Good advice, but it’s doubtful bin Laden will take it. Just about everyone else
exploits the Palestinian cause — Arafat first and foremost, but also, according to
the latest reports, some of his Israeli “peace partners” — so why shouldn’t old
Whenever the serious issues of the Middle East are raised, from oppression in
Saudi Arabia to nuclear weapons development in Iran, the answer one hears
from Europeans, Arabs, United Nations functionaries, all sorts of supposedly
serious people, is invariably the same: The real issue is the Palestinians. Until
we resolve their horrible plight, peace will never come to the Middle East.
This is an absurd argument since even if Israel ceased to exist tomorrow, this
would not affect in the slightest the tensions between Islamic fundamentalists
and secularists, between rich Gulf kingdoms and their poor cousins, between
Shiites and Sunnis, between democrats and dictators, or the countless other
San Andreas-sized fault lines that run through the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam).
It is helpful to remember that all of the dead in the Arab-Israeli wars of the past
half century amount to only a tiny fraction of the million killed during the
Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the 100,000 killed in Algeria’s civil war since 1992,
or the 100,000 killed in Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990.
Surely anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the Middle East knows that
the plight of the Palestinians isn’t “the” issue. So why do so many people insist
that it is? Let us count the reasons.
For the Europeans, championing the Palestinian cause allows them to assuage
lingering colonial guilt by championing the aspirations of a Third World people
who claim to be oppressed by Western imperialists — in this case, Israelis.
It also allows Europeans to trumpet their moral superiority over pro-Israel
And, last but not least, it allows them to curry favor with both oil-rich
Arab states and their own growing Muslim minorities. Europeans hope that
Arabs will show their gratitude by doing business with them and not targeting
them for terrorism.
All of this comes at a price, though: The E.U. is one of the Palestinian
Authority’s main non-Arab bankrollers, to the tune of $10 million a month.
For Middle Eastern states, championing the Palestinian cause is even more vital
because doing so provides an important pillar of legitimacy for their manifestly
Naturally the Arab states’ interest is in preserving “the struggle,” not in
succoring the Palestinian people who (along with the Israelis) are its chief
There are almost 4 million Palestinians and most live in conditions of
unrelieved squalor; large swaths of the West Bank and Gaza Strip make the
South Bronx look like Club Med by comparison. The only Arab state that has
granted citizenship to Palestinians is Jordan; the others prefer to keep them as
an unassimilated, militant minority.
More than 1.1 million Palestinians are jammed into 59 refugee camps whose
support comes mainly from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and
other international bodies.
As former U.S. ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg points out, all the
Arab states combined donate less than $7 million to UNRWA, just 2.4 percent
of its $290 million budget. (Kuwait, Egypt, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Iraq, and the
United Arab Emirates collectively contribute a grand total of zero.)
By contrast, the Great Satan forks over $110 million, or 38 percent of
The Arabs prefer to spend their money to support Palestinian suicide bombers.
Saddam Hussein alone has paid an estimated $20 million over the past two
years to “martyrs'” families.
The Saudis held a telethon to raise millions more.
The Arab League as a whole contributes $55 million a month to Arafat’s
tyrannical Palestinian Authority, which keeps the suicide bombings coming.
Many Palestinians are privately appalled at these “martyrdom operations,”
which are killing their youth, destroying their economy, and empowering their
religious fanatics. But Arab states are delighted. What are a few dead
Palestinian teenagers in return for hurting Israel and its backers in America?
Much the same calculus seems to govern Yasser Arafat’s thinking. He is, you
might say, the chief exploiter of the Palestinians, followed closely by his senior
They reap the adulation of useful idiots abroad who celebrate them as
“freedom fighters,” but senior PA officials aren’t the ones strapping dynamite to
their chests and blowing up Israeli buses.
Arafat’s wife Suha has generously said that there would be “no greater
honor” than to sacrifice her son as a martyr. But she doesn’t have a son. She
has a daughter and they live in Paris. Even though some suicide bombings have
been conducted by teenage girls, it’s doubtful that seven-year-old Zahawa
Arafat will be blowing up an El Al office on the way to her ecole. Her life, and
her mother’s, are far removed, literally and figuratively, from those of ordinary
Anyone who visits the West Bank and Gaza Strip is struck by the contrast
between the general conditions of abysmal poverty and a few glittering villas
that wouldn’t be out of place on the French Riviera. Who owns these palazzos?
Arafat’s men, of course.
Since the Palestinian Authority keeps a ruthless grip not only on politics
but also on the economy, anyone who gets rich within PA jurisdiction, by
definition, must be one of Arafat’s apparatchiks.
