After Arafat

Rashid Khalidi

The autumn of the patriarch is finally over. These are difficult times for the Palestinians, and Yasser Arafat’s death presents them with a daunting challenge. The first of their difficulties is the long-standing fragmentation of the Palestinian people. Nearly five million still live in some part of what was once Mandate Palestine, and can be divided into four distinct groups. More than a million have been citizens of Israel since 1948. Over 3.5 million, in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, are in their 38th year of military occupation, hermetically sealed off from one another. Each of the four groups – those with Israeli citizenship, 250,000 Arab Jerusalemites, more than two million West Bankers and 1.3 million Gazans – is subject to different laws; the last two face stringent restrictions on their movements.

A further five million Palestinians (there are no reliable figures) live outside Palestine, some of them in the utter misery of the refugee camps in Lebanon, others in widely differing conditions in different Arab countries, Europe and the US. The Palestinians of the diaspora possess a variety of passports, laisser-passers and refugee documents, and some also face restrictions on their movements. The largest single group, perhaps three million, carry Jordanian passports. One thing they all have in common is that they are barred from living in any part of their ancestral homeland.

The second difficulty the Palestinians face is the extraordinarily close relationship between the Sharon government and the Bush administration. Some of the same consultants work for American and Israeli political candidates, and some funders bankroll both Israeli and American political movements, charities and foundations. The economies of the two countries are intertwined: the incoming head of the Israeli Central Bank is an American, and a huge amount of capital flows from the US to Israel, including $2 billion a year in military assistance. Economic aid, loans, investment, charity donations and other transfers amount to as much as 10 per cent of Israel’s $120 billion GDP. Israeli writers, artists and academics commute to and from the US; tens of thousands of Israelis live in and visit the United States, and there are similar numbers of Americans in Israel.

The connection between Bush and Sharon goes back to Bush’s first visit to Israel, in 1998, one of the three trips abroad he made before he became president; Sharon showed him the Occupied Territories from a helicopter. The old general seems to have made a powerful impression on the Texas governor: ideological factors alone can’t explain a closeness sealed by ten meetings between the two men during Bush’s first term as president. Tony Blair may see Bush just as often, but he doesn’t have the same influence over him. The military and political consequences of their collaboration, which was cemented after 9/11 and during the second intifada, have been devastating for the Palestinians. With American approval, Israel reoccupied the small areas of the West Bank it had evacuated under the 1993 Oslo Accords, turned Palestinian towns into an archipelago of open-air prison camps, and wrecked the fragile Palestinian economy. The administrative apparatus of the Palestinian Authority was destroyed, police stations and government offices were demolished, and official records looted.

Last April Bush stated that Israel would have the right to annex the considerable areas of the West Bank where the largest of its illegal settlements are located: a significant departure from previous American policy, which had always maintained that these settlements were illegal, and an ‘obstacle to peace’. At one stroke, the Bush administration had discarded one of the core principles of Security Council Resolution 242, the internationally recognised basis for Arab-Israeli peace negotiations – viz. the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force. The settlements were now described by the president as ‘realities’ that would have to be taken into account in any agreement. Dealing exclusively with the Israeli government, the US behaved as if the Palestinians had neither interests nor rights in these matters – as if they didn’t exist. Sharon’s plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (while maintaining complete control of the region from outside), in order to retain indefinite control of most of the West Bank, is grounded in these Bush-Sharon understandings.

The third difficulty the Palestinians have to contend with is the absence of an effective political structure which would enable them to further their aims as a people, and therefore of an effective strategy for ending the occupation and achieving self-determination. This is a long-standing weakness, as Edward Said often argued in these pages. It dates back to the Mandate era, when the Palestinians, unlike many other Arab national movements of the same period, failed to build up the centralised institutions of a para-state, or to take control of the institutions of the colonial state. Partly in consequence, they remained weak and divided. Although they had a relatively strong sense of national identity, they were denied most of the attributes of statehood by the British Mandate authorities, and failed to develop them on their own. This crucial failing contributed to their resounding defeat between 29 November 1947, when UN General Assembly Resolution 181 mandated partition of the country, and 15 May 1948, when Israel was established, troops from four Arab armies entered the country, and the second phase of the war over Palestine began. In less than six months, two of the three largest Palestinian cities, Jaffa and Haifa, fell to the Zionists, as did scores of villages and towns; about half of the 750,000 Palestinians who became refugees during the war were forced from their homes.

