Yasser Arafat: why he still matters
He neither looked nor sounded like a natural leader. Yet Yasser Arafat dominated Palestinian politics for a generation before his death 10 years ago. How did he do it, and how much of a shadow does he still cast?
Co-authored with Hussein Agha.
(Photograph: Kevin Freyer/AP)
Hated and venerated in equal measure, Yasser Arafat dominated the Palestinian landscape, and with it, much of the Middle East’s political map for almost five decades. His death 10 years ago, besieged and in miserable isolation, marked the beginning of the end of the revolution that reawakened the national consciousness of Palestinians and allowed them the possibility of determining their own fate on their own land.
Authentic national leaders do not arise often. They are forged more by fate and circumstance than by human design. Ten years on, the full implications of Arafat’s era – a period in which he acted as founder of the political movement Fatah, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and president of the Palestinian National Authority – have yet to be understood. His most enduring legacy was to lead the Palestinians out of the material, political and moral devastation of the 1948 Nakba – the catastrophe which saw more than 700,000 Palestinians lose their homes in what became Israel – as a people and a cause. The fact that the Palestinian problem today occupies a central place in world affairs is in no little measure due to the man and his work. His other legacies may be open to dispute and it may also be too early to pass a final verdict on them.
Arafat’s supporters would claim that without armed struggle, the Palestinian issue would have remained no more than yet another refugee problem alongside the many other displacements lingering on the periphery of the world’s conscience. His detractors would claim that the use of violence marred his reputation, and that his idiosyncratic rule did not serve his people well. After Arafat’s death, his successor Mahmoud Abbas sought to distance himself from these ways. As Arafat’s long-time comrade and associate, Abbas inherited much of his legitimacy from their years of common struggle and dedication to the cause, but he took a different approach. Attempts at state-building and an unwavering commitment to negotiations and diplomacy have substituted for Arafat’s revolutionary ethos. Whether this will prove to be a more successful path for fulfilling Palestinian aspirations has yet to be seen, but as Abbas’s era reaches its limits – Abbas is 79 – the next phase of Palestinian politics is unlikely to replicate what has passed before.
The political future of Palestine appears bleak. True authority has been depleted by long years of struggle, by death, detention, occupation, and the seemingly fruitless search for freedom and restitution. The diaspora, in which the majority of Palestinians live, has never been so marginalised or voiceless, and the refugees, the heartland of Arafat’s revolution and the core of the struggle, have never faced such denial and deprivation. After Arafat and Abbas, it is unlikely that a new national leadership that cuts across political and geographical boundaries and embodies the will and aspirations of most Palestinians will surface any time soon. The upshot of the inevitable scramble is likely to be a truncated authority with limited credibility; a leadership that reflects the lowest common denominator rather than the popular will.
Exasperating even to his most ardent admirers, Arafat was never an easy man to read, with few of the obvious characteristics of leadership. Physically unprepossessing, even diminutive, he failed to meet the impressive physical standards set by some of his contemporaries (Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, in particular) and had no evident rhetorical or oratorical skills to compensate for his somewhat disadvantaged appearance. His Egyptian accent, acquired during his childhood in Cairo, marked him out as an ostensible outsider – an unlikely contender for the leadership of an often fiercely insular national movement.
Appearance and accent notwithstanding, Arafat’s extraordinary life and career provide a record of unparalleled dedication, uncommon self-confidence and almost foolhardy persistence against all odds. His untiring work ethic was one of his most powerful assets: this was a man who took no break or time off during the five decades or so of his active political career, which stood him in good stead when compared with the generally more relaxed pace of most of his lieutenants and associates. He manipulated his time to suit his purposes: staying up very late at night to challenge the endurance of his friends and adversaries. He would think nothing of summoning lieutenants, emissaries, journalists, or scheduling political meetings at 2am; a test of faith and dedication laced with macho challenge, as if those who could not keep up with him were not really serious enough to warrant his attention. He made up for this brutal schedule by napping during the afternoon when normal people had normal duties to attend to.
