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Arafat's Grand Strategy By: Efraim Karsh
Middle East Quarterly | Wednesday, August 04, 2004


For Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership, the Oslo process has always been a strategic means not to a two-state solution—Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza—but to the substitution of a Palestinian state for the state of Israel.

As early as August 1968, Arafat defined the PLO's strategic objective as "the transfer of all resistance bases" into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, occupied by Israel during the June 1967 war, "so that the resistance may be gradually transformed into a popular armed revolution." This, he reasoned, would allow the PLO to undermine Israel's way of life by "preventing immigration and encouraging emigration … destroying tourism … weakening the Israeli economy and diverting the greater part of it to security requirements … [and] creating and maintaining an atmosphere of strain and anxiety that will force the Zionists to realize that it is impossible for them to live in Israel."[1]

The Oslo accords enabled the PLO to achieve in one fell swoop what it had failed to attain through many years of violence and terrorism. Here was Israel, just over a decade after destroying the PLO's military infrastructure in Lebanon, asking the Palestinian organization, at one of the lowest ebbs in its history, to establish a real political and military presence—not in a neighboring Arab country but right on its doorstep. Israel even was prepared to arm thousands of (hopefully reformed) terrorists who would be incorporated into newly established police and security forces charged with asserting the PLO's authority throughout the territories.

In September 2000, Arafat launched a war of terror against Israel with precisely the objectives he had set for the Palestinian movement in 1968. Some analysts now argue that the Palestinians have lost that war. But the very fact that Arafat could wage it and plunge Israel into one of its greatest traumas constitutes a triumph of his strategy. Certainly the Palestinians have suffered reversals and losses. But Arafat has achieved his goal: he brought the Palestinian war from Israel's borders into Israel proper by the politics of stealth. He has every reason to hope that the work he began will be continued by the next generation of Palestinian leaders. That work is nothing short of the dismantlement of Israel.

How did Arafat bring it off? First, he articulated a long-term vision of Israel's elimination and succeeded in imbuing all Palestinians with its precepts, even as he shook the hands of Israeli leaders and a U.S. president. Second, he indoctrinated his people with an abiding hatred of Israel and its people so as to fortify them for war. Last, he chose an opportune moment, after he had gained maximum advantage from the "peace process," to resort to war and terror. This article examines each of the three elements in Arafat's visionary plan to liberate Palestine and the meaning of Arafat's legacy for the future.

A Strategic Plan

When Arafat began his "armed struggle" back in the mid-1960s, he took inspiration from the example of Algeria: a war of national liberation that had succeeded in the space of a few years in defeating a colonial power. When he failed to replicate this model, owing in part to the low level of national consciousness among the Palestinians and Israel's effective counterinsurgency measures, the PLO adopted the "phased strategy." This strategy, dating from June 1974, has served as the PLO's guiding principle ever since. It stipulates that the Palestinians should seize whatever territory Israel is prepared or compelled to cede to them and use it as a springboard for further territorial gains until achieving the "complete liberation of Palestine."[2]

From the very outset of the Oslo process, Arafat and his lieutenants viewed the agreements as an implementation of this strategy, not as its abandonment. Arafat said just that as early as September 13, 1993, when he addressed the Palestinians in a pre-recorded Arabic-language message broadcast by Jordanian television, even as he shook Yitzhak Rabin's hand on the White House lawn. He informed the Palestinians that the Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles (DOP) was merely the implementation of the PLO's "phased strategy." "O my beloved ones," he explained,

Do not forget that our Palestine National Council accepted the decision in 1974. It called for the establishment of a national authority on any part of Palestinian land that is liberated or from which the Israelis withdrew. This is the fruit of your struggle, your sacrifices, and your jihad … This is the moment of return, the moment of gaining a foothold on the first liberated Palestinian land … Long live Palestine, liberated and Arab.[3]

This vision of a "liberated and Arab Palestine"—that is, a Palestine in which Israel does not exist—was not mentioned in any of Arafat's interviews with the Israeli and Western media at the time. During the next seven years, until the launch of his terrorist war in late September 2000, Arafat played an intricate game of Jekyll-and-Hyde politics. Whenever addressing Israeli or Western audiences, he would habitually extol the "peace of the brave" he had signed with "my partner Yitzhak Rabin." At the same time, he depicted the peace accords to his Palestinian constituents as transient arrangements of the moment. He made constant allusions to the "phased strategy" and repeatedly insisted on the "right of return," a standard Palestinian euphemism for Israel's destruction through demographic subversion.[4] He leavened his speech with historical and religious metaphors, most notably the Treaty of Hudaybiya, signed by the Prophet Muhammad with the people of Mecca in 628, only to be disavowed by Muhammad a couple of years later when the situation shifted in his favor.[5]