In 1964, after the ‘lost decade’ of the 1950s, the PLO was created by the Arab governments as a way of controlling the Palestinians. Taken over by the Palestinians themselves in 1968, the PLO eventually established a para-state structure, with the equivalent of ministries carrying out financial, educational, medical and social tasks. It was hampered by having to do this in exile, in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere, and often clashed with the governments of the host countries. The institutions it created were neither very democratic nor very efficient, but many of the PLO cadres who had run them were imported into the Occupied Territories after the 1993 Oslo Accords (most of the lower-ranking employees came from the Occupied Territories).

The Palestinian Authority, when it came into existence in 1994, was expected to do the impossible, to function even though sovereignty was denied it by the Accords and subsequent agreements with Israel. Israel retained ultimate security control over the Occupied Territories; while the PA had only partial control over small parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Building stable, smoothly functioning institutions in such a situation would have been exceedingly difficult for even the most disciplined, competent and incorruptible political movement.

It’s true that the PLO had managed to run some of the structures of a para-state in Lebanon relatively effectively during the 15 years before its expulsion from Beirut in 1982, but cronyism, excessive centralisation, capriciousness, corruption and an inability to impose discipline on its various factions seriously marred its performance. This led to the alienation of the great majority of the Lebanese from the PLO and the Palestinians, which cost them dear in 1982 and afterwards. Moreover, the cadres who had run these institutions in Lebanon spent the dozen or so years after leaving Beirut in enforced idleness in various Arab countries. Whatever good qualities they had possessed in the 1970s had been eroded by the time they returned to Palestine in the mid-1990s, older, greyer and thicker, to take up the reins of power, and finally enjoy its perquisites. It was little wonder that the PA exhibited in magnified form the many flaws of the PLO’s para-state in Lebanon.

A final set of problems has included the monopolisation of real power in the PA by Fatah, repeating a pattern formed by the PLO in Beirut. This has combined with the PA’s inability to co-opt or incorporate Hamas and its other Islamist rival, Islamic Jihad, as Fatah had earlier succeeded in doing with secular rivals such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. By 2000, moreover, Palestinian public opinion had increasingly come to see the Oslo approach as a failure: it had failed to end the occupation, halt the expansion of Israeli settlements, ease the growing Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, or reverse the decline of the Palestinian economy. By this point the PA was in grave trouble.

The situation came to a head with the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, triggered by Sharon’s provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Several weeks of extreme Israeli repression of largely unarmed but violent demonstrations, with scores of Palestinians killed and wounded, was followed by an increase in the use of weapons on the part of the Palestinians, followed by intensified repression. Thereafter, Hamas and Islamic Jihad began to up the ante on Fatah and the PA, launching spectacular suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades soon took the same disastrous path. These militant groups, and the politicians with whom they were connected, played into the hands of the Israeli army, which in spring 2002 carried out long-standing plans for the reoccupation of Palestinian towns and cities, causing massive destruction, and shattering the PA infrastructure, before turning its attention to the leadership and infrastructure of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

A last critical problem has been the failure of the PA to establish a separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches, a difficult task for any national movement moving from semi-clandestinity into the open, and from liberation to state-building. Many states that gained full independence decades ago have not yet succeeded fully in this. For a people whose land was still under occupation, it was particularly hard. But while the PA initially established a reasonable level of law and order, at least before the intifada began, the proliferation of squabbling security services, and the bribery, featherbedding, corruption and favouritism which were rife in the PA, contributed significantly to the alienation of public opinion, as well as harming investment and offending donors. Vital social services languished (or were provided by Hamas or NGOs), while the PA lavished money on cars, apartments and travel for its senior cadres.

