Legacy of Yasser Arafat  


Saad S. Khan

University of Cambridge


On the 11th of November last year, the death of Yasser Arafat marked the end of an era. For four decades he had symbolized the Palestinian struggle for a homeland. The first anniversary of his death is an appropriate time to dispassionately assess his contribution to his nation. Arafat is gone, but his legacy is there to stay for times to come--- the legacy that became apparent right at his funeral in Ramallah last year, in the shape of disorder, chaos, indiscipline and lawlessness. Like was the case during his lifetime, his security men were firing not at Israelis but to restore order in the all-Palestinian crowds. People were seen fighting people and an ambulance was time and again speeding into the crowds to make way, by scaring away surging multitudes, for his coffin to pass through the hundred yards distance between the helicopter and the grave. There was a ceremonial contingent of his rudimentary military to present an honor guard to his last remains. But everything was swept away, the Band that had been rehearsing for two days, red carpets, the reception line, and all that could symbolify order. It is a pity that there is a nation that could not manage a three hour funeral ceremony for its President.

Admittedly, it would be a miscalculation to think that Arafat had brought his nation to the level of maturity where they can obtain or run a State. Arafat was a warrior to the core, his tenure of presidency of the Palestinian Authority had placed on him demands for statesmanship that his warrior-instinct failed to do justice with. Decent and dignified last rites at his Palestinian headquarters for himself as the President of Palestine or any of his successors as such, was not something that he had laid grounds for. He ruled his internally semi-autonomous domains as if it were a guerilla command hideout. Little wonder, the life of an ordinary Palestinian was worse under his Palestinian Authority than when the civic responsibilities used to lie with Israeli municipal administrations. For four decades, he led his nation into one cul-de-sac after another. Despondency became a second trait for his citizens, leaving his people short-tempered, fearful, suspicious, and directionless. At age 75, and inflicted with multiple ailments, he died a peaceful death in a Parisian military hospital. He thus not only outlived most of his contemporary peer leaders but met a non-violent death that is uncharacteristic in the volatile region for guerilla and civil leaders alike. Yet the conspiracy theories about his being poisoned are resonating like anything in the occupied Palestinian lands even today, 12 months down the road. Little is the realization that those who had interest in getting him killed in the yesteryears had lately stakes involved in seeing him alive. But human life is finite and he had completed his natural span. And the whole might of the United States and Israel could not, much as they would have liked to, give him a few more moments of life, than what the Providence had destined. The creation of a Palestinian government-in-exile in Tunisia in November 1988, followed by the Oslo peace accords of 1993, Arafatís return in 1994 and his subsequent becoming the President of the Palestinian Authority were big leaps towards Palestinian Statehood. If only Arafat had the vision to make the PA a model Arab polity with democratic governance, accountable parliament, independent judiciary and a policy of tolerance. The fact that the PA had no powers related to defense and foreign policy was a disguised blessing for the war-weary nation. Arafat could have concentrated on developing a modern polity in his areas of administration. Instead of fighting to get an airport in Ramallah, he could have managed funds for two world class universities and a couple of centers of excellence in applied and social sciences.

