Thursday, July 22, 2004

Palestinians - 2 -- Arafat's legitimacy attacked from all sides

Is Arafat starting to be seen as dispensable -- by the Palestinians? by the international community?

Bret Stephens Jerusalem Post, July 22, 2004

In January, I happened to sit next to a former senior diplomat, a man of honorably Leftish views now at the helm of an important think tank, at a dinner at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. We talked mainly about Yasser Arafat. "Frightful man," he said, speaking from a well of personal experience. "But - really - who else is there? There's no way of getting around him. He's the man you've got to do business with."

Arafat may be an iconic figure, but contrary to widespread Israeli perception he is not an especially popular one on the international diplomatic circuit. He has not set foot in the White House in four years. Among Arab rulers, he is detested. In Europe, he is tolerated.

Arafat has remained relevant for three reasons.

    First, because he's seen as the man who commands unquestioned Palestinian allegiance.
    Second, because he's seen as the man without whom nothing can be done.
    And third, because he's seen as the man without whom things would only go from bad to worse.

In the past week, however, these assumptions have been sorely tested. Much has been made of outgoing UN envoy Terje Roed Larsen's criticism of Arafat in his report to the Security Council. But Larsen's criticism - too little, too late, for most Israelis - is a mere echo of what is being said openly about Arafat on the Palestinian street and in Arab newspapers.

Former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas told Newsweek in June that he and Arafat are no longer on speaking terms, a startling thing for such a longstanding and high-ranking PLO official to say. The attempted assassination this week of former PA information minister Nabil Amr, another vocal Arafat critic, did nothing to quell the mounting internal challenge to Arafat's authority, but instead spurred the sense of outrage at his leadership habits.

"The PA under Mr. Arafat has started crumbling," wrote Ahmed Al-Jarallah in the Arab Times, July 19. "The Palestinians themselves have started questioning the need for its existence Mr. Arafat should quit his position because he is the head of a corrupt authority. There is no point for him to remain in politics . He has destroyed Palestine."

Thus goes the first pillar on which Arafat's relevance rests. However much Arafat may be referred to as the "elected leader" of the Palestinians, the legitimacy of that long-ago election (for a term that expired years ago) rests on the perception that Arafat's leadership continues to enjoy broad popular support. Now that the perception is changing, so too is the automatic imputation of legitimacy, with knock on effects on the second pillar of Arafat's relevance: His supposed ability to deliver.

In conversations with Palestinians and in the Arab press, a recurring theme is that Arafat - when not merely serving his own purposes - actually serves Sharon's. "Israel is satisfied with the situation of a Palestinian leadership that is the sole legitimate one but at the same time does not participate in the real negotiations," wrote Ahmed al-Rab'i in Al-Sharq Al-Aswat, June 26. "The greatest service Arafat can do for the Palestinians is to submit his resignation and throw down the gauntlet to Israel and the Quartet." (Translation by Memri.)

The argument here is especially powerful because it suggests that Arafat is a collaborator, if an unwitting one. The more this view gains traction, the less use Arafat is to anyone: He can only regain Palestinian sympathy by asserting his radical bona fides; he can only regain Western sympathy by promising accommodation. The alternatives are, or ought to be, mutually exclusive.

Previously, when Arafat found himself in this position, his response was to do as little as possible, waiting to be rescued by events as the chaos he sowed engulfed his domestic rivals and begged for his decisive intervention.

One such event was the General Assembly's vote on Monday - backed by every member state of the newly enlarged European Union - calling for the dismantlement of Israel's security fence. This was a nice diplomatic victory for the PA, but it's not at all clear whether it will prove to be the lifeline Arafat seeks. His efforts to impose law and order in Gaza have backfired spectacularly. Then too, by now Palestinians are so accustomed to scoring victories in Turtle Bay that another hortatory gesture of international support will not impress them overly much.

We may have reached a point when the chaos of Palestine will weaken Arafat rather than strengthen him, as it has in the past.The international community is slowly beginning to recognize that Arafat isn't keeping the worst-case scenario (a Hamas takeover) at bay, but rather that he is the worst-case scenario. Among Palestinians, one senses not only a genuine hunger to get beyond Arafat, but the feeling that it may at last be possible to do so. Certainly, the isolation enforced on Palestinian towns and cities by Israeli closures and roadblocks has created a class of local elites ill-disposed to surrender their newfound power and prestige to the rais who's done so little on their behalf.

Arafat has survived so many challenges to his authority in his four decades at the helm of the PLO that it seems incredible he won't survive this one. Still, the idea that he's dispensable has taken hold in the Arab mind. It may yet seize Western minds, too.

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