Equally serious was the failure of the Palestinian Legislative Council, elected in January 1996 at the same time as Arafat was elected president of the PA, to impose itself on the executive branch, as Arafat retained control in all important spheres. This was a moment when change had been possible, and their failure to take advantage of it haunted the Palestinians even before Israeli troops re-entered their cities and towns in 2002, shattering the pretence that the PA had any real authority. It haunts them still.

It became customary for the media, and the American media in particular, to ascribe every decision, every characteristic of Palestinian politics, to Arafat himself. This wasn’t altogether inappropriate: not only did Arafat deserve much of the credit for reviving the Palestinian cause after the debacle of 1948, he was also an easily caricatured and larger-than-life figure who did not arouse sympathy in most Western observers – and he lent himself to this personalisation. In some measure he even encouraged it. He revelled in attention, was jealous of rivals, and worked ceaselessly to keep all the strings controlling Palestinian politics in his own hands. As the pre-eminent and founding leader of Fatah, as the chairman since 1969 of the PLO Executive Committee, and as the elected president of the PA, there is no question that he towered over Palestinian politics for most of the last forty years.

While Arafat was largely responsible for the successes and many failings of Fatah, the PLO and the PA, the failure of the Palestinian polity from the Mandate period onwards to develop most of the attributes of statehood was more structural than anything else. Nor should he alone be blamed for the many strategic errors made by the PLO leadership over the decades. They include the constant equivocation about a two-state solution, the failure to put a stop to armed violence long after violence had supposedly been conclusively renounced; the egregious failure to impose internal discipline; siding with Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990; and accepting the 1993 Oslo Accords and the interim accords that followed it with all their flaws. Many of these gross strategic blunders grew out of collective decision-making by the entire Fatah-PLO-PA leadership.

On the other hand, the assassinations of Fatah leaders by Israel and Arab states played their part in all this. Particularly after the killings in Tunis of Arafat’s closest collaborators, Abu Jihad in 1988 and Abu Iyyad in 1991, there remained virtually no one who could stand up to the Old Man, ‘al-Khityar’. Although he was always first among equals, before the assassinations Arafat had at times been obliged to defer to his comrades, particularly on the rare occasions when they succeeded in banding together to oppose him. Several founding leaders of Fatah even had their own organisational bases and sources of support. They could defy Arafat (although given his temper and autocratic tendencies they were loath to do so), and in consequence from the 1960s until the early 1980s there were serious internal and public deliberations about strategy within Fatah and the PLO. One example was the debate over whether to pursue reconciliation with the Hashemite regime – the ‘Jordanian option’ – as a way of forging closer links with the Occupied Territories. In the past decade and a half, by contrast, Arafat became increasingly inclined to make most decisions himself, surrounded by a coterie of yes-men.

His brush with death in an air crash in the Libyan desert in 1992 made dealing with him more difficult. His memory, always one of his most powerful weapons, wasn’t what it had been. In recent years, his alertness appeared to vary from day to day. He had lived a hard, dangerous life for five decades, but seemed to age little until his late seventies, when his health visibly declined. His increasing feebleness was more apparent after the Israeli army immured him in the wreckage of his headquarters in the spring of 2002. The elected leader of the Palestinians (technically, his term as president ran out in 2000) was now immobilised and virtually imprisoned. Increasingly isolated from reality, largely cut off from his own people, receiving only a few visitors compared to the many who had flocked to see him in Beirut and Tunis, and in Gaza and Ramallah before 2002, Arafat was even more dependent on a tight circle of aides.

Even in infirmity, however, Arafat was a more formidable politician than his colleagues Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei, both of whom, as successive prime ministers in 2003, failed to impose themselves against his will. He then showed himself more able than men half his age, rapidly crushing an open challenge to his authority in the summer of 2004 by Muhammad Dahlan, the former chief of Preventive Security in Gaza (one of a dozen competing PA security services created by Arafat). But his isolation and increasing loss of focus left the Palestinian polity without any recognisable strategy at a time of supreme crisis, as the intifada ground on with devastating effects.

