|Arafat's 'Means' Failed in the
End; A Long Career of Struggle, Violence and Chances Missed
I remember vividly the bearded man with dark glasses and his Keffiah,the
Arab headdress that became equated with him in the West, as he harangued
the masses on a West Beirut university campus. It was in the early 1970s
and my brother and I were students in Beirut, and Yasser Arafat, the
emerging leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was the shining
star in the Arab world.
Hated by Arab regimes but feared as well, “Abu Ammar” (Arafat's nom de
guerre) had already survived one civil war in Jordan and was jumping into
a second one in nearby Lebanon. His words remained inscribed in my memory:
“No matter what happens, I will not accept any solution less than the
liberation of all of Palestine.”
Whatever one's opinion of the man, he remained true to those words.
Despite all of the opportunities to finalize a deal over a smaller
Palestinian state, Abu Ammar never closed a deal for anything less than
all of the land he envisaged to be the future Palestinian state.
But he made another proclamation that day so long ago, one he is not
likely to be able to keep — at least for now.
“I will be buried in al Quds (Jerusalem) in al Aqsa Mosque,” he
screamed, igniting waves of applause.
Part of the Scenery
During the PLO's years in Lebanon, from 1970-1982, I witnessed many of
Arafat's aides addressing crowds and media. He was on our TV on a daily
basis. I even had some of his followers as classmates in my high school
years. He became, over four decades at the leadership of the Palestinian
cause, as much a part of everyday life in the Arab world as he was
notorious outside of it.
Basic facts about Arafat's life, such as the date and place of his
birth, are disputed. Arafat has often claimed throughout his career that
he was born in Jerusalem, though his birth certificate indicates that his
actual place of birth was Cairo, Egypt. He lived with his uncle in
Jerusalem after the death of his mother in 1933.
In the late 1950s, Arafat helped found the Fatah movement. Beginning as
early as 1965, Fatah launched various terrorist attacks against Israeli
targets. In 1969, Arafat was elected chairman of the PLO, an umbrella
organization of various Palestinian groups of which Fatah was the largest.
Attacks by various PLO groups become a key element of the Palestinian
national movement under Arafat's leadership.
He also kept the PLO front-and-center in the world's news media. In
1970, the PLO wore out its welcome in Jordan after a rash of terrorist
attacks, including several high-profile airliner hijackings. His eviction
from Jordan sparked a civil war there, but Arafat simply moved his base of
operations to Lebanon. In 1974, Arafat, wearing a gun, parlayed his
notoriety and the divisions of the Cold War into an invitation to address
the U.N. General Assembly.
The 1980s brought an uprising, or "intifada," in Israeli-occupied
territories, as well as an Israeli intervention in Lebanon's roiling civil
war. Arafat's PLO aligned with various Lebanese factions to resist the
invasion before ultimately being evicted. Yet even in what appeared to be
military defeat, Arafat's stature seemed to grow and a steady flow of
diplomats and intermediaries made the trip to Tunis, the Tunisian capital
and his now seat of exile, to explore the possibility of peace talks.
When talks finally began in the 1990s, Arafat agreed to put violence
aside and pursue his aims politically. The 1993 Oslo Accords embodied this
promise, and allowed Arafat and the PLO make a triumphant return to the
West Bank and Gaza.
But the accords never really take root and mutual recriminations and,
inevitably, violence followed. In July 2000, Arafat rejected a final bid
to save the peace process in the form of a settlement offer from Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Soon afterward, in September of that year, the
second intifada was launched. He spent the last three years of his life
under de facto Israeli house arrest in Nablus — a powerful symbol of how
completely his legitimacy as a negotiator had collapsed.
The Terror Factor
In many ways, Arafat and his "Fatah" faction of the PLO were products
of their times. During the Cold War, revolutionaries, Soviet-backed
insurgents and even many western intellectuals regarded terrorism as a
legitimate option for oppressed and overmatched peoples. Arafat,
throughout his career, clung to this principle. Fatah and other PLO groups
began using terror tactics in 1965, and the movement never relinquished
its belief in the legitimacy of such attacks.
