This is one of the occasional good articles that comes out of the Straits Times. I'm not sure if it can be linked to debate per se but it does make for some good reading and background information on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It doesn't appear to have any typical slant that has been associated with the Government (yes, capital G!) too!
Nov 21, 2004
Master tactician, failed strategist He succeeded in creating the Palestinian nation against all enemies but failed to define its goal
By George Friedman
THAT Mr Yasser Arafat's death marks the end of an era is so obvious that it hardly bears saying. The nature of the era that is ending and the nature of the era that is coming, on the other hand, do bear discussing. That speaks not only to the Arab-Israeli conflict but to the evolution of the Arab world in general.
In order to understand Mr Arafat's life, it is essential to understand the concept 'Arab', and to understand its tension with the concept 'Muslim', at least as Mr Arafat lived it out.
Ethnic Arabs populate North Africa and the area between the Mediterranean and Iran, and between Yemen and Turkey. This is the Arab world. It is a world that is generally - but far from exclusively - Muslim, although the Muslim world stretches far beyond the Arab world.
To understand Mr Arafat's life, it is more important to understand the Arab impulse rather than the Muslim impulse. Mr Arafat belonged to that generation of Arabs who visualised the emergence of a single Arab nation, encapsulating all of the religious groups in the Arab world, and one that was secular in nature.
This vision did not originate with Mr Arafat but with his primary patron, Mr Gamal Abdul Nasser, the founder of modern Egypt and of the idea of a United Arab Republic.
Mr Nasser was born into an Egypt ruled by a weak and corrupt monarchy and effectively dominated by Britain. He dreamt of uniting the Arabs in a single entity, whose capital would be Cairo. He believed that until there was a United Arab Republic, the Arabs would remain the victims of foreign imperialism.
Mr Nasser saw his prime antagonists as the traditional monarchies of the Arab world. Throughout his rule, he tried to foment revolutions, led by the military, that would topple these monarchies.
Nasserite or near-Nasserite revolutions toppled Iraqi, Syrian and Libyan monarchies. Throughout his rule, he tried to bring down the Jordanian, Saudi and other Persian Gulf regimes. This was the conflict that overlaid the Arab world from the 1950s until the death of Mr Nasser and the rise of Mr Anwar Sadat.
It is important to understand that for Mr Nasser, Israel was not a Palestinian problem but an Arab problem.
In his view, the particular Arab nationalisms were the problem, not the solution. Adding another Arab nationalism - Palestinian - to the mix was not in his interest. The Zionist injustice was against the Arab nation and not against the Palestinians as a particular nation. Mr Nasser was not alone in this view.
The Syrians saw Palestine as a district of Syria, stolen by the British and French. They saw the Zionists as oppressors, but against the Syrian nation.
The Jordanians, who held the West Bank, saw the West Bank as part of the Jordanian nation and, by extension, the rest of Palestine as a district of Jordan.
Until the 1967 war, the Arab world was publicly and formally united in opposing the existence of Israel, but much less united on what would replace Israel after it was destroyed. The least likely candidate was an independent Palestinian state.
Prior to 1967, Mr Nasser sponsored the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) under the leadership of Mr Ahmed al Shukairi.
It was an ineffective organisation that created a unit that fought under Egyptian command. The PLO was kept under tight control, carefully avoiding the question of nationhood and focusing on the destruction of Israel.
After the 1967 war, the young leader of the PLO's Fatah faction took control of the organisation.
Mr Arafat was a creature of Mr Nasser, politically and intellectually. He was an Arabist. He was a moderniser. He was a secularist. He was aligned with the Soviets. He was anti-American.
Mr Arafat faced two disparate questions in 1967. First, it was clear that the Arabs would not defeat Israel in a war, probably not in his lifetime; what, therefore, was to be done to destroy Israel?
Second, if the only goal was to destroy the Israelis, and if that was not to happen anytime soon, then what was to become of the Palestinians?
Mr Arafat posed the question more radically: Granted that Palestinians were part of the Arab revolution, did they have a separate identity of their own, as did Egyptians or Libyans? Were they simply Syrians or Jordanians? Who were they?
Asserting Palestinian nationalism was not easy in 1967, because of the Arabs themselves.
The Syrians did not easily recognise their independence and sponsored their own Palestinian group, loyal to Syria.
The Jordanians could not recognise the Palestinians as separate, as their own claim to power even east of the Jordan would be questionable, let alone their claims to the West Bank. The Egyptians were uneasy with another Arab nationalism.
The growth of a radical and homeless Palestinian movement terrified the monarchies.
Mr Arafat knew no war would defeat the Israelis. His view was that a two-tiered approach was best.
