Benny Morris: Arafat's Ambiguous Legacy





For all his sly buffoonery - it was almost impossible to get him to answer a question properly - Yasir Arafat was a man with a vision. And when speaking in Arabic he often charted it for his audiences. He wanted, simply, to "end the occupation" and "redeem Palestine." Arab listeners, inside and outside Palestine, understood what he was saying.

Many Westerners thought, or preferred or pretended to believe, that he was talking about the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories occupied by Israel in 1967 and constituting 22 percent of historic Palestine. But they were belittling the man and his dream. Mr. Arafat didn't want and never really acquiesced in the idea of a stunted West Bank-Gaza state. And in his vision Mr. Arafat accurately reflected the general will of his people - as he had throughout his life on all major issues, which was the secret behind the longevity of his rule (he headed the Palestine Liberation Organization from 1969 to 2004).

For all Palestinians, from the fundamentalist Islamic Jihad to Mr. Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement, the tragedy of Palestine and the "occupation" began not in 1967 or even 1917 but in 1882, when the first Zionist settler set foot in Palestine. And in 1948 and 1949, the state of Israel was established on 78 percent of Palestine and some two-thirds of Palestine's Arab population was displaced.

When Mr. Arafat set out as a young engineer in the Palestinian Diaspora to bring justice to his people, he thought and spoke, clearly and insistently, of the return of the Palestinians to Palestine and the return of Palestine to its "rightful owners." Nothing less. That is what Mr. Arafat strove for all his life, wavering only on tactics and strategy, not on the goal. By the 1990's he understood that only a combination of political-diplomatic stratagems (resulting in international - meaning mainly American - pressure on Israel), terrorism and demographics would do the job, producing a Palestine with an Arab majority.

Whatever deluded Westerners might believe, Mr. Arafat was no liberal, taking account of others' views and feelings and seeking solutions through conciliation and compromise. In Mr. Arafat's eyes and those of his people, there is only one justice: Palestinian justice. Only what the Palestinians believe and seek is just. That is why, according to Dennis Ross, former chief American negotiator in the Middle East, Mr. Arafat insisted at Camp David in July 2000, to President Bill Clinton's astonishment and chagrin, that there had never been a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The small, walled hillock, called the Noble Sanctuary, with its two mosques, was an Islamic Arab site. That alone. And so there had to be sole Palestinian Arab sovereignty over the site.

Of course, Mr. Arafat was actually making a more comprehensive point - that all of Palestine belonged rightfully to the Palestinians and that Jewish claims lacked any legitimacy. That was why he turned down the peace proposals of Mr. Barak in July 2000 and the proposals from Mr. Clinton the following December. It was not because Mr. Barak had declined to kiss both his cheeks or because the Palestinians wanted an additional sliver of land here or there.

Mr. Arafat said no because he refused to accept any settlement that did not include a mechanism for its future subversion, a loophole that would allow the Palestinians, down the road, to undermine its two-state core - specifically, the "right of return" of the Palestinian refugees to Israeli territory. Such a return would, of course, spell Israel's demise. (Israel currently has a population of about 5 million Jews and almost 1.3 million Arabs; there are some 4 million Palestinians registered as refugees by the United Nations.) In short, Mr. Arafat wanted "Palestine," all of it, not a watered-down 22 percent solution.

Yet Mr. Arafat needed to take account of Israel's presence and power, and of the international community's endorsement of Jewish statehood. So on the road to realizing his vision, he had on occasion to make ephemeral tactical concessions, like renouncing terrorism in 1988 and recognizing Israel's right to exist as part of the 1993 Oslo agreement. ...

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Cary Fraser - 11/12/2004

If Arafat was strategic in his thinking about "redeeming Palestine", Mr. Sharon and his allies have been no less strategic in their search for ways to dispossess the Palestinians of the West Bank.

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