With no traditional tools of power or control over land, resources, or his people, Arafat’s working habits became an essential part of his influence and moral persuasion. From its very early stirrings in the late 50s, the Palestinian struggle was complicated by the geographic and demographic divisions separating the clusters that constituted the Palestinian political universe. Welding these disparate elements together, and maintaining them on some consistent political course was a constant challenge. Unlike most national liberation movements, the Palestinians never acquired an independent base or long-lasting territorial haven. They were subject to severe constraints imposed by foreign powers and vulnerable to outside intrusions. Arafat’s unwavering presence when others were absent, his vigilance when his peers were otherwise engaged and his constant devotion were integral to his appeal and to the leadership that helped him impose his will on his dispersed and quarrelsome subjects.
His occasional economies with the truth were politically driven. If he lied, it was, he believed, only in the service of his people and to make best use of whatever tactical opportunity it could afford him – including protecting those to whom he felt some obligation. One infamous incident concerned the then relatively unknown Mohammad Deif, Hamas’s military commander, a long-term resident at the top of Israel’s wanted list. Asked about Deif’s whereabouts by senior Israeli officials, Arafat pretended that he had no idea who they were talking about: “Mohammad who? Never heard of him!” This may have helped to protect Deif, but was used by Israelis thereafter as evidence of his bad faith.
Yet, despite his reputation, Arafat could be nonplussed when confronted with someone with an apparently greater capacity for mendaciousness. “Do you lie?” the then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi once asked him over dinner, “I lie all the time …” Arafat did not quite know how to respond.
But lies and hard work were not his only method. Like a practised politician, he knew well how to charm his audience, directing his undivided attention towards relative juniors and making a special effort to claim familiarity and remember names. He was capable of wit and had a dry sense of humour. While visiting Yemen, he was greeted by dancing tribesmen whom he leapt up to join with a bit too much enthusiasm, tripping and falling to the ground. He made the best of the moment by pretending it was deliberate, and loudly proclaimed: “I kiss the sacred soil of Yemen.” Such performances were as much sheer instinct as part of his much‑needed armoury of survival.
Solicitous and unfailingly polite, he would insist on hosting visitors, serving them their dinner with his own hands (usually simple chicken, cheese and honey). His attempts to put his interlocutors at ease were genuine, if sometimes gauche, verging on the farcical. Upon meeting Israeli General Uzi Dayan, Moshe Dayan’s nephew, after the 1993 Oslo agreement, Arafat fondly reminisced about kicking a ball with the general’s uncle near the Wailing Wall in pre-1948 Palestine – an event that almost certainly never happened.
Arafat’s company could also be awkward and unsatisfying. He constantly jiggled his knees, his eyes darted around, his pronouncements were opaque, if not incoherent, at times deliberately so, and his line of thought confusing – at least to those more accustomed to western discourse. He could lapse into extended and embarrassing silences lasting for hours. He may not have had the most rigorous formal education, but his unquestionable intelligence, piercing political sense, and tactical acumen were polished by years of clandestine activity and informed by numerous plots and schemes, both real and imagined.
He was not an intellectual or a man of ideas. A pragmatist and activist to the core, he had little time for theory and long-winded analyses, and tended to dismiss his more literary-inclined critics as kataba (scribes). His knowledge of the world outside Palestine was limited by the necessities of dedication to the struggle, the constraints of opportunity, and the vagaries of fate. Until he became uncontested Palestinian leader in the 1970s, he had seen little of the world. When he subsequently pursued a preposterously long itinerary of international visits (including a record 25 trips to the Clinton White House), his understanding of global affairs remained relatively parochial, a product of his 50s schooling.
Apart from an alleged taste for American cartoons, Arafat seems to have had no interests besides politics. But the “old man” was particularly fond of female company, happy to receive the many women reporters who navigated the shifting sands of the Palestinian struggle. Despite a genuinely austere lifestyle that hardly changed with his rise to global prominence, Arafat remained susceptible to affairs of the heart until his marriage at the age of 61.
