By Bret Stephens, November 5, 2004.
In 1993, the British Criminal Intelligence Service commissioned a report on the
sources of funding of the Palestine Liberation Organization. For years, it had
been Chairman Yasser Arafat’s claim that he’d made a fortune in construction
as a young engineer in Kuwait in the 1950s, and that it was this seed money,
along with a 5% levy on the Palestinian workers in the Arab League countries,
which kept the PLO solvent.
But British investigators took a different view: The PLO, they concluded,
maintained sidelines in “extortion, payoffs, illegal arms-dealing, drug trafficking,
money laundering and fraud,” bringing its estimated fortune to $14 billion.
In retrospect, it would seem amazing that 1993 was also the year in which the
head of this criminal enterprise would be feted on the White House lawn for
agreeing peace with Israel.
But then, so much about the 1990s was amazing, which is perhaps why
Arafat, of all people, thrived in that time.
The ra’is, as he is commonly spoken of among Palestinians, may basically have
been a gangster with politics, but he was also one of the 20th century’s great
political illusionists. He conjured a persona, a cause, and indeed a people
virtually ex nihilo, then rallied much of the world to his side. Now that he is
dead, or nearly so – news reports vary as of this writing – it will be interesting to
see what becomes of his legacy.
Who was Yasser Arafat? For starters, he was not a native Palestinian, although
his parents were and he variously claimed to have been born in Gaza or
In fact, he was born and schooled in Cairo, spoke Arabic with an
Egyptian accent, and he took to part in the 1948 Arab-Israelis war, the Nakba
(catastrophe) which Palestinians regard as their formative national experience.
Nor did Arafat take part in the Suez War, again despite later claims to the
But this was the period of the Third World ferment – of the “anti-colonialist”
Bandung politics of Indonesia’s Sukarno, Algeria’s Ben Bela, Cuba’s Fidel and
Egypt’s Nasser – and at the University of Cairo Arafat became a student activist
and head of the Palestine Student Union.
He also began developing the Arafat persona – kaffiyah, uniform,
half-beard and later the holstered pistol – to compensate for his short stature
and pudginess. The result, as his astute biographers Judith and Barry Rubin
write, “was the embodiment of a combination of roles: fighter, traditional
patriarch, and typical Palestinian.”
Around 1960, Arafat co-founded Fatah, or “conquest,” the political movement
that would later come to be the dominant faction of the PLO.
Aside from its aim to obliterate Israel, the group had no particular
political vision: Islamists, nationalists, Communists, pan-Arabists were equally
Instead, the emphasis was on violence: “People aren’t attracted to
speeches but to bullets,” Arafat liked to say.
In 1964, Fatah began training guerillas in Syria and Algeria; in 1965, they
launched their first attack within Israel, on a pumping station. But the bomb
didn’t detonate, and most of the other Fatah raids were also duds. From this
experience, Arafat took the lesson to focus on softer targets, like civilians.
So he began the era of modern terrorism: the 1972 Munich massacre, the 1973
murder of American diplomats in Khartoum, the 1974 massacre of
schoolchildren at Ma’alot, and so on.
Yet as the atrocities multiplied, Arafat’s political star rose. Partly this had
to do with the European cravenness in the face of the implied threat; partly
with the Left’s secret love affair with the authentic man of violence.
Whatever the case, by 1980 Europe had recognized the PLO, with Arafat
as its leader, as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people.
The U.S. held out for another decade, but eventually it caved in to international
pressure under the first Bush administration.
For the Palestinians themselves, however, this was not such a good
development. If Arafat’s violence against Jews and Israelis was shocking, his
violence against fellow Palestinians was still worse. In the manner of other
would-be national liberators, he did not look kindly on dissenters within his
ranks. In 1987, for instance, Palestinian cartoonist Ali Naji Adhami was
murdered on a London street; his crime was to insinuate in a drawing that the
ra’is was having an affair with a married woman.
Once in power in Ramallah, the abuses became much worse. Critics of his
government were routinely imprisoned and often tortured. In 1999, Muawiya
Al-Masri, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, gave an interview to
a Jordanian newspaper denouncing Arafat’s corruption. He was later attacked
by a gang of masked men and shot three times. (He survived).
Yet for all this, Arafat continued to ride the wave of international goodwill. The
Europeans gave him the Nobel Peace Prize. The Clinton administration saw him
as the one man who could ‘deliver’ the Palestinians to make peace with Israel.
The peace camp in Israel, championed by the late Yitzhak Rabin and
Shimon Peres, more or less agreed: to them, Arafat was the thug who kept the
Palestinian street quiet. Arafat strung them along, more or les, until his bluff
was called by the Israeli peace offer at Camp David in July 2000.
After that, there was just no point in keeping up appearances, and so came the
intifada. It was a premeditated act. As Arafat had already told an Arab audience
in Stockholm in 1996, “We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a
purely Palestinian state. We will make life unbearable for the Jews by
psychological warfare and population explosion. We Palestinians will take over
everything, including all of Jerusalem.”
It goes without saying that Arafat failed in that endeavor. The Israelis belatedly
realized that the maximum they could concede was less than the minimum
Arafat would accept, and refused to deal with him.
For its part, the Bush administration cut off the international life support.
In this sense, Arafat’s illness – so far undisclosed by his doctors – can be easily
diagnosed: he died of political starvation.
What remains? Very little, I suspect. None of his deputies can possibly fill his
shoes, which are those of a personality cult, not a political or national leader.
There is nothing to unite Palestinians anymore, either: their loyalties to the
cause will surely dissipate in his absence.
Arafat was remarkable in that he sustained the illusion he created till the
very end. But once the magician walks off the state, the chimera vanishes.