Rather than establishing expensive training academies for his security forces, he could have opted for a state-of-the-art law school. At the cost of some unpopularity, since death anniversary of a towering figure entails public sympathy for him, one may well argue that greatness does not lie in fiery speeches alone; Statesmanship cannot end at developing self-serving personality cult. Under Arafat rule (1994-2004), the GNP of the State of Palestine declined from $2.52 billion to $2 billion, per capita income plummeted from $1274 to $422, exports and imports of the tiny State tumbled from a record high of $857 million and $3,500 million to $110 million and $970 million, respectively. The abject poverty engulfed 70% people in Gaza and 70% in West Bank, unemployment or disguised employment became 85% of the working age males and the children severely malnourished became 9.3% a la Ethiopia in drought years. Another planning failure was the population growth that was an unprecedented 45% in ten years. True not all the chaos was of his making and on many variables he had little control, but can one figure just one policy even on paper by Arafat expressly aiming at reducing birth rate, or improving university curriculum or promoting Palestinian exports, for instance? No, he was steering the State like a guerilla camp, the only priorities were weapons, bombs, security and espionage, that too directed against the Palestinians. What the Palestinian youths require is no different from what any human mortal on earth would dream of. A decent living, a promising future and a secure existence was what must have been the focus of priorities of PA administration. If the Palestinian boys are not vying for a sports car, not passing a love note to a girl next door or have no international level soccer team; is it that they are biologically different from the rest of humanity? Far from that, one may visualize that if a person has no water or electricity in his cramped up dwelling, no independent room to watch a TV program of choice, no financial resources to aspire for a sports cycle, no open spaces to play rugby, no risk-free possibility of nurturing an adolescent love affair (due to the rise of violent right wing religious extremism--- nothing unusual in such desperate conditions), no future to look to, what is he supposed to do? All of the woes are not of Arafatís making but he is culpable for not doing enough to reverse this situation. Arafatís singular failure was his inability to make his transition from a warrior to a politician. He never learnt to read the common manís banal preferences that lied in basic civic needs rather in sublime national ideologies. He was a failure as a diplomat, he could not absorb or deflect any Israeli pressure diplomatically. The only language he was experienced in using was the language of gun and bullets. And this he used with alacrity against his own people. The moment Tel Aviv would push him to a wall on Palestinian suicide bombings, he would unleash his security forces against his own people. In a land smaller than the State of Arizona, he had no less than nine security agencies with 45000 men--- the highest single concentration per unit area or population of spies and security men in the world. He had not needed that many secret agents when he was fighting the Israelis! Why could he not spend the money he had pocketed from Arab regimes in the name of Palestinian struggle, for the betterment of his people instead of for raising forces that would incarcerate or kill his compatriots? His rule was secretive and oppressive. He never tolerated, let alone groomed, a potential successor. Living under the threat of being killed every moment of his life, he never got the courtesy to think what would happen after his demise. He never got the moral courage to put in place a system of worthwhile elections or a rule of law. Rise and fall in his administration depended on personal loyalties. The regime became rotten corrupt and oppressive. His Ministers were known to enjoy the night life of the Clubs in Beirut. The root of corruption was his own person. His finances were never transparent, no books were kept, and most of all, the distinction between personal fortunes and national kitty never existed. The Arab rulers who doled out money from their public exchequers, as if it were a private fortune, to his cause could not care less about the transparency in custody or spending at the Palestinian end. The personal assets of Arafat were anywhere between $300 million to $1.3 billion (unfortunately there are as many figures available as the sources) and the future claims on this money are likely to open another controversy. Amazingly secretive was his marriage in 1990 to a wealthy young woman from an established Palestinian Christian family, Suha. He met her when she was a student at Sorbonne University in Paris, later hired her at his Tunisian headquarters and ultimately fell in love with her. The news of marriage leaked to the media and in 1992, he publicly accepted that he was married. The marriage remained on turbulent waters and the estranged wife did not see him for the last few years of his life. While Arafat was confined to his headquarters in Ramallah, Suha preferred to lead a luxurious life in Paris where she could realize her penchant for designer clothes. The couple claims a nine-year old girl Zahwa as their daughter; but questions remain. Born in Cairo, Arafat started claiming birth at Jerusalem; thence his life, money, marriage and even death remained shrouded in mystery and controversy. Taking Zahwaís parentage as another of Arafatís secretive personal affair, it would be better to cease any further media scrutiny of this aspect of his life. Suhaís motives for marrying a person twice her age and three quarters her height might have been pristine love. But the way, she remained away from him and arrived from nowhere to control, manipulate and monopolize Arafat on his death bed, raised many eyebrows about the motives that the ambitious Suha had been nurturing for years. She filtered all information coming out of hospital and limited direct access to the leader. At the time when there was a need for national unity, she astounded by directly calling leading Arab TV Channels to speak venom about every Palestinian leader worth the name. It appears in hindsight that in her calculations, the moment to encash public sympathy on Arafatís death and thereby hijack the steering wheel of Palestinian polity, for which the ambitious lady was long waiting, had arrived. As almost the whole Middle East is run like family fiefdoms, and the governance gets transferred to next of kin, Suha could be given margin of trying her luck, just in case.

For years, Arafat embodied Palestine and his fate depicted that of the Palestinians. His continued detention at a ramshackle compound epitomized that his whole nation was in chains. Instead of giving his nation the humiliation of a President under arrest, he had many chances to leave the compound and call for fresh elections. He could have overseen from abroad a smooth succession. This would have placed the Israelis in a difficult position. The Israeli game was to sustain him as long as the natural life of an ailing Arafat would allow, to retain him in a power while keeping him powerless, to discredit him and calling him ďirrelevantĒ while ensuring that no ďrelevantĒ person becomes a leader, and to humiliate him as an embodiment of the enslaved Palestinian nation, all at the same time. Arafatís selfishness led him play into the Israeli hands. He was, as in Grimís fairy tales, a golden parrot in the cage. Israel was the last nation that would have desired his demise, since the disturbance of status quo is bound to create new challenges.

The present leader Mahmoud Abbas appears to be a sober leader since the day he became the first Prime Minister of Palestine in Arafatís life. But the way he has been manipulating and postponing the elections to deny victory to the parties he does not like, does not bode well for the future of Palestine. Transparent and responsible democracy is the panacea if Palestinians can ever negotiate with Israelis on the basis of equality. Israelis have un away from Gaza and the days of withdrawing from the West Bank lock, stock and barrel, are not far away. This is arithmetic, pure and simple. If they retain all Palestinian areas the Jews are going to be a minority by 2050 and their dream of a Jewish homeland would evaporate in thin air. Sharon is the last person to want this. Abbas has the historic opportunity to prepare his nation for statehood.

The Cambridge-based writer is a widely read commentator on governance and politics of the Muslim world.

He is also Section Editor (Asia and Middle East) of Quarterly Cambridge Review of International Affaairs Views/comments of the valued readers are welcome at Saad.S.Khan1@gmail.com