Arafat moves to fill the void in the Arab world
By Neill Lochery
Originally appeared in The National Post
April 20, 2003
History has taught us that the Arabs do not respond to a crushing humiliation on the battlefield by rushing into making concessions at the political table. President Gamal Nasser of Egypt did not get on the phone to the Israeli Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, following the humiliating defeat of Egypt in the Six Day War of 1967. Rather, within months he had started another low-intensity war with Israel aimed at what he termed reclaiming Arab lands through attrition. Central to Nasser's strategy was the need to regain Arab honour. In a society where honour carries a higher value than truth, the importance of this quest should not be under-estimated. Conversely, we in the West simply do not fully grasp the related concept that Arab leaders can turn military defeat into political victory.
For Nasser in 1967, read Yasser Arafat in 2003. The Arab world has just suffered its biggest defeat since 1967. American tanks occupy an Arab capital, and there is a threat (slight at present) that these same tanks will head for Syria. Given this -- and the fact that two and a half years of Palestinian violence have reduced the possibility of a viable Palestinian state -- Western democratic political culture would dictate that Arafat should show a degree of flexibility in his current position towards Israel. At this juncture, Western rationality at the very least determines that he needs to avoid provoking the wrath of Washington. Wrong! In a clear demonstration of Arab political culture, Arafat has moved the other way. He has taken what for him is a high-risk strategy of using the war in Iraq as a means of rebuilding his own crumbling powerbase within the Palestinian community rather than repairing his disintegrating relationship with the Bush administration.
The widespread consternation in Washington this week over Arafat's decision to oppose the new Palestinian Cabinet appointed by the Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, reflected a lack of understanding from American officials on the strategic choice Mr. Arafat has made. In short, Mr. Arafat has spotted a rare window of opportunity for himself. With the United States highly unpopular within Palestinian society after all the images screened on Arabic television channels of Iraqi civilian casualties, Arafat wishes to make domestic political gain through standing up to the U.S. pressure.
In truth, Mr. Arafat is also looking to the wider Arab world. With Saddam Hussein either dead or in hiding; President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan both in trouble with their own population for having given the Americans an amber light to precede in Iraq; and the former ideological leader of the Arab world, President Assad of Syria in his grave; Arafat has moved to fill an important void in the Arab world. Put succinctly, Arafat sees himself as the elder statesman of the Arab world, and crucially its new ideological leader. Ideology here is defined as opposition (real or apparent) to foreign imperial rule (Israel or the United States).
His timing could not have been more significant for it would not be an over-dramatization to suggest that the coming weeks are the most important in the Palestinian national movement's history since 1948. With the stakes so high it is little wonder the power struggle between what we can loosely term "the modernists" or "reformers" in the Palestinian Authority and the old school "unreformed revolutionaries" is so bitter. The Prime Minister was a protegé of Arafat and serves as his deputy, but in recent months the two have come to represent what one Palestinian commentator termed the future and the past.
Mazen should be congratulated on appointing a Cabinet that keeps control of Palestinian security and finances away from Mr. Arafat and his unreformed revolutionaries. His major problem, however, remains that he is not particularly popular among Palestinians. And it is here that Arafat is using the Iraq war to further undermine Mazen's position within Palestinian society with his appeal to popular sentiment. Sadly, once more it appears Arafat is putting his own personal and political survival above and beyond the needs of the population.
From all this it is clear the United States needs to handle Arafat delicately, or risk allowing him to assume the mantle of Arab hero with his self-serving attempts at restoring Arab honour. Among all this politicking should be remembered that Mazen offers the best way forward for both the Palestinian population and for the region. These are tense times, but if he holds his nerve and the United States and Israel offer just enough to help him without making him appear a stooge there may be a real opportunity to advance the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians that are already under way in secret.
The alternative is allowing Arafat to turn the current anti-American sentiment into a justification for continuing an armed struggle against Israel.
Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College, London.