The Palestinian leadership fully embraced this interpretation of the Oslo process as a grand strategic deception, aimed at bringing about Israel's eventual destruction. As early as September 22, 1993, nine days after the signing of the DOP, Yasir Abed Rabbo, a senior PLO official and future "minister of information" in the Palestinian Authority (PA), categorically denied that "the mutual recognition document between Israel and the PLO contains any Palestinian pledge to stop violence." Several months later, in July 1994, Abed Rabbo went a step further and vowed that the Palestinians would regain "all of Palestine."[6]

Other Palestinian leaders were equally explicit. In August 1994, Faruq Qaddumi, head of the PLO's political department, openly called for Israel's destruction while Faisal Husseini echoed the same sentiment in an interview with Syrian television in September 1996:

All Palestinians agree that the just boundaries of Palestine are the Jordan River and the Mediterranean … Realistically, whatever can be obtained now should be accepted [in the hope that] subsequent events, perhaps in the next fifteen or twenty years, would present us with an opportunity to realize the just boundaries of Palestine.[7]

Husseini remained committed to this vision to his final days. In March 2001, a few weeks before his death by heart attack, he said this:

One must draw a distinction between the strategic aspirations of the Palestinian people, who would not surrender one grain of Palestinian soil, and their political striving, based on the balance of power and the nature of the current international system … Our eyes will continue to be focused on the strategic goal—a Palestine from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea—and nothing that we take today can make us forget this supreme truth.[8]

By this time, Arafat had already launched his war of terror against Israel, and Husseini, if he wished, could have reassured his Israeli peace partners that its goals were limited to the attainment of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. He did not, instead choosing to underscore Israel's demise as the ultimate Palestinian objective.

Nabil Shaath, another supposed moderate and dedicated advocate of the Oslo process, also threatened a return to the "armed struggle" whenever he found Israel to be insufficiently accommodating of Palestinian demands. "If the negotiations reach a dead end, we shall go back to the struggle and strife, as we did for forty years," he told a Nablus symposium in March 1996:

As long as Israel goes forward [with the process], there are no problems, which is why we observe the agreements of peace and non-violence. But if and when Israel will say, "That's it, we won't talk about Jerusalem, we won't return refugees, we won't dismantle settlements, and we won't retreat from borders," then all the acts of violence will return. Except that this time, we'll have 30,000 Palestinian armed soldiers who will operate in areas in which we have unprecedented elements of freedom.[9]

Even the supposed moderates in the Palestinian leadership, Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala), expressed their hope (albeit implicitly) for Israel's eventual destruction. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper in January 1996, Abu Mazen gently reiterated the PLO's old formula of a democratic state comprising the whole of Palestine: he expressed the hope that in the future Jews and Palestinians "will reach a state of complete mixture" in Palestine.[10] "We did not sign a peace treaty with Israel, but interim agreements that had been imposed on us," said Abu Ala in June 1996:

When we accepted the Oslo agreement, we obtained territory but not all the Palestinian territory. We obtained rights, but not all of our rights. We did not and will not relinquish one inch of this territory or the right of any Palestinian to live on it with dignity.[11]

Forever Enemies

Arafat and his PA reinforced their strategy by indoctrinating Palestinians, and especially the youth, against the state of Israel, Jews, and Judaism—all in flagrant violation of their obligations under Oslo.

Palestinians have been told of the most outlandish Israeli plots to corrupt and ruin them, which are wholly congruent with the medieval Christian (not Muslim) myth of Jews as secret destroyers and poisoners of wells. Thus, Arafat has charged Israel with killing Palestinian children to get their internal organs,[12] while the PA's minister of health, Riad Zaanun, has accused Israeli doctors of using "Palestinian patients for experimental medicines."[13] The Palestinian representative to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva charged Israel with injecting Palestinian children with the AIDS virus.[14] The director of the PA's Committee for Consumer Protection accused Israel of distributing chocolate infected with "mad cow disease" in the Palestinian territories.[15] The PA minister of ecology, Yusuf Abu Safiyyah, indicted Israel for "dumping liquid waste ... in Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza."[16] Suha Arafat famously amplified one such charge when, in the presence of Hillary Clinton, she told an audience in Gaza in November 1999 that "our people have been subjected to the daily and extensive use of poisonous gas by the Israeli forces, which has led to an increase in cancer cases among women and children."[17]