On one level, the PLO would make the claim on behalf of the Palestinian people, for the right to statehood on the world stage. On the other hand, the Palestinians would use small-scale paramilitary operations against soft targets - terrorism - to increase the cost throughout the world of ignoring the Palestinians.
The Soviets were delighted with this strategy. Their national intelligence services moved to facilitate it by providing training and logistics. A terror campaign against Israel's supporters would be a terror campaign against Europe and the United States. Mr Arafat became a revolutionary aligned with the Soviets.
There were two operational principles. The first was Mr Arafat himself should appear as the political wing of the movement, able to serve as an untainted spokesman for Palestinian rights.
The second was the groups that carried out the covert operations should remain complex and murky. Plausible deniability combined with unpredictability was the key.
Mr Arafat created an independent covert capability that allowed him to make a radical assertion: that there was an independent Palestinian people as distinct as any other Arab nation. Terrorist operations gave Mr Arafat the leverage to assert that Palestine should take its place in the Arab world in its own right.
If Palestine was a separate nation, then what was Jordan? The Hashemite kingdom's people were Bedouins driven out of Arabia. The majority of the population were not Bedouin, but had their roots in the west - hence, they were Palestinians.
If there was a Palestinian nation, then why were they being ruled by Bedouins from Arabia? In September 1970, Mr Arafat made his move. Combining a series of hijackings of Western airliners with a Palestinian uprising in Jordan, he attempted to seize control of Jordan. He failed, and thousands of Palestinians were slaughtered by Hashemite and Pakistani mercenaries.
Mr Arafat's logic was impeccable. His military capability was less than perfect. He created a new group - Black September - that was assigned the task of waging a covert war against the Israelis and the West.
The greatest action, the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, defined the next generation. Israel launched a counter-operation to destroy Black September, and the pattern of terrorism and counter-terrorism swirling around the globe was set. Neither could score a definitive victory.
But Mr Arafat won the major victory. Nations are born of battle, and the battles that began in 1970 and raged until the mid-1990s established a principle - there is now, if there was not before, a nation called Palestine.
This was critical, because as Mr Nasser died and his heritage was discarded by Mr Sadat, the principle of the Arab nation was lost. It was only through the autonomous concept of Palestinian nationalism that Mr Arafat and the PLO could survive.
This was Mr Arafat's crisis. He had established the principle of Palestine, but he had failed to define what that Palestinian nation meant and what it wanted.
The latter was the critical point. Mr Arafat's strategy was to appear the statesman restraining uncontrollable radicals. He understood that he needed Western support to get a state, and he used this role superbly. He appeared moderate and malleable in English, radical and intractable in Arabic. This was his dilemma.
Mr Arafat led a nation that had no common understanding of their goal. There were those who wanted to recover a part of Palestine and be content. There were those who wanted to recover part of Palestine and use it as a base of operations to retake the rest. There were those who would accept no intermediate deal but wanted to destroy Israel.
Mr Arafat's fatal problem was that in the course of creating the Palestinian nation, he had convinced all three factions that he stood with them.
Like many politicians, Mr Arafat had made too many deals.
He successfully persuaded the West that he genuinely wanted a compromise and that he could restrain terrorism. But he also persuaded Palestinians that any deal was temporary, and others that he wouldn't accept any deal.
By the time of the Oslo accords, he was so tied up in knots that he could not longer speak for the nation he created. More precisely, the Palestinians were so divided that no one could negotiate on their behalf, confident in his authority. Mr Arafat kept his position by sacrificing his power.
By the 1990s, the space left by the demise of pan-Arabism had been taken by the rise of Islamist religiosity.
Hamas, representing the view that there is a Palestinian nation but that it should be understood as part of the Islamic world under Islamic law, had become the most vibrant part of the Palestinian polity. Nothing was more alien from Mr Arafat's thinking than Hamas. It ran counter to everything he learnt from Mr Nasser.
However - and this is Mr Arafat's tragedy - by the time Hamas emerged as a power, he had lost the ability to believe in anything but the concept of the Palestinians and his place as its leader.
As Hamas rose, Mr Arafat became entirely tactical. His goal was to retain position if not power, and towards that end, he would do what was needed. A lifetime of tactics had destroyed all strategy.
His death in Paris was a farce of family and courtiers. It fitted the end he created, because his last years were lived in a round of manoeuvres leading nowhere.
The Palestinians are left now without strategy, only tactics. There is no one who can speak for the Palestinians and be listened to as authoritative.
Mr Arafat created the Palestinian nation and utterly disrupted the Palestinian state. He left a clear concept on the one hand, a chaos on the other.
He succeeded in one thing, and perhaps that is enough - he created the Palestinian nation against all enemies, Arab and non-Arab. The rest was the failure of pure improvisation.