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The Last Palestinian

1.

Much as his political ascent gave shape to the contemporary Palestinian landscape, Yasser Arafat’s death will fundamentally transform it. Arafat was unique, and uniquely suited to his people’s condition following the 1948 war: defeated, dispossessed, and dispersed, without a state to defend them, a territory to hold them, or a political strategy to unite them. Palestinians were divided by family, class, and clan, scattered throughout the region and beyond, exploited by the competing purposes of many and prey to the ambitions of all. By dint of his history and personality, charisma and guile, cajoling and bullying, luck and sheer perseverance, Arafat came to represent them equally and to emerge as the face of the Palestinian people, to them and to the world.

Arafat’s paramount goal was national unity, without which he believed nothing could be achieved. He was the bridge between Palestinians in the Diaspora and those on the inside, those who were dispossessed in 1948 and those who were occupied in 1967, West Bankers and Gazans, young and old, rich and poor, swindlers and honest toilers, modernists and traditionalists, militarists and pacifists, Islamists and secularists. He was national leader, tribesman, family elder, employer, Samaritan, head of a secular-nationalist movement, and deeply devout all at once, aspiring to be the preeminent embodiment of each of these disparate groups, even when they held opposing views. His style was often criticized and disparaged but his preeminent position was seldom questioned. No Palestinian leader is likely to reproduce his kind of politics, almost certainly not under conditions of occupation, and unquestionably not right now.

The man chosen to succeed him is in most ways different but in one critical respect the same. Abu Mazen is, like Arafat, a rarity: a genuinely national Palestinian figure. But he is so in radically dissimilar fashion. Where Arafat attained national status by identifying with and belonging to every single constituency and factional interest, Abu Mazen did so by identifying with none. Arafat immersed himself in local politics; Abu Mazen floats above it, his service being to the national movement as a whole. The Old Man, with inexhaustible bravado, ruled through an overwhelming and overpowering rhetorical and physical presence. Unassuming and understated, a man of few words but many deeds, the new president has built a career running from the limelight. He was born in what is now Israel in 1935 and left in 1948. A founding member of Fatah, secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee, an adviser to Arafat, and principal behind-the-scenes negotiator from the Madrid Conference in 1991 to the Oslo Accords in 1993, he was often influential, but seldom visible. Until now, his one brush with public office was his short-lived tenure as prime minister in 2003. With Arafat’s passing, the politics of weightiness are over; enter the politics of the light touch.

Arafat inhabited a Borgesian world where a thing and its opposite could cohabit at the same point in space and time; where what mattered was the impact of language, not the actual meaning of words; and where myths combined with facts to produce reality. Abu Mazen’s world is more rooted in what is familiar and recognized by most people as the order of things. His language is of the acceptable, more everyday variety, his reality far less animated by the ghosts of the past. Instead of the politics of ambiguous and creative intensity, he stands for the politics of cool and clear rationality.

2.

Abu Mazen is a politician of conviction, which is to say, until recently, not much of a politician at all. His behavior is rarely scheming; it is, if anything, a pure outgrowth of his emotional and temperamental makeup, a feature that accounts for his many successes and not a few of his setbacks. Guided by a deep sense of ethics, repugnance for sheer political expediency, and an exaggerated faith in the power of reason, he will seldom give in or fight back when rebuffed or slighted. Convinced that he has logic and reason on his side, and equally convinced that logic and reason are the faculties that guide all others, he would much rather passively wait until in due course people see things his way. There is little of the manipulator, deceiver, or conspirator in him, which is perhaps why he is so unforgiving of the manipulations, deceptions, and conspiracies of others. That was the key to his seesaw relationship with Arafat: because he did not hesitate to disagree with the Old Man, he chose seclusion over confrontation or compromise; because even in his anger Arafat knew that, unlike so many of his colleagues, Abu Mazen’s motivations were sincere rather than opportunistic, he rarely lost trust in him and almost always forgave him.

Abu Mazen is also a profoundly pious Muslim. Inspired by Islam but allergic to its role in politics, he prays daily and fasts at Ramadan but publicizes neither, feeling as he does that religion is a matter of private belief, not public display, let alone public regulation. In his now regular dealings with leaders of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, this gives him an unmistakable edge; he is convinced he is no less a Muslim than they are, and when he meets a self-proclaimed Islamist politician, he sees the politician, not the Islamist.

