Is Yasser Arafat a Credible Partner for Peace?

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

June 6, 2002

On September 9, 1993, the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, signed a letter to Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel. In that letter Arafat wrote:

The PLO considers that the signing of the Declaration of Principles constitutes a historic event, inaugurating a new epoch of peaceful coexistence, free from violence and all other acts which endanger peace and stability. Accordingly, the PLO renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence and will assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violations and discipline violators.

Two days later, on the strength of that commitment—and its acceptance by the Government of Israel—President Clinton announced that he was removing the PLO from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. And two days after that Yasser Arafat was welcomed to the White House to witness the signing of the Oslo Accords and to seal them with an historic handshake with Yitzhak Rabin. It was a dramatic moment, capturing the hopes of Israelis and Palestinians alike for a peaceful resolution of their century-old conflict.

Yasser Arafat’s transformation from terrorist leader to would-be statesman in those few, short days back in 1993 was a calculated gambit. Yitzhak Rabin had been elected by the Israeli people to make peace with the Palestinians. He had tried to do so with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza but had quickly discovered that they took their orders from Yasser Arafat in Tunis. So Rabin decided to test whether Arafat would be ready to make a historic reconciliation with the Jewish state. It was designed as a controlled experiment: Arafat would first take responsibility for the Gaza Strip and a symbolic area of the West Bank (Jericho); then he would assume control of Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank; and, if he lived up to his commitment to renounce terror and fight it, Israel would withdraw from most of the West Bank as part of a final peace agreement between the two peoples.

Nine years later it is possible to draw the conclusion that Arafat failed the test. He did not live up to the solemn commitment he made to Yitzhak Rabin in that letter dated September 9, 1993. He did not renounce the practice of terrorism and other acts of violence. He did not assume responsibility over all PLO elements to ensure their compliance with that commitment. And he did not prevent violations and discipline violators.

To be sure, there were times when Arafat tried. In 1996, for example, after a series of Hamas bus bombings in Israel, when it looked likely that Bibi Netanyahu would defeat Shimon Peres in the upcoming elections, Arafat confronted Hamas and began systematically to uproot its terrorist infrastructure. Unfortunately, the effort was at best sporadic. It was never sustained. But it did serve to demonstrate that Arafat had the capability to live up to his September 1993 commitment. I believe that has always been the case, and remains the case today. What was manifestly missing most of the time was the will, the intention, to live up to that commitment. And I believe it is fair to conclude, after close observation of Arafat’s behavior over the past nine years, that the intention to abandon the use of terrorism and violence has never been there.

To understand why, we have to analyze the nature of Arafat’s leadership. He built the PLO as an umbrella organization for many disparate Palestinian groups. This gave the movement strength and preserved his leadership. But in the process he developed the habit of always preferring to co-opt rather than confront his opposition. This consensus-building approach became so ingrained that he essentially stopped making decisions. Instead, he would wait for others around him to build a consensus, sometimes encouraging them, sometimes playing one off against the other, sometimes cutting them off at the knees if they became too popular. And they were left to divine his intentions. In extremis, he was capable of being decisive but this would only occur when he felt truly cornered with his very survival at stake. For the rest of the time, he indulged in tactical maneuvering, described well by Dr. Yezid Sayigh, an astute Palestinian analyst:

Arafat’s political management has been marked by a high degree of improvisation and short-termism, confirming the absence of an original strategy and of a clear purpose, whether preconceived or otherwise. Neither an initiator nor a planner, he has instead seized upon the fortuitous eruption of a major crisis or other dramatic event brought about by an external agency to obscure and escape a strategic predicament, and then sought to intensify and prolong that event as a means of gaining “crisis dominance” and ultimately of inducing an outcome to his advantage.

Arafat concentrated all authority in his own hands, and like all Arab leaders before him, developed a complex system of patronage in which he ensured that his supporters were dependent on him personally for their jobs, salaries, pensions and pay-offs. The Palestinian Authority could be used to provide the jobs, but the pay-offs required a steady flow of funds for Arafat’s personal distribution. For this purpose, private bank accounts were established, funded by various means, but especially commissions levied on the import of goods to the Palestinian areas.

