Two, three, or four young Palestinians are killed
by Israeli forces every day now (we call it "restraint"), but none of them could
win even a fraction of the attention given to Yasser Arafat, the dying old leader.
The endless stream of words occasioned by Arafat's long dying and death is a
good opportunity to ask who and what Arafat is for the Israelis, and how he
is to be remembered.
The Right-Wing Story
For official Israel, Arafat is terrorism incarnate.
His terrorism is inherent, eternal, immutable. His purported death is shamelessly
celebrated, even prematurely, in the barbarian manner condemned by the biblical
verse "Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth" (Prov. 24:17). Days before his
death, Jews were reported dancing in Jerusalem (remember the Arabs reported
dancing in the streets after Sept. 11?). Yediot Achronot's front page
celebrated (Nov. 5): "THAT'S THE END … The person responsible for the murder
of thousands of Israelis won't stand on his feet ever again … Arafat is finished
… Special coverage: the last moments of Terrorist No. 1." The pseudo-liberal
Minister of Justice Yosef Lapid expressed happiness at the death (Nov. 11) of
"the father of international terrorism," not unlike the fascist leader
Affe Eitam, who defined Arafat as "flesh and blood which is entirely pure evil."
The demonization of Arafat is part and parcel of the dehumanization of the
Palestinians as a whole. While PM Menachem Begin, in order not to say the Palestinian
leader's name, dismissed him as "the man with the hairs on his face," other
Israelis prefer the outright term "a bipedal animal."
This dominant image is Israel's right-wing narrative. The Palestinians are
all reduced to one person, who is reduced in turn to a murderous beast, to help
Israeli soldiers, settlers, politicians and other citizens (since none of us
is really free of the occupation) clear our consciences in the course of our
own bestialization. The narrative was shaped and promoted by Israel's professional
killers: right-wing army generals/politicians like PM Sharon or his twin/predecessor
Barak. (By the way, how ironic are recent Israeli intelligence reports welcoming
the expected shift "from uniforms to suits" in the Palestinian Authority? Shall
we ever see a similar shift in the Israeli leadership?) Barak's greatest achievement
was to turn the right-wing image of Arafat into the official and hegemonic Israeli
(and American) narrative since the year 2000.
The Left-Wing Story
It had not always been this way. During the 1990s
– the Oslo years – the Israeli Left tried to promote a different image of Arafat:
that of the bitter foe who became a reconciled friend. A most popular analogy
at the time was that of Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from jail
to become new South Africa's first president. This narrative reached a peak
when Rabin, Peres, and Arafat together won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1994.
"From foe to friend" could be seen as a variation on the narrative framework
of "conversion," which plays a major role in Israeli political theology.
Every Israeli would tell you that in 1993, "PM Rabin changed his heart"
from a hardline warrior to a peacemaker. Similarly, and with as little evidence
in both cases, Israelis today are quite convinced of Sharon's "reincarnation."
But this complete and irreversible "change of heart" is reserved to Israeli
leaders only. Neither Arafat nor any other Arab leader (Sadat, Hussein senior
of Jordan) ever enjoyed such unconditional trust. No matter how many settlements
Sharon actually evacuates (zero), no matter how many innocent Palestinians his
army kills, he always remains "the new Sharon, man of peace." But when
an Arab leader is at stake, the alleged "conversion" always leaves room for
suspicions of disguise, tricks, leaps, and other inconsistencies. No matter
how many experts say there is no evidence for direct involvement of Arafat in
terrorism since 1993, it was a piece of cake to portray him as falling back
to "the old Arafat, a terrorist." Only Jews, apparently, convert wholeheartedly.
Besides, the framework of "conversion" is obviously idiotic. Only in fairy
tales and hagiography do leaders change their hearts from one day to the other
for no reason. The "conversion" thesis ignores the actual motivation for change,
if there was any change. This superstitious superficiality is yet another reason
why the Israeli Left could so easily, virtually from one day to the next, be
persuaded by Barak's legends about "tearing off Arafat's mask" and "exposing
his true face." It was shocking indeed to see how the devoted Israeli supporters
of the Oslo process – political activists, columnists, intellectuals, all those
who had voted Barak "to save the Oslo peace process" – kept supporting Barak
after he intentionally dissolved the Oslo process into a bloody Intifada, how
easily they could all be persuaded that "old Arafat, the terrorist" replaced
"new Arafat, the partner for peace." In other words, in 2000 the Israeli
Left capitulated unconditionally and adopted the right-wing narrative about
Gush Shalom's Story
One opposition to this right-wing narrative survived
the total capitulation of the Left: the version of Gush Shalom, a small but
very active fraction on the dovish edge of the Israeli peace camp. Gush Shalom
– known for its charismatic leader Uri
Avnery – escaped Barak's trap of turning Arafat from partner to terrorist,
but not the trap of reducing the entire Palestinian people to Arafat alone.
Gush Shalom therefore consistently turned a blind eye on Arafat's political
and financial corruption and authoritarianism; criticizing the Palestinian leader
is a taboo.
New Arafat Needed
Now that Arafat has reached his biological end,
what the Israeli peace camp desperately needs is a new narrative about him.
All three narratives mentioned above are inadequate as a basis for a vision
of peace: the right-wing hate narrative for obvious reasons, the left-wing "conversion"
fairy tale is superficial and inadequate, and Gush Shalom's heroism narrative
is so blind-spotted that even many Palestinians reject it.
The new narrative should explain what happened to Arafat in 1993 not in terms
of conversion, but in term of interests. It should take into account the collapse
of the Soviet Union, which left the Palestinian National Movement without its
strongest political and financial supporter. Arafat was bankrupt, exiled in
Tunis with no money and with growing opposition at home. The illusory hope in
Saddam Hussein too came to an abrupt end in 1991. After that Gulf War, pulled
to the negotiation table by President Bush senior, Israel identified Arafat's
weakness and successfully exploited it. The Palestinian leader, knowingly or
not (it doesn't really matter), was lured to become Israel's subcontractor.
He was allowed to return home as a hero, his aides (now successors) were given
economic privileges that made them rich and dependent on the new system, and
the "Palestinian Authority" was given marginal, insignificant and (as we now
know) easily reversible tokens of sovereignty, and at the same time relieved
Israel of the cost of the occupation in terms of health, education, infrastructure,
and welfare services. In return, Arafat was supposed to replace the Israeli
army by granting security for the Israeli settlements, none of which was to
be evacuated "in the interim phase" (which was extended indefinitely).
This narrative portrays Arafat neither as a subhuman villain nor as a superhuman
hero, but as a leader overwhelmed by the forces of history, who chose to save
his skin by striking a deal with his enemy and sacrificing his people's interests.
His double-talk, corruption, and tyranny are immediate derivatives of that.
Further elaboration is needed to extend this story to the other end of the
Oslo process, to explain why Barak's Israel was so eager to put a violent end
to a system that served its interests so well (in 1996-1999 Israel saw economic
prosperity, the settlements were expanded massively, and there was almost no
Palestinian terrorism), and why Arafat was ready to risk his chair (and life)
by stopping the collaboration with Israel, thus regaining among the Palestinians
much of the popularity he had lost earlier by arresting activists according
to Israeli orders and blacklists.
Without a new story along these lines, there is no chance for the Israeli left
wing to recover from its capitulation to the right-wing hate narrative promoted
by former PM Ehud Barak, a narrative that assures generations of hostility.