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The legacy of Arafat

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-10-30

SOME years ago, I was granted an exclusive interview by the late President Hafez al-Assad of Syria in Damascus, a man not known to give much access to journalists. It took place in a modest salon in Mr Assad's headquarters, a nondescript building in a bustling Damascene neighbourhood; the Syrian strongman had not yet built what was to be an ornate presidential palace.

There were three of us in the room: the president, his media aide, Dr Asad Elias, and myself, and Mr Assad chose to assail Israel for its intransigence over returning the Golan Heights, Syrian territory that the Jewish state had captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. He also told me how much he admired Mahatma Gandhi.

As we were talking, in walked Mr Yasser Arafat, wearing his trademark battle fatigues and kafiyeh, the checkered head dress that his detractors - mostly Americans - often called "the table cloth that covers a wooden head."

Mr Arafat smiled broadly. "Interview?" he said to me.

It was obvious that I was interviewing President Assad.

"Yes," I replied.

"Okay," Mr Arafat replied, "after you finish with His Excellency. I have much to say about my homeland. Indians are very friendly to Palestine."

That episode - as much as anything that I can recall from more than three decades of having followed Mr Arafat's transformation from a terrorist whose Fatah guerrillas hijacked airliners to that of world statesman who won the Nobel Peace Prize along with the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin - captures the Palestinian's essential personality. He was always cordial to journalists, he always shrewdly assessed anyone he encountered, and he was always focused on his dream of an independent Palestinian state.

Mr Arafat, now 75 years old, is unlikely to see his dream realised during his lifetime. He's a very sick man, reportedly suffering from incurable cancer of the stomach and intestines. Yesterday (Friday) Israel allowed him to leave his compound in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, for the first time since December 2001, when a renewed Palestinian intifada was roiling the Occupied territories and Mr Arafat was being accused of tacitly encouraging the uprising.

He was flown to Paris for treatment yesterday, and some well-placed Palestinian friends of mine in Jerusalem and Amman don't think that Mr Arafat will be able to return to Ramallah. Even if he doesn't die in France, the Israelis - who'd earlier wanted him to be exiled but said yesterday that the Palestinian leader could come back after his medical treatment - are going to find ways to keep him out of Palestine.

That's because, in Israel's view, Mr Arafat is little more than an icon for his dispossessed people. Although he holds the impressive title of President of the Palestinian Authority - as well as that of Chairman of the once militant Palestine Liberation Organisation - he's widely perceived as powerless now, and therefore irrelevant even if negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis over a comprehensive peace are revived.

Israeli Prime Minister Arial Sharon says he will not deal with Mr Arafat, and neither will US President George W. Bush. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Mr Bush's Democratic challenger in next Tuesday's presidential election, is far too beholden to the Jewish lobby in the US - on whom he's relied considerably for financial support during the presidential campaign - that he's scarcely likely to want to bargain with Mr Arafat if he defeats Mr Bush.

With Mr Arafat in France, what happens in the West Bank? Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei runs the Palestinian Authority on a day-to-day basis, former premier Mr Mahmoud Abbas is still influential, and Parliament Speaker Salim al-Zaanoun is among those considered as a potential successor to Mr Arafat. Mr Qurei, however, is distrusted by many Palestinians, who brand him as a "Tunisian" - because he was among the so-called Old Guard of the PLO that stayed with Mr Arafat during his long years of exile in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia.

"Tunisian" has lately also become a metaphor among young Palestinians for corruption; many of Mr Arafat's friends and aides from his exile days have reportedly become wealthy through business deals obtained because of their affinity to him.

No such allegations have tainted the man that most young Palestinians would like to see as Mr Arafat's successor, Mr Marwan Barghouti. He was the head of Mr Arafat's political organisation, Fatah, in the West Bank, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the Oslo Peace Accords, which subsequently failed because the Palestinians and Israelis couldn't follow through on a timetable for a phased Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied territories.

Mr Barghouti said just this week that he supported Mr Sharon's plan for withdrawing Israel's presence from Gaza. But he issue his statement from an Israeli jail, where he's serving five consecutive life sentences for his alleged role in sustaining the current intifada, which started in 2000 after Mr Arafat turned out former US President Bill Clinton's proposal for Palestinian independence.

Under the Palestinian Authority's constitution, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Rawhi Fattuh, would succeed Mr Arafat as President of the Palestinian Authority, but since the constitution has yet to be fully ratified, Mr Fattuh's prospects are unclear.

The larger question, which few people who matter in the Middle East peace process - the Americans, Israelis and the European Union - raise these days, is whether an Israel under the stewardship of Prime Minister Sharon would agree to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, Mr Arafat's dream ever since he switched from a career as a Cairo-trained civil engineer to Palestinian freedom fighter in 1965.

Spurred by Mr Sharon - and despite the objections of 70,000 rightwing Jewish settlers - Israel is pulling out of Gaza, leaving the Palestinian Authority to solely administer what's increasingly a lawless strip of barren land on the Mediterranean. It's highly unlikely, however, that Mr Sharon's extremist Likud Party would countenance any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, the main territory for an incipient Palestinian state.

That would mean the dismantling of scores of illegal Jewish settlements, which even the US - Israel's main political and economic patron - has tried to get Mr Sharon to do. Indeed, Mr Sharon's government just this week said it would provide a hefty US$350 million in grants for strengthening such settlements, which he sees as contributing to the Likud's own dream of establishing a Greater Israel in the manner of the Biblical Judea and Samara. Ironically of course, that money would come out of the US$1.3 billion that Washington provides in bilateral economic aid to Israel each year.

The spread of those settlements can also be interpreted as Mr Arafat's great failure. History will unquestionably credit him for mobilizing the Palestinian Diaspora's aspirations for a return to its homeland - from which more than two million Palestinians were forced out by Israel in 1948 when the Jewish State was established - and for transforming a regional struggle into an international cause.

But by failing to persuade successive Israeli governments from discouraging gun-toting rightwing Jewish settlers from seizing Palestinian property in the Occupied Territories and constructing illegal settlements, Mr Arafat has, in effect, failed to ensure that an independent Palestinian state will come into being.

He was always a "maximalist" - a man who held that the political game should be about all-or-nothing. Unwilling to compromise when Mr Clinton held out the best chance that the Palestinians had in modern times to establish their own state, Mr Arafat doomed the peace process.

That, sadly, is what's he's going to be remembered for, especially by young Palestinians who don't have much to look forward to other than continued despair and joblessness. Mr Arafat could have left a very different legacy.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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