His paternalistic view of his role allowed him to be generous with his favours and his cash. In the absence of a healthcare system, he effectively ran a one-man health service for the Palestinian people and made a special effort to cover the medical needs of those who approached him, which helped to sustain his authority and popularity. Yet he was no stranger to bursts of anger, petulance or vindictiveness. Those who knew him best suffered from his moods most. Indeed, reading his mood grew into an art at which aides and colleagues competed, almost to the point of obsession. But he rarely, if ever, displayed his temper in public, except in the presence of those before whom he felt no obligation to pretend. Arafat also knew how to deploy his authority. In one instance in Beirut in the mid-70s, upon hearing that his most senior and highly respected military commander Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir) had shared secret information with a leader of one of the Palestinian leftist factions whom Arafat totally distrusted, Arafat berated and admonished his colleague in the presence of others. Abu Jihad shrunk and turned every shade of crimson but accepted his verbal lashing with grace.
Arafat’s courage in the face of threats was legendary. His exploits in collecting discarded Syrian weapons on the Golan Heights in the aftermath of the 1967 war, alone in a battered and badly camouflaged Volkswagen, helped to establish his reputation, as did his attempt to set up Fatah cells in the West Bank in the wake of the Israeli occupation. The way he kept his cool under the fierce Israeli bombardment that repeatedly targeted him in Beirut in 1982, and in the face of the Syrian assault in Tripoli, Lebanon in 1983, bore witness to his readiness to put himself in harm’s way. This was a function of his self-image as a leader and driven by his religious belief.
He survived multiple efforts to assassinate him (he was proud to have evaded at least 13 attempts by the Syrians alone), and lived through a serio us air crash in the Libyan desert in 1992 that killed several fellow passengers. There were those who argued that he never recovered his full mental faculties, but the very fact that he lived to see another day enhanced his aura of leadership and sense of mission.
Arafat was conscious of his Muslim credentials and audience; he carefully cultivated his standing as a Muslim leader in order to enhance his global profile as well as to ward off competition from political Islam. Despite his early Muslim Brotherhood sympathies, as well as those of many of his original colleagues in Fatah, he believed that political Islam was a threat to the national character of the Palestinian movement. His antipathy to political Islam, shared by his closest associates, including Mahmoud Abbas, was manifest in his interest in projecting himself as leader and protector of Palestinian Christians – a role that he somewhat naively believed would endear him to the west.
He was a supreme and assiduous manipulator; constantly playing factions and personalities against each other. Using money as an instrument of power and control, he would withhold it or release it in carefully calculated doses: every detail of every expense of every cadre eventually had to pass through his eager and tireless scrutiny. Long queues of supplicants would stand outside his office; he was almost always ready to offer some help. In the end, he became the private financier of almost the entire Palestinian people and others beyond – including some of his opponents who were vocal in their public criticism of him but happy to take his lucre. This was another of his deliberate means of manipulation. By holding the purse strings, he kept the opposition at a disadvantage and within his control. But his readiness to deploy his monies for political purposes good or bad was not matched by any business acumen. Over the years, vast amounts were wasted on failed businesses and dodgy enterprises, from chicken farms in Uganda to a failed airline in the Maldives.
His position as leader was secure by the early 70s, but his authority was not absolute; his dealings with his peers were careful and balanced. His style of leadership was consensual. He was conscious of the need to maintain support among the broader leadership of Palestinians and their institutions. He cultivated and heeded the opinions of his associates, and often gave way to their demands, sometimes using their objections as a foil to avoid difficult decisions. He never moved too far without the support of those he felt were important in lending political legitimacy to his stance. He would have welcomed Anwar Sadat’s 1977 trip to Jerusalem and the ensuing Camp David political process had he been free to decide on his own. In a room packed with most of the Palestinian leadership and senior cadres at which the Sadat initiative was being discussed and volubly denounced, Arafat sat with eyes half-shut, pretending to show no interest, until one of the present authors was asked his opinion. When he suggested that anything that would free Arab land from occupation without bloodshed would be in the national interest and proposed that the Palestinian leader should join the Egyptian-Israeli meeting at Mina House, as invited by Sadat, Arafat’s eyes popped open and he nodded in vigorous assent. But his close aides rejected any such notion and he had to go along with the prevailing mood. After the meeting was over, Arafat took the author aside, saying that while he was convinced of what he had said, the Syrians – then in control in Lebanon – would never allow it, and made a cut‑throat gesture with his hand.