Some notable terrorist attacks perpetrated by the PLO and its offshoots
-The bombing of SwissAir flight 330 in mid-flight by Popular Front for
the Liberation of Palestine in February 1970. 47 people were killed.
-The slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in
-The take over of the Saudi embassy in Sudan in March 1973, executing two
American officials (U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel and Charge d' Affairs George
Curtis Moore) and a Belgian citizen. U.S. intelligence officials say the
National Security Agency has recordings of Arafat personally ordering the
operation and the murder of the diplomats.
-The hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in October 1985,
leading to the killing of a wheelchair-bound American, Leon Klinghoffer.
Intelligence reports document that the instructions for the attack
originated from Arafat's headquarters in Tunis.
-Since the launch of the "second intifada" in September 2000,
Arafat-linked groups have been responsible for scores of terrorist attacks
against innocent civilians. Documents captured by the Israelis show that
Arafat and his cronies personally authorized payments to terrorists.
The "al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade," which has taken credit for many recent
attacks, is regarded by counter-terrorism officials as merely the latest
version of Fatah terrorists.
Arafat's leadership of the PLO was characterized by shifting alliances
and involvement in internal wars, within a number of countries and inside
the PLO as well, in addition to his warfare with Israel.
After the 1967 war, the PLO set up bases in Jordan from which it
launched attacks against Israel. The actions of the PLO destabilized the
country, leading King Hussein to decide that he had to break the power of
the PLO or risk losing his kingdom to the Palestinians. He chose to attack
the Palestinians, resulting in a carnage known as "Black September," after
which the PLO relocated to Lebanon.
Arafat created a new bases in Lebanon from which he continued to launch
attacks against Israel. While deploying inside the small multiethnic
country, Arafat's forces engaged the Lebanese army and militias. Israel
eventually responded in 1982 with an invasion of Lebanon, forcing the PLO,
after the intervention of American, French and Italian peacekeeping troops,
to relocate once again to Tunis.
From the 1960s to the end of the 1980s, Arafat and the PLO have also
routinely sided with the Soviet Union and its allies. Arafat famously
backed the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution. In
1990, he backed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, one of the only
leaders in the world to do so.
Arafat and His Agreements
Throughout his time as Palestinian leader, Arafat consistently failed to
live up to agreements negotiated with his foes. His aides point to Israeli
intransigence, sometimes with solid evidence. Yet Arafat's own record is
erratic at best. During his Lebanese era, the PLO signed two security
agreements and dozens of cease-fire accords with their opponents. These
commitments were constantly breached.
The Oslo Accords of 1993 and subsequent agreements throughout the
decade insisted that Arafat stop engaging in terrorism. Numerous studies
and reports have demonstrated his unwillingness to meet this commitment,
unless more concessions are made. The ailing leader rejected a final,
comprehensive peace offer in the summer of 2000, just as a new "intifada"
Despite previous treaties, the Palestinian legal and educational
systems have not been reformed, nor have democratic institutions been
properly implemented. Arafat has made only cosmetic changes to the system
of dispensing Palestinian Authority funds, despite commitments to
international organizations to make the system transparent.
Critics also accuse him of also failing to reform the security
apparatus, insisting on retaining almost complete control over the various
factions. His supporters reject these accusations as unfair, but the
uncertainty that surrounds his passing suggests that too much power
remained in his hands.
Arafat's history is bloody, long and complex. Too long, many would say,
pointing to the havoc he set in motion and the agreements he flouted over
the years. Yet he is loved by his sympathizers regardless of his failures.
What will intrigue historians for decades is the wide gulf between his
many faces, from Nobel Peace laureate and "father of the Palestinians, to
the man who ordered the slaughter of thousands of innocents and, in the
end, turned away from the chance to make a lasting peace between Israel
and his people.
- Dr. Walid Phares is an MSNBC analyst, a professor of Middle East
studies, and a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of
Democracies in Washington. Watch for his analysis on MSNBC Live, 9 a.m. to
4 p.m. ET