Not surprisingly, his death was met with both sadness and relief among Palestinians, a sense of anxiety at the disappearance of the only leader most people had ever known, combined with a sense that change was imperative after so many years of going nowhere. Resentment at a father figure who had clung to power for too long was accompanied by deep insecurity at the disappearance of the icon who symbolised the Palestinian cause. A mixture of melancholy and mild elation prevailed at the funeral and in the days after Arafat’s burial, when the meaning of his absence began to sink in among Palestinians everywhere. It was soon replaced by concern about the future, mixed with cautious hopes for an improvement in the situation.

The opportunities facing the Palestinians are less enticing than they were at first portrayed, when the West seemed so excited to find the Arafat era at an end. Peace is not about to break out, if peace means a binding, mutually satisfactory resolution of the ‘final status’ issues in dispute between Israel and the Palestinians: Jerusalem, refugees, sovereignty, recognised borders, settlements and water. The reason is simple: the two most powerful Middle Eastern actors, the United States and Israel, have shown no intention of allowing negotiations about these matters (with the exception of the abortive Camp David-Taba episode, they haven’t been allowed at any time in the past 15 years). Sharon’s plans are predicated on no negotiations with the Palestinians, because any Palestinian negotiators, however feeble, would object to Sharon’s stated aim of establishing permanent Israeli control over most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Without a ceasefire, nothing can move forward. Egypt has tried for months to bring one about, but it is still unclear whether Israel will agree to halt its assassinations, incursions and airstrikes; and equally unclear whether armed Palestinian factions will halt their attacks on civilians inside Israel, or on soldiers and settlers in the Occupied Territories. This is one of the first challenges Mahmoud Abbas faces, and he cannot meet it on his own. Co-operation must come from his own Fatah movement, which sponsors the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, from other Palestinian groups, from Israel, and from the United States and Egypt. If there isn’t a ceasefire, binding on both sides, Abbas’s second term in power will be no more successful than his first, when Arafat made and unmade him as prime minister.

The Palestinians face a second challenge, which is also an opportunity: to bring about Palestinian national reconciliation on the basis of an agreement among the main factions. To be successful, this must involve power-sharing with Hamas and other opposition groups, and it isn’t at all clear how this would work. Fatah has never shared power; and it is impossible to determine the limits of the ambitions of Hamas, or to know whether the militant groups will be prepared to renounce violence, even for a fixed period. Yet to be effective, negotiations will have to take place on the basis of a national consensus on a halt to violence that is respected and, if necessary, enforced. What must be avoided at all costs is a continuation of the situation in which a violent minority is dragging the entire Palestinian people into confrontation with Israel. And if negotiations with Israel were to fail, unity between the groups would be all the more important.

For the first time in years, Palestinians have had the opportunity of deciding between violence and negotiation, of determining what limits to put on violence, whether violence has achieved anything, what negotiations have achieved, and what they might be able to achieve. The country is deeply ambivalent about these questions. The latest polls show that most people believe the intifada has harmed their cause and want to give negotiations another chance, but a majority also believes, paradoxically, that the violence of the second intifada forced Israel to decide to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. (Polls show that Israelis are similarly ambivalent about their options in relation to the Palestinians.)

There are those who believe that Israel has suffered more than the Palestinians from the violence of the past four years. Such illusions are unhelpful. Given that more than three times as many Palestinians as Israelis have been killed in that time, it is hard to understand how Palestinian apostles of violence (as well as partisans of Israel) can make such a claim. In the past year, after three years of heavy casualties and economic stagnation, the number of Israelis killed has fallen sharply, and the Israeli economy has grown at a rate of 3.4 per cent. Conversely, Palestinian casualties are almost as heavy as they have been at any time since the intifada began, and the Palestinian economy is in ruins. For nearly two years now, majorities in both societies have been convinced that they cannot prevail by violence. Many of the hard men who lead the Israeli military and the Palestinian armed factions pay no heed to this view.

