There are two remarkable facets to the career of the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat:
· He pursued his dream of eliminating Israel by diverse permutations of violence, subversion and negotiations with unflagging international support; and
· He consigned to the fire former President Clinton’s comprehensive peace plan that would have meant today a four-year-old independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Yet all this appears to be news for much of what is sometimes called the quality press, especially across the Atlantic, to judge from the palaver it has served up in three variations:
Arafat sought only an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The London Times has fallen for this confection (“he would take his dream of a Palestinian state to his grave … he failed to convince Israel that the guerrilla leader had changed into a statesman”). So too, London’s Telegraph has convinced itself that Arafat brought, “the Palestinian movement from its irredentist demands for the destruction of Israel to the more moderate demand for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.” Apparently, Clinton never formulated a peace plan on precisely these lines, and Arafat never rejected it.
Ariel Sharon managed to gull Israelis into believing that Arafat was not a partner for peace. The Telegraph holds that Sharon “claimed” there was no partner for peace, but that following the events of September 11, 2001, “another wave of suicide bombings, the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister and the interception of a shipload of weapons from Iran allowed Sharon to present Arafat [emphasis added] as a Palestinian version of Osama bin Laden.” Apparently these events justified no such inference.
Arafat was a great, fatherly statesman who operated in impossible circumstances to build a nation. Credit for this panegyric goes to the Guardian’s Jonathan Steele. (“To move from defensive consolidation and to start to build a nation was nigh impossible. That Arafat has managed to do it and retain the affection of his people, not just as a symbol of independence but as a respected and approachable human being, is a tribute to his greatness.”) Apparently, “defensive consolidation” is the latest inclusion in the media’s thesaurus of euphemisms for “terrorism.”
There have been exceptions. Israeli ‘revisionist’ historian Benny Morris could be found in the New York Times averring that, “Mr. Arafat said no [to Clinton] because he refused to accept any settlement that did not include a mechanism for its future subversion.” But the New York Times itself has described Arafat as recently as July as a “democratically elected leader.” In point of fact, he won a dubiously conducted one-time poll held eight years ago against a single, obscure female opponent from whom no one has heard since.
The resultant paradox, as Charles Krauthammer notes, is that Arafat is being presented as a great peacemaker whose death creates new opportunities for peace.
To what do we owe this failure to tell the unvarnished truth about Arafat? To cherished illusions bound up with assorted anxieties, all of which carry important implications.
The persistent illusion is that Israel’s neighbors accept her on terms that are amenable to negotiation, such as Palestinian independence and statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, this has rarely been true of any Arab polity. In particular, it has never been true of the Palestinians, despite some hopeful movement in that direction prior to the Israelis’ handing them over to Arafat’s wiles in 1994.
People outside the Middle East generally prefer not to know this. Europeans especially, with their complex attitudes towards Jewry and Israel, are particularly susceptible to denial. Guilt over the Holocaust and projection of European failings onto Israelis in expiation all play a part in the persistence of this failing.
Moreover, the favored policies of placating a Muslim world sending throngs of immigrants to their shores become imperiled by a realistic appraisal of Arab/Muslim hostility to Israel. The Muslim world retains from history an antipathy to foreign dominion over Muslims, including territories once held by Muslims. Islamists with global ambitions have inflamed these grievances, whether in Kashmir, Chechnya or Israel. To recognize the latter case in all its starkness entails intolerable dilemmas for Europeans.
However, Islamist outrages in Spain (the Madrid bombings) and Holland (the recent murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who produced a documentary highlighting the travails of Muslim women) and their aftermath suggest that the evil hour of somber reappraisal will come. Israelis and Palestinians, however, look unlikely to benefit in the interim.
Governments around the world are likely to support whoever emerges to commandeer Palestinians on their next journey rather than to support the emergence of conditions that make for pragmatic leadership or democracy. Appeasing violent forces at Israeli expense remains tempting and all pay the price.
Daniel Mandel is associate director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia and author of H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (London: Routledge, 2004).