Most importantly, he holds to a core set of principles which he is disinclined to depart from or compromise. In the fall of 1999, in the aftermath of Ehud Barak’s election as Israel’s prime minister, he presented US officials with a straightforward proposal for a final deal: a Palestinian state within the borders of June 4, 1967; East Jerusalem as its capital; and recognition of the principle of the refugees’ right of return. Within those “parameters,” and consistent with international legality, he left room for discussion. There would be minor and equitable swaps of land to take account of some Israeli settlements; provisions to allow Jews unimpeded access to their holy sites; and the right of return would be implemented in a manner that would not threaten Israel’s demographic interests. But prior acceptance of the basic proposal was paramount, for without it there could be neither international legitimacy nor a just peace. The US and Israel ignored his suggestion. Negotiations progressed along a bazaar-like path of posturing and deal-making, untethered to any core principle: the percentages of West Bank territory to be turned over by Israel varied furiously, as did the proposed allocation of sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the number of refugees allowed to resettle in Israel.

This mode of negotiating was anathema to Abu Mazen, who believed that nothing good would come of it, feeling it was counterproductive for Palestinians and, to the extent it raised false expectations about the scope of possible Palestinian compromises, dishonest to Israelis. When, in addition, his suggestion in the spring of 2000 for secret negotiations between nonofficials from each side was spurned by Barak, and other, less suitable Palestinian officials were selected to lead the talks, he essentially checked himself out.

Uncomfortable with how negotiations had proceeded up until the Camp David summit, Abu Mazen was adamantly opposed to the outbreak of violence that followed it. Violence long struck him as pointless and unsound, tantamount to using the weakest Palestinian weapon to assail Israel’s strongest flank. Abu Mazen looked at violence in purely cost-benefit terms, and while the costs were high, benefits were few: Israelis closed ranks, the United States took sides, the international community turned its back, and the Palestinian Authority fell apart. Instead, he believes the goal ought to be to engage with various Israeli political groups, talk in a language that Washington understands, and rally the world to the Palestinians’ cause. To that end, Palestinians must stabilize the situation, restore law and order, rein in all armed militias, build transparent, legitimate centralized institutions, and, above all, cease armed attacks against Israel. In his vision, means and ends mesh: if Palestinians make a fair case, they can get a fair hearing. Out of Palestinian restraint will come both stronger international support and greater receptivity by the Israeli public to logical demands.

His belief in persuasion and principle over violent pressure is a risky and, to many Palestinians, a reckless one. As they see it, Palestinians did not militarize the confrontation, Israel did; in the opening weeks of the intifada, the overwhelming number of casualties were Palestinian, not Israeli; when tentative and informal cease-fires were reached, Israel breached them; and if Palestinians stop fighting, they would unilaterally disarm, removing all pressure on Israel to compromise.

Abu Mazen’s different view is informed by his long experience with Israel. As part of a PLO threesome, along with Yasser Arafat and Khalil El-Wazir (Abu Jihad), he oversaw contacts with Israelis as of the mid-1970s. Though these began with fringe, anti-Zionist activists, they gradually were to include Arab-Israelis, the Zionist left, moderate former military officers, and members of the Labor Party. After the Oslo Accords, Abu Mazen expanded his reach to include less obvious but, in his eyes, more relevant forces: the Likud and Orthodox Jews. From those exchanges, he concluded that Israeli society was both intriguingly complex in its divisions and disarmingly simple in its aspirations, which are to achieve normalcy and security. If offered that outcome, Israelis, in his view, ultimately would be willing to make the concessions required for a stable and just peace—a conviction that strikes some Palestinians as the height of naivetĂŠ, others as the pinnacle of pragmatism.

3.

Abu Mazen, a man without a genuine following, has become a man without an effective opposition. This largely accounts for his smooth and uncontested path to power. Four years into a grueling and devastating armed confrontation with Israel, and with the loss of the only leader they have known, Palestinians are in shock, afraid and tired. Neither the public nor any significant constituent group is in the mood for a fight; Abu Mazen, who was the first choice of no single constituency, was every constituency’s natural one. He is today the last Palestinian with national stature and historic credentials, the only one who can authentically speak on behalf of all. Any other leader doubtless would have triggered a protracted, costly, and divisive struggle for succession. His election, in short, was less an exercise in conferring legitimacy than in confirming it.

A multitude of divergent interests has coalesced around him. Palestinians frightened that Arafat’s death would bring further chaos see in Abu Mazen the reassuring symbol of personal security and collective stability. To the many who are simply exhausted by the intifada, he is viewed as the most likely to bring about calm and perhaps even some improvements in their situation. To militants hunted down by Israel, he could be the one to negotiate an amnesty that allows them to recover normal lives. Members of the business community and the social elite believe he understands their needs and can create a climate more supportive of their commercial interests. Members of the entrenched bureaucracy that grew alongside the Palestinian Authority, resentful of losses incurred since the uprising, are hopeful that Abu Mazen will restore them to the position they enjoyed after 1993. To Palestinian refugees and members of the Diaspora, worried that their interests will be discarded once negotiations resume, his origins in the now Israeli town of