Stubborn and wilful, Arafat could also be ready to submit to his peers on sensitive personal matters. When seeking to bring his wife to the Oslo ceremony on the White House lawn in September 1993, he was faced with unyielding opposition from his associates, who had been less than enthusiastic about his choice of partner, and who felt that her public presence alongside him on such a historic occasion would somehow diminish his standing as leader and father of the nation. “It’s either me or her,” Arafat’s most senior colleague is reported to have said. Reluctantly, Arafat conceded.
His inner circle argued, debated, and regularly fell out for reasons petty and grand. Although they could be vicious, such arguments remained subject to a sense of comradeship and shared struggle. Arafat was first among equals and would seek to ensure no permanent damage was caused by these differences. He would also try to placate his opponents. To elicit his ire, however, was to risk being cut off in a setting where money was the vital lubricant for military and political activity.
An inveterate political opportunist, he was always open to initiating secret contacts as a preferred means of low-risk and deniable diplomatic engagement. He encouraged back channels and covert action and would rarely say no to any scheme that brought him into closer contact with his adversaries. “Ala barakatilah” (“with God’s blessings”) or a wry “Why not?” (in English) was his usual response to credible requests to initiate such endeavours. He was surprisingly open to dealing with alleged spies. Upon being cautioned that a member of his retinue was a possible CIA spy, Arafat immediately took him closer under his wing, thinking that this would provide him with a direct line to the heart of the US establishment.
His pragmatism sometimes got him into trouble with his colleagues and confused his opponents, who often had no idea what he was up to or why, or how he managed to keep multiple and often contradictory channels going at any one time. Arafat was mindful that politics is not about words but about harsh realities. He remained open to dealing with even the most hardline elements in Israel. Given the choice, he would have preferred to deal with the Israeli right and its security hawks, rather than the more moderate elements whom he indulged but believed were unable to carry out the necessary difficult decisions. His hard-headed, non-ideological attitude to Israeli politics lay at the heart of his conviction that Yitzhak Rabin rather than Shimon Peres was his real “partner” and that, bloodshed and personal history notwithstanding, it was best to make peace with Ariel Sharon.
Arafat was not a man for textual detail. His senior associates insist that he never read the 1993 Oslo Accords or fully understood their implications. He exploited ambiguities and misconstrued agreements, sometimes wilfully and at other times out of genuine misunderstanding. His grasp of geography could be eccentric, and his confidence in the veracity of his own version of events unwarranted. But Arafat had an instinctive grasp of the bigger picture and a powerful sense of opportunity. For him, Oslo represented the prospect of relocating the Palestinian national movement back to its own soil and putting it on the path to statehood; the detailed text was irrelevant. He may not have developed any elaborate plan of action, but his sense of strategic purpose was clear and grounded in reality.
Dissent and open criticism were tolerated, and he did not resort to violence to silence those who disagreed with him. He steadily sought to rise above the repeated rifts and divisions, to bully, cajole, bluster or charm in pursuit of a lasting consensus. The Palestinian movement never suffered from the collective arrests, mass purges, or summary executions that characterised violent repressive Arab regimes and marred so many revolutionary and liberation movements. Arafat’s relative tolerance was informed by a national purpose that needed to be safeguarded regardless of differences of opinion or belief. He moulded Fatah not as a political party (hizb) with strict dogmas, but as an all-encompassing national movement (haraka) within which different political beliefs, competing ideologies and clashing agendas could jostle and compete, but nevertheless coexist.