Arafat proliferated intelligence and security organizations—ten of them at last count—each of them reporting directly to him. The proliferation was designed to ensure that while jobs could be provided for all those fighters who had remained loyal to him in exile, no one security chief could build a military power base sufficient to challenge Arafat’s rule. Each service would spy on the others and compete with them for Arafat’s favor.

Arafat also cultivated a mythological world that he could comfortably inhabit. This enabled him to escape reality and thereby avoid responsibility. In this mythological world, the rais (Arabic for “President” or “Supreme Leader”) would generate elaborate conspiracies about the role of the Mossad, the IDF, the settlers or anybody else that could conveniently be blamed for untoward events. In this mythological world, he also became “the expert” on everything from archeology to architecture. He became in his mind “the only undefeated Arab general” (even though he has no army). He became the engineer who built the ports in Kuwait. He became the resident of the Old City of Jerusalem who prayed more times at the Wailing Wall than any Jew. He became whatever he wanted to be…except responsible.

In this sense, he was the ultimate practitioner of the “power of the weak,” forcing more responsible actors like Israel, Egypt or the United States to take on the task of creating the circumstances that would get him out of the crisis. He would regularly put himself out on a political limb to force others who could not afford to let him fall to provide the ladder so that he could climb down. Often times they would even have to climb the ladder and carry him down. Little wonder that sooner or later they all became exasperated with him: King Hussein evicted him from Jordan; Hafez el-Asad evicted him from Syria; and the Government of Lebanon asked him to leave Lebanon. Now even President Mubarak, Arafat’s staunchest supporter, suggests that “we have to support him for the time being” but that after another year some other Palestinian leader should take over from him.

In this sense, Arafat was much more of a survivor than a leader, riding on the backs of his people, exploiting their suffering for political advantage but rarely being prepared to stand up and explain to them the necessary compromises they would have to accept in order to achieve their objectives of freedom and self-determination.

When you combine all these attributes of Arafat’s dysfunctional leadership style, it becomes possible to explain much of what occurred over the last nine years since that historic handshake with Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn. For tactical purposes at the time (i.e., removal from the terrorism list and an invitation to the White House) it was convenient to renounce terrorism and violence. But that should not be mistaken for a strategic decision to give up the “military option” in dealing with Israel. That would have required a confrontation with Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations which would have divided the Palestinian camp. That would have required building an effective security apparatus which might have empowered a security chief to challenge his rule. That would have required him to give up a tactical card that might come in handy to pressure the Israelis if political means failed to produce the necessary concessions.

It also explains what happened after the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations in July 2000. Finding himself blamed both by Israel and the United States, he found it tactically convenient to exploit the outbreak of violence in September to escape the corner he found himself in. As the crisis deepened he chose not to contain it because that would have required him to confront not just Hamas but his own Fatah Tanzim militias. Better, he calculated, to wait for something else to turn up. It did in December 2000, when President Clinton laid down the parameters for a solution that would have provided the Palestinians with an independent state in all of Gaza, 95-97 per cent of the West Bank (with territorial compensation for the rest), with a capital and Palestinian sovereignty in Arab East Jerusalem, including the surface of the Haram el-Sharif/Temple Mount, and a fair solution for the refugee problem.

Why did Arafat reject these parameters as a basis for an agreement? I believe it was because it would have required him to stand up in front of his people, particularly the Palestinian refugee families, and tell them the hard truth: that they were not going back to homes they had fled from in Israel over half a century ago; that they would have a right of return to Palestine but not a right of return to Israel. Instead of telling them something that would have been unpopular at that moment of great anger in the Palestinian street, instead of accepting an offer that would have forced him to confront the perpetrators of the terrorism and violence of the intifadah, Arafat preferred to punt on the future, to listen to those advisers who told him to wait for George Bush who would offer him a better deal.

It was a massive miscalculation, a historic mistake, one that has only brought further misery to Palestinians and Israelis alike. Little wonder that Arafat only enjoys a 35% approval rating among his people and over 90% of Palestinians support reform of the Palestinian Authority. Its explanation lies in a failure of leadership, a failure that has been the hallmark of the nine years since the Oslo Accords were first signed, a failure of the test that Rabin set for Arafat and therefore a failure of the peace process.