Sunday, November 14, 2004

The Arafat Voids

The New York Times
November 14, 2004

The Arafat Voids

The day after Yasir Arafat died, USA Today carried a big, bold headline that caught my eye. It said: "Arafat Dies, Leaves Void."

All I could think of when reading that headline was its double meaning. Yasir Arafat left a void of leadership, with no formal successor. But he also left a void of achievement. And it is that second void that really matters, considering that he led the Palestinian movement for some 40 years.

You will pardon me if I don't join in the insipid chorus about how Arafat's great achievement was the way he represented the "aspirations" for statehood of the Palestinian people and, through terrorism and resistance, put the Palestinian cause on the world map.

Excuse me, but Yasir Arafat put the Palestinian cause on the world map in 1974, when he was invited to address the U.N. General Assembly. What did he do with all that attention after that? Very little. There is a message in his life and his legacy for every world leader: If all you do is express the aspirations, but never produce the reality, then history will judge you very harshly. And any honest history of Yasir Arafat will judge him on his voids, not his visions.

Will we now see the emergence of a Palestinian leadership - a broad coalition from Hamas to Fatah - ready to take the collective decision to really reconcile with the Jews that Arafat was not ready to make on his own?

Will Arab leaders, like Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who put forth a peace plan, be ready to really help the Palestinians make the tough decisions by giving them Arab cover? Or will we simply have another generation of expressive politics by Arab leaders, who love the Palestinian cause but not the Palestinian people?

Ariel Sharon seems to have already started to learn some of the lessons of Arafat's life. Mr. Sharon was asked recently what made him change his mind, and risk his own life and political career, to undertake a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza after so many years opposing such a move. His answer: There were things he could see "from here" that he couldn't see "from there."

In other words, sitting in the chair of the prime minister, he could suddenly see the long-term interests of the Israeli people in a different way.

"Sharon has started to give up his popularity among his own constituency, because he realizes that the welfare of the Israeli people, as a whole, requires decisions that are unpopular but unavoidable," said the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi. But Sharon cannot stop just with Gaza. He's got a lot more popularity to give up with his old constituency if we're going to see a deal on the West Bank.

Finally, what about President Bush? When it comes to the Arab-Israel question, he's had a little bit of Arafat disease himself. He's given some of the best speeches of any president on the Arab-Israel issue and delivered the most pathetic diplomacy I have ever seen.

This divide reflects the paralyzing split in his administration between those who understand that America will never win the war of ideas in the Middle East without working seriously on the most emotional issue in Arab political life - the Palestine question - and those, like the vice president and secretary of defense, who think the whole issue is overrated. The first group are right, the second are wrong. The president needs to choose.

If only President Bush called in Colin Powell and said: "Colin, neither of us have much to show by way of diplomacy for the last four years. I want you to get on an airplane and go out to the Middle East. I want you to sit down with Israelis and Palestinians and forge a framework for a secure Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and progress toward a secure peace in the West Bank, and I don't want you to come back home until you've got that. Only this time I will stand with you.

"As long as you're out there, I will not let Rummy or Cheney fire any more arrows into your back. So get going. It's time for you to stop sulking over at Foggy Bottom and time for me to make a psychological breakthrough with the Arab world that can also help us succeed in Iraq - by making it easier for Arabs and Muslims to stand with us. I don't want to see you back here until you've put our words into deeds."

Yasir Arafat preferred to die, beloved by all his people, in a Paris military hospital - rather than sacrifice his popularity and maybe his life so that the majority of his people could live and die at home. Will Ariel Sharon, George Bush and the Arab and Palestinian leaders now follow his model and play to the crowds, or play to history?