Arafat’s rise to uncontested leadership was not inevitable or secure. His hard work and political acumen were key factors, but not the sole foundation of his success. The historical moment was propitious and he knew how to take advantage of it. Fatah was born from the debris of 1948 and the fertile soil of Gaza, where dispossession, dispersal and statelessness provided determined recruits. Israel’s first occupation of Gaza, in 1956, resulted in hundreds of killings and executions. It drove leading members of the energetic Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Gaza branch to believe that the time had come to adopt a more activist national role than the Brotherhood’s broader Islamist approach. The small group of defectors, within whose orbit Arafat operated, included the founding fathers of Fatah and its youthful core.
The moment seemed ripe for a more self-reliant and muscular form of action that did not depend on the Arabs. Independent decision lay at the heart of Fatah’s political philosophy and captured the essence of its appeal. Inspired by the struggle in Algeria, Fatah was founded on the belief that revolutionary violence was a necessary means of confronting an obdurate enemy, as well as a tool of popular mobilisation and an instrument of national awakening.
From Gaza, Fatah’s seed was carried to the diaspora by Arafat and his colleagues. A small, isolated, and seemingly deluded band, Fatah’s founders initially made little headway, particularly against the rising tide of Nasserite Arab nationalism and the more established Islamists. Yet the Palestinian diaspora slowly came to embrace the new movement. As in Gaza, it was the refugee camps that provided the most hospitable environment for Arafat’s revolutionary appeal. Thread by thread, almost person by person, with Arafat often at the helm, Fatah’s small leadership circle tirelessly sought to mend the ruptured fabric of Palestinian identity and weave a new Palestinian political personality. Very few Palestinians in the diaspora escaped Arafat and his colleagues’ attention, though not everyone was convinced of the credibility of their call. With his relentless efforts, Arafat played a decisive part in reconstructing the shattered remnants of a pulverised and dispersed political system. The Palestinian national movement developed not under occupation, but out of exile and dispossession.
The 1967 war brought Arafat out of the shadows; more importantly, it allowed for the reinvention of the Palestinians as a people and a cause. Compared with the defeated Arab armies and the disgraced nationalist regimes, Fatah’s guerrillas projected a new image of defiance and sacrifice and a determination not to bow to Israel’s evident military might. Along with Arafat’s first appearance on the cover of Time magazine in December 1968, the Palestinian “commandos” were described as the “defiant new force in the Middle East”. By the mid-70s the Palestinian as freedom fighter captured the imagination of the world. Fatah soon transmuted into a broad church that encompassed all shades of Palestinian creed, opinion, and ideology. Indeed, it became synonymous with the Palestinians themselves.
A measure of Arafat’s leadership was his readiness to shift from the desirable to the attainable: from the absolutist, ill-defined aim of liberating all of Palestine to a pragmatic programme of statehood on only part of the patrimony – an objective that seemed both realisable and internationally acceptable. This historic decision paved the way for a potential settlement of the conflict based on a partition of the land. More than a quarter of a century later, it remains the only likely negotiable resolution to the conflict. Arafat’s decisive and historic role in making this possible is too often ignored. Without Arafat, there would have been – and would be – no prospect of a negotiated settlement at all.
There are those who judge Arafat for what he was not. He was not a ruler, administrator or strategist; he was the unquestioned leader of a national movement that faced extraordinary obstacles and a man who felt compelled to resort to extraordinary means in pursuit of its goals. State-building and governance were neither his forte nor his mission.
Corruption may have been tolerated as a political tool, but this was largely in lieu of other means of compulsion; Arafat’s creed was that it is better to lubricate than to liquidate. Only those who fail to understand the realities of Palestinian politics and the culture of the region would dismiss this out of hand. Arafat’s election as president in 1996 was the only example of an Arab electoral count that was deliberately manipulated downwards to avoid the embarrassment of comparison with the more than 90% support claimed by Arab dictators.