The decision to end the violence is not just up to the Palestinians: the initiative is often in Israeli hands, and the desire to deliver the last blow, to show dominance, to achieve unequivocal victory, dies hard among military men. But since Arafat’s death, the leaders of Palestinian militant factions have made a series of statements suggesting that they realise it is time to try a new tack. How capable they are of sticking to it if provoked by Israel is questionable, however, just as it’s questionable whether any external power is willing to restrain Israel, even in the face of Palestinian provocation. Meanwhile, in the absence of a ceasefire, and with intense political jockeying inside the PA, as well as between the PA and its rivals, violence continues.

It is time for the Palestinians to establish solid democratic institutions. That they have a powerful desire for democracy was demonstrated in the recent municipal and presidential elections. But elections, crucial though they are to opening up the stale ranks of a leadership dominated by returnees, aren’t the only issue. It is essential for the Palestinians to appeal directly to American and Israeli public opinion on the basis of a clear programme that is the product of democratic decision-making. They have never done this before, but they must if they are ever to succeed.

If the PA is to deliver desperately needed social and other services, it must be overhauled, to root out not just corruption, but also featherbedding and nepotism. This must be done delicately – jobs for the boys is as sacred a principle of political life in Ramallah and Gaza as it is in Chicago and New York. The security services, too, must be reorganised and retrained, though there is a potential danger here: a unified and competent security apparatus may prove a ready instrument for the Bonapartist ambitions of some officer, a pattern all too familiar in the Arab world. The security services must provide security first and foremost for the Palestinian people, something they have so far signally failed to do.

Yet even if a binding, mutual ceasefire can be arranged, if a Palestinian national pact involving power-sharing and a clear agreement on strategy, including an end to the use of violence, is worked out, if municipal and legislative elections are held successfully, and if the PA and its security services are reformed, there will be further challenges. For even if Israel responds with reciprocal measures, such as withdrawing its troops, removing roadblocks and checkpoints, releasing prisoners, and co-ordinating its Gaza Strip pullback with the Palestinians, the question remains whether serious final status negotiations will take place.

Even if Bush and Sharon do agree to such negotiations, there will be no resolution if Sharon’s plan for Israel to retain permanent control of between 40 and 60 per cent of the West Bank and East Jerusalem is the bottom line rather than an opening gambit. Having accepted that 78 per cent of Mandate Palestine is irrevocably part of Israel, no Palestinian leader could win majority support for agreeing to cede any of the remaining 22 per cent. Something that was barely noticed in the Western rejoicing over the flowering of Palestinian democracy during Abbas’s election was his pledge to submit any final status agreement to a plebiscite of Palestinians inside and outside their homeland. Will we now be told that too much democracy is a bad thing? What is certain is that a network of Bantustans linked by tunnels and bridges, as imagined by some Israeli planners, will never be accepted as constituting a Palestinian ‘state’, even temporarily.

It may well be that failure to agree this time round on a solution based on the 1949-67 armistice lines will mark the end of the two-state approach. This approach has disadvantages, not least of them that it is unfair that the Palestinians should be obliged to accept less than a quarter of their homeland. Another is the difficulty of returning to the 1967 lines after 38 years of settlement building, and the legal and logistical integration of more than 400,000 settlers into Israel. Not to speak of the vexed issues of refugees and Jerusalem. But this approach has one distinct advantage: majorities of both peoples seem to want national states in which they predominate, and fair or not, this is the only internationally recognised basis for such a solution.

If there is no agreement along these lines in the near future, and if the inexorable incorporation of the West Bank, or most of it, into Israel continues (and even if Israel does evacuate the Gaza Strip), we will all have to accept the reality of a sovereign Israeli-dominated entity ruling uneasily over two peoples between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. This entity would eventually have a Palestinian majority, and would continue to have millions of discontented Palestinians outside its frontiers. Most Palestinians (and most Israelis) do not want such an outcome. Should it come to pass, the Palestinians would have to decide how to achieve their national aspirations under a single sovereignty dominated for the foreseeable future by their historic adversary. The difficulty of this task seems to be apparent to most Palestinians, which may be why they have overcome their bitter memories of the Oslo era, and grudgingly given Mahmoud Abbas a last chance. Will the bleak future that otherwise faces everyone concerned, including the Israelis, impel them to do everything possible to avoid it?