If late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was among us today, would the Palestinian situation be as it is? Gaza is in a state of secession, negotiations are at a stalemate, the Palestinian cause has dropped down the list of priorities, coming behind the issues of Iraq, Iran, the Shebaa farms, Darfur and al-Qaeda in Yemen.
What distinguished the late President Arafat was his ability to light a candle and start a fire at the same time, thus giving hope and creating chaos simultaneously. Arafat was not an adventurous man and was often criticized by others, but would always end up with the least amount of losses. This explains his frequent retreats, and refusals to accept settlements, which he had earlier agreed to. It also explains why many had grown accustomed to waiting for his actions, rather than his words. He was long known to be a political chameleon rather than a hot-headed military commander. His pistol was just a symbolic appearance; his most remarkable skill was his power of persuasion and argument.
Yasser Arafat’s skills were evident in the Palestinian camp, which was crammed with rival leaderships, some of which were loyal to several foreign parties. Arafat knew how to connect with them, or at least how to pull on their reins from a distance. He was a clever acrobat who had fallen multiple times off the tightrope, without breaking his neck. He was well aware that everyone, even those who were fighting him, would be of use some day. Accordingly he never shut the door on anyone.
One of the late Palestinian leader’s most prominent achievements was imposing the idea of Palestine, as a state project, upon the Arabs in 1988. Prior to that, Palestine was just an Anglo-Ottoman legacy, divided amongst Jordan, Egypt and Syria. It was not easy to convince those countries to give up their “Palestinian territories”. Nevertheless, Arafat excelled, and maintained good relations with Aman, Cairo and Damascus, albeit with some short-term setbacks.
However, after liberating the Palestinian territories on paper, from their Arab owners, Arafat could not do much against the Israeli occupation. The biggest enemy he had to face was the facts of Arab geography. Nasser, and then Sadat, had both closed off Sinai to the Palestinian resistance. Equally, the Syrian leadership tightened its closure of the Golan Heights, whereas Jordan expelled all members of the Palestinian resistance, after bloody clashes, and their efforts to target the Jordanian regime.
Afterwards, everyone agreed to leave one open channel for the Palestinian resistance, namely Lebanon, for it was considered to be a soft state. The Lebanese had no choice but to incorporate the Palestinian resistance into their local conflicts. The resistance participated in clashes between Sunnis and Christians, Sunnis and Syrians, Syrians and Christians, and finally Sunnis and Shiites. Eventually, Israel expelled Arafat from Lebanon to Tunisia, on a journey that was thought to be a final farewell.
By creating a secret Palestinian negotiating team as a replacement for Arafat, the U.S. hoped it would lure agents away from Yasser Arafat, who had taken up residence in al-Hammam district in Tunis. Surprisingly, Arafat was in on everything that the U.S. was planning. He knew of the conspiracy that was being organized but was waiting for the right time to play his hand. Arafat had no desire to compete with Hanan Ashrawi, and Abdul Shafi, in the dangerous negotiating game.
The Palestinian negotiators served and paved the way for him. They took a risk and entered into negotiations. Yasser Arafat felt that the Arabs and the Palestinians would not object if he insisted on completing his mission, thus he returned to Palestine.
Executing such political manoeuvres at that time was far more dangerous than doing so today. The Arab regimes in control at the time were far more severe. For example, Saddam Hussein had equipped himself with dangerous people, such as Abu Nidal, whom he had invited to Baghdad, to take on the task of killing Yasser Arafat’s men.
What really exhausted the late Palestinian president was not Israel, but rather his Arab brothers. Most of the dangers faced by Arafat came from rival Arab countries, with conflicting interests. For example, if he shook hands with one Arab leader, he would be considered an enemy in the eyes of another, and so on and so forth. Yet Arafat did not hesitate to participate in this game of conflicting interests, out of a belief that it was the only means to protect Palestinian interests.
Today we can’t say that President Mahmoud Abbas is less competent, but he is definitely playing the game in a different style. Had Arafat been present today, maybe Hamas wouldn’t have led such a smooth and comfortable existence in Gaza. Arafat would have protested, and would have been a constant thorn in their side. Yet today, Hamas is suffocating President Abbas. With regards to the major cause, Abbas, the apprentice of Arafat, negotiates without taking risks, leaving the final settlement issue to those who would succeed him.