Arafat was not a pacifist and Fatah was nothing if not an armed revolutionary movement. Armed struggle was its raison d’être and its most powerful appeal. The movement’s decline began with its attempt to reinvent itself as a political or governing party after Oslo. Without armed struggle the Palestinian awakening heralded by Fatah was unlikely to have occurred, yet Arafat and his colleagues knew both the value and limits of force. They were aware of the need to modulate or discard force entirely when necessary. Their political programme developed accordingly, from an emphasis on armed action as the sole means of struggle in 1968 to its eventual disappearance from the PLO’s political programme altogether after 1990.
Arafat’s image as peacemaker peaked with his partnership with Yitzhak Rabin and their shared Nobel peace prize in 1994. The 2000 Camp David debacle, when negotiations brokered by president Clinton ended without an agreement, and the outbreak of the second intifada saw an abrupt and irreversible change. Arafat was accused of instigating or turning a blind eye to violence, which paved the way to his eventual political ostracisation and demise. His actual role in fomenting and supporting the second intifada is open to question. The Israeli intelligence community was itself divided at the time between the head of military intelligence Amos Malka and his immediate subordinate Amos Gilad; the former saw no evidence of Arafat’s complicity in the violence, whereas the latter was convinced otherwise. Gilad’s views prevailed and the “there is no partner” school helped to sustain the campaign started by Ehud Barak after Camp David and pursued by Sharon to delegitimise Arafat and rebrand him as an incorrigible man of violence who was incapable of turning his hand to peace.
Whatever his role in 2000, Arafat was part of a moment in history when “revolution” and its violent tools were widely seen as a legitimate means of liberation from oppression and foreign occupation – from Algeria, to Cuba, to Vietnam. His legacy of revolution was not confined to the Palestinian cause. He saw himself as part of a global movement and as a member of an international revolutionary fraternity against injustice – part of the global struggle of oppressed peoples for freedom and liberation. As Fatah developed, Arafat hosted revolutionary movements from all over the world, offering them refuge, military training, political support, and moral succour. Fatah became an incubator for numerous armed revolutionary movements in Africa, Latin America, and perhaps most significantly, in regional terms, Iran. Most Iranian anti-Shah cadres – Islamist, leftist and liberal – passed through Fatah’s camps in Lebanon.
The kaffiyeh Arafat wore came to symbolise revolution, not just the Palestinian struggle. After his 1994 return from exile to Palestine, he continued to embody the totality of the Palestinian spirit, not only within Palestine itself, but, just as crucially, in the broader realms of exile. Arafat’s end – trapped and humiliated by Israeli forces in his compound in Ramallah and later left to his fate in a suburban Parisian hospital – was poignant. He was abandoned by alleged allies and friends who had spent decades courting him and seeking his favours. As his energy faded and his body withered, it was as if the movement he built, nurtured, and led had suffered the same fate. Collective resignation in the face of overwhelming odds, fatigue after years of struggle, or perhaps a sense that Arafat’s fate had finally caught up with him sealed the public mood. His death passed without the expected expressions of revulsion against Israel and those who allowed him to die, despite the outpouring of grief among the mass of his people.
Arafat’s most important legacies were threefold. First, to lead the Palestinian people out of the state of political concussion that befell them after the loss of their homeland in 1948 and to put them and their cause back on the political map. Second, to lay the foundations for a potential resolution of the conflict with Israel. And third, to grasp the moment and relocate the Palestinian national movement back on its own soil. The first may be the most enduring, the second remains a tenuous and uncertain prospect at best, and the third has yet to yield significant fruit.
As the memory of his achievements and misdemeanours, real or imagined, fade, today’s dire circumstances evoke a popular Palestinian nostalgia for the era of genuine leadership. In many ways, Arafat’s standing among his people today, 10 years after his death, is as high as it ever was. The post-Arafat era, although different in significant respects, has had strong elements of continuity with its revolutionary past. Abbas is in many ways “the last Palestinian” – the last of that band of one-time revolutionaries whose life and experience have provided a moral claim to national leadership that transcends the more routine manipulations of political life. The next leaders for better or for worse, will not be in Arafat’s mould.