The pervasive corruption of the PA has long been known and resented by
ordinary Palestinians, but it seldom comes out into the open, since Arafat
doesn’t allow freedom of the press.
Revelations in the Israeli press during the past month have lifted the veil
of secrecy a bit, revealing a circle of exploitation that includes not only Arafat
but also some of his Israeli negotiating partners.
On December 2, the Tel Aviv daily newspaper Ma’ariv printed a fascinating
interview with a businessman and former military intelligence officer named
Ozrad Lev. He claimed that he and his former business partner, Yossi Ginossar,
had undertaken extensive and lucrative dealings with Muhammad Rashid,
Arafat’s chief financial adviser. In return for fat management fees, they set up
Swiss bank accounts into which Rashid transferred more than $300 million of
PA money, with Arafat’s apparent authorization.
Lev said he decided to go public after $65 million mysteriously
disappeared. “This money could have been used for personal needs, to form a
shelter [to hide the money] for Arafat and senior Palestinian officials, to pay
salaries, or even, and I really hope not, for illegal activities,” said Lev.
Who is Yossi Ginossar? A former agent of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security
service, who in the 1990s acted as an informal envoy to the Palestinians on
behalf of prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak.
Ginossar is a leading “dove” who sits on the executive board of the
Peres Center for Peace, the think tank that is to the Israeli left approximately
what the Heritage Foundation is to the American right. He also hobnobs with
the American think tanker Stephen P. Cohen, another incorrigible peace
advocate (the website of his employer, the Israel Policy Forum, recently
featured a report claiming “Oslo didn’t fail”), who, Ma’ariv reports, profited
from the Ginossar-Rashid business deals. (Cohen told me he was involved in
some deals with Ginossar, but doesn’t know anything about Swiss bank
Ginossar’s position as envoy to the Palestinians allowed him privileged access
to the highest councils of power. He participated in the 2000 Camp David talks,
where he pushed Barak to make greater concessions. And, according to the
Jerusalem Post, when the Gaza Strip was declared a military zone and closed to
Israeli travelers, Ginossar was chauffeured to Arafat’s office in Shin Bet
Israel’s attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, is now investigating this case,
which has become a huge scandal in Israel, though it’s gone largely unnoticed
in the United States.
Both Rashid and Ginossar deny any wrongdoing. Ginossar told Ma’ariv,
“I was guided exclusively by boundless loyalty to the [Israeli] state,” a claim
that has been met with snorts of derision in Israel’s rambunctious press. But
there is perhaps an element of truth in what he says.
The Israeli governments of the 1990s wanted to encourage closer economic
cooperation with the Palestinians in the hope that this would give their enemies
a stake in peace.
Unfortunately, instead of creating small businesses that could be the
building blocks of Palestinian civil society, what developed was the kind of
crony capitalism that is endemic to places like Russia. Arafat’s confidants — not
only Rashid but Muhammad Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu
Mazen), and others — were the big beneficiaries. Along, it now seems, with
some select Israeli friends.
The Palestinian people and the cause of long-term peace were of course not
helped by any of it. Instead these “business” dealings helped foster a gangster
state more interested in war-making than economic development.
It is striking that at the same time that news of Rashid’s $300 million
slush fund leaked out, the PA claimed it had no money to pay 100,000 civil
But the PA’s transgressions, no matter how glaring, have long been
overlooked by professional doves like Ginossar. Indeed, Lev says that he and
Ginossar continued managing the $300 million fund for the Palestinians until at
least August 2001 — almost a year after the Al Aksa Intifada had begun.
So to the list of those exploiting the Palestinian cause add leading “peace”
advocates. The good news is that the people of the Middle East are increasingly
hip to this tiresome con game.
The Iranian government has recently tried to deflect the student demonstrations
over the death sentence handed down to a history professor who dared to
suggest that Muslims not “blindly follow religious leaders.”
Instead of protesting Seyyed Hashem Aghajari’s fate, President
Mohammad Khatami urged students to demonstrate for International Qods Day,
a holiday invented by the late Ayatollah Khomeini to protest Israel’s supposedly
unlawful occupation of Qods (Jerusalem).
The Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran threw
this demand back into Khatami’s face.
In a statement translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute
(MEMRI), the students said, “Observing the ‘Day of Qods’ in support of
violence is a lunacy that is neither advantageous to the Palestinian nation nor
does it coincide with the national interests of the people of Iran.”
Pretty smart, those Iranian students. They aren’t fooled by pro-Palestinian
rhetoric. But there is at least one group left that takes seriously the
protestations that no progress can be made in the Middle East until the
Palestinian issue is settled. You can find them in Foggy Bottom.