Perhaps the most successful anti-Semitic import in the Muslim-Arab world is the theory of an organized Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination, as spelled out in the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The PA has repeatedly referred to the Protocols, and its tightly controlled media have been rife with stories about Jewish "plots" and "conspiracies." Arafat himself borrowed from the Protocols in his welcome speech in Jericho in July 1994.[18] In late 1997, when a dispute ensued about the scope of Israel's military redeployment in the West Bank, the PA's largest daily, al-Hayat al-Jadida, derided the maps presented by the Israeli government as the latest manifestation of the alleged Zionist grand design, revealed in the Protocols, to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. Subsequent articles elaborated on the devious plots revealed in the Protocols for manipulating world public opinion on behalf of Zionism.[19]

This pervasive denigration of Jews has been accompanied by a systematic denial of the Jewish state's legitimacy by both the PA and the PLO. Israel is often referred to by the pejorative phrase, "the Zionist entity." Israel is glaringly absent from Palestinian maps, which portray its territory as part of a "Greater Palestine," from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. In 1998, when Prime Minister Netanyahu made an issue of this, the PA's press responded contemptuously:

Which Israel is he talking about: that of 1948, 1967, 1982, or that extending from the Nile to the Euphrates? Let him define for us what Israel is so that we can add it to the map of the dictatorships that have had their day in history, only to vanish later without a trace.[20]

Since the Holocaust is viewed as the most powerful modern-day justification for the existence of a Jewish state, the PA and its media have gone out of their way to minimize the genocide, if not deny it altogether. At the same time, the Palestinians are portrayed as the Holocaust's real victims: they have been made to pay for the West's presumed desire to atone for the Holocaust through the establishment of a Jewish state. (The Palestinians offer no explanation why, if the Holocaust did not happen, European nations should feel sufficiently remorseful about it to have foisted Israel upon the Palestinians.) Even Abu Mazen, the Oslo architect and one of the foremost symbols of the supposed Palestinian reconciliation, argued in a 1984 book that less than a million Jews had been killed in the Holocaust and that the Zionist movement was a partner to their slaughter.[21]

The PA has also gone to great lengths to repudiate any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or, by implication, to the Land of Israel itself. Even at the Camp David summit of July 2000—the most ambitious single effort to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—several Palestinian negotiators denied the existence of King Solomon's Temple. Arafat himself told Clinton that the temple had been located in Nablus rather than in Jerusalem.[22] Three days before the start of Arafat's war of terror in September 2000, Abed Rabbo adamantly denied the temple's very existence:

The Israelis say that beneath the noble sanctuary (the Esplanade of the Mosques) lies their temple. … Looking at the situation from an archaeological standpoint, I am sure there is no temple. They have dug tunnel after tunnel with no result.[23]

Nor has Arafat refrained from utilizing the immense inflammatory potential of Islam, which has constituted the linchpin of the Middle Eastern social and political order for more than a millennium, as a primary tool to discredit his Israeli peace partners, if not peace itself. Week after week, preachers have used their pulpits to discredit the peace process and to instill hatred for Israelis and Jews. Worshippers have been taught that Jews are the "descendants of apes and pigs" and been warned of Zionist machinations to divide the Palestinian people and spawn internecine strife. In December 1994, when Palestinian police shot and killed fourteen Hamas militants during the first bloody confrontation between the PA and its opponents, the PA-appointed mufti of Jerusalem, Ikrama Sabri, blamed Israel for the massacre in a sermon.[24] (In making this accusation, Sabri was taking his cue from Arafat, who never tired of repeating the allegation that extremists within the Israeli army and security services were flooding the territories with weapons in order to precipitate a Palestinian civil war. Arafat even claimed that Israeli extremists were masterminding the suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.[25])

There is correlation between the vicissitudes in the PA's policy and the tone and direction of Friday sermons. In the summer of 2000, when Arafat chose to use the question of Jerusalem as the pretext for bringing about the collapse of the Camp David summit, Sabri quickly mounted a spirited propaganda campaign denying any Jewish attachment to the city. After Arafat launched his war of terror in September 2000, the Friday preachers embarked on an orgy of unmitigated anti-Jewish invective. "They think that they scare our people," Sabri said in his Friday sermon on May 25, 2001, one week before a suicide bomber murdered twenty teenagers at a Tel Aviv disco:

We tell them: inasmuch as you love life—the Muslim loves death and martyrdom. There is a great difference between he who loves the hereafter and he who loves this world. The Muslim loves death and [strives for] martyrdom. He does not fear the oppression of the arrogant or the weapons of the bloodletters. The blessed and sacred soil of Palestine has vomited all the invaders and all the colonialists throughout history and it will soon vomit, with God's help, the [present] occupiers.[26]

Choosing War

Arafat did not confine himself to disparaging the Oslo accords and his peace partner. From the moment of his arrival in Gaza in July 1994, he set out to build an extensive terrorist infrastructure in flagrant violation of the accords, and in total disregard of the overriding reason he had been brought from Tunisia, namely, to lay the groundwork for Palestinian statehood.

Arafat refused to disarm the terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad as required by the Oslo accords and tacitly approved the murder of hundreds of Israelis by these groups. He created a far larger Palestinian army (the so-called police force) than was permitted by the accords. He reconstructed the PLO's old terrorist apparatus, mainly under the auspices of the Tanzim, which is the military arm of Fatah (the PLO's largest constituent organization and Arafat's own alma mater). He frantically acquired prohibited weapons with large sums of money donated to the PA by the international community for the benefit of the civilian Palestinian population.[27]

What enabled Arafat to pursue his war preparations with impunity was a combination of international sympathy for his cause and Israeli self-delusion. Israelis, fatigued by decades of fighting and yearning for a normalcy that would allow them at last to enjoy their new affluence, turned a blind eye to the danger on their doorstep. Even Binyamin Netanyahu, for all his scathing criticism of Oslo, proved unable to win from Arafat the reciprocity he demanded and followed in the footsteps of his two predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, in surrendering territory to the PA without any tangible return.

These preparations gave Arafat the wherewithal to launch war. It is often claimed that the violence that broke out on September 29, 2000, was the result of Ariel Sharon's "provocative" visit to the Temple Mount the day before. In fact, the initial Palestinian reaction to Sharon's visit was surprisingly mild. The actual turnout on the Temple Mount on the day of the visit was far lower than expected, despite the violent incitement by the official Palestinian media and outright calls by various Palestinian groups for mass demonstrations against the intended "desecration of al-Haram ash-Sharif." During the visit, there were minor clashes between Israeli policemen and rock-throwing Palestinian youths. These were limited in scope and intensity and resulted in thirty lightly wounded Israeli policemen and four injured Palestinians. Not a single Palestinian was killed.[28] It was only on the next day that serious violence erupted—in anything but a spontaneous manner. As a number of prominent Palestinians have candidly admitted, the leadership quickly seized the initiative.[29]

Most ordinary Palestinians did not welcome war; they were enjoying a healthy economic recovery after several years of deep recession. Nor was the population groaning under an onerous occupation. In early 1996, Israel had withdrawn its forces from the West Bank's populated areas (withdrawal from Gazan towns and camps had been completed by May 1994) and dissolved its civil administration and military government. This was followed by the Israeli redeployment from Hebron in January 1997. As a result, 99 percent of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip no longer lived under Israeli occupation. All of the Gaza Strip's residents and just under 60 percent of West Bankers lived entirely under Palestinian jurisdiction. Another 40 percent of West Bank residents lived in towns, villages, refugee camps, and hamlets where the PA exercised civil authority but where, in line with the Oslo accords, Israel maintained "overriding responsibility for security."

In September 2000, only about two percent of the West Bank's population lived in areas where Israel had complete control. By no conceivable stretching of words could the violence be described as a popular uprising against foreign occupation. This "popular uprising" was launched and choreographed by the leadership—and above all, by Yasir Arafat.

Conclusion

It is the tragedy of the Palestinians that the two leaders who determined their national development during the twentieth century—Haj Amin Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem, who led them from the early 1920s to the late 1940s, and Yasir Arafat, who has dominated Palestinian politics since the mid-1960s—were megalomaniac extremists obsessed with violence and blinded by anti-Jewish hatred. Had the mufti led his people to peace and reconciliation with their Jewish neighbors, as he promised the British officials who appointed him to his high rank, the Palestinians would have had their independent state in a substantial part of Mandatory Palestine by 1948. They thus would have been spared the traumatic experience of dispersion and exile. Had Arafat been genuinely interested in peace, a Palestinian state could have been established in the early 1980s as a corollary to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, or by May 1999, as a part of the Oslo process.

But then, for all his rhetoric about Palestinian independence, Arafat has never been as interested in the attainment of statehood as in the violence attending its pursuit. As far back as 1978, he told his close friend and collaborator, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, that the Palestinians lacked the tradition, unity, and discipline to become a formal state, and that a Palestinian state would be a failure from the first day.[30] The past decade has seen this bleak prognosis turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, driving Israelis and Palestinians in their bloodiest and most destructive confrontation in half a century.

Efraim Karsh is director of the Mediterranean Studies Programme at King's College, University of London, and editor of the quarterly journal Israel Affairs. He is the author of Arafat's War: The Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquest (Grove Press).

ENDNOTES:

[1] Al-Anwar (Beirut), Aug. 2, 1968.
[2] "Political Program for the Present Stage Drawn up by the 12th PNC, Cairo, June 9, 1974," Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 1974, pp. 224-5.
[3] Jordan Television Network (Amman), in Arabic, Sept. 13, 1993.
[4] For evidence from the early 1990s, see Daniel Pipes and Alexander T. Stillman, "Two-Faced Yasser," The Weekly Standard, Sept. 25, 1995.
[5] Daniel Pipes, "
Lessons from the Prophet Muhammad's Diplomacy," Middle East Quarterly, Sept. 1999, pp. 65-72.
[6] Jordan Television Network, Sept. 24, 1993; The Jerusalem Post, July 17, 1994.
[7] The Jerusalem Post, Aug. 10, 1994; Focus, Syrian television, Sept. 9, 1996, in International Media Review Analysis (IMRA), Sept. 9, 1996.
[8] As-Safir (Beirut), Mar. 21, 2001.
[9] The Jerusalem Post, Mar. 15, 1996.
[10] Ma‘ariv (Tel Aviv), Jan. 19, 1996.
[11] Al-Ittihad (Baghdad, internet edition), June 24, 1996; Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), July 13, 1997.
[12] Al-Jazeera (Doha), Jan. 13, 2002; al-Hayat al-Jadida (Gaza) Dec. 24, 2001.
[13] Al-Hayat al-Jadida, Dec. 25, 1997.
[14] The Jerusalem Post, Mar. 17, 1997.
[15] Al-Hayat al-Jadida, Dec. 8, 1997.
[16] Ibid., Sept. 26, 2000.
[17] Reuters, Nov. 11, 1999.
[18] Radio Monte Carlo, in Arabic, July 1, 1994; Voice of Palestine, July 5, 1994.
[19] Al-Hayat al-Jadida, Nov. 30, Dec. 21, 1997; July 2, Nov. 7, 1998.
[20] Ibid., Dec. 17, 1998.
[21] Mahmud ‘Abbas, al-Wajh al-Akhar: al-‘Alaqat as-Sirriya bayna an-Naziya wa's-Sihyuniya (Amman: Dar Ibn Rushd, 1984), introduction.
[22] "Camp David and After: An Exchange: An Interview with Ehud Barak," The New York Review of Books, June 13, 2001.
[23] Le Monde, Sept. 26, 2000.
[24] Khaled Abu Toameh, "Sermons of Fire," The Jerusalem Report, Mar. 23, 1995, pp. 20-1.
[25] The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 28, 1994; Ma'ariv, May 2, 1995.
[26] Palestinian Authority television, May 25, 2001, in Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Special Dispatch Series, no. 226, June 6, 2001, at
http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP22601.
[27] Die Zeit (Hamburg), June 7, Aug. 15, 2002.
[28] The Jerusalem Post, Sept. 29, 2000; Ma'ariv, Sept. 29, 2000; The Economist, Oct. 7, 2000.
[29] Imad Faluji in al-Ayyam (Ramallah), Dec. 6, 2002; Sakhr Habash, in al-Hayat al-Jadida, Nov. 7, Dec. 7, 2000; Mamduh Nawfal, in Majalat ad-Dirasat al-Filastiniya, Summer 2001, pp. 44-5; Marwan Barghouti's interview with al-Hayat (London), Sept. 29, 2001.
[30] Ion Pacepa, Red Horizons. Inside the Romanian Secret Service—The Memoirs of Ceausescu's Spy Chief (London: Coronet Books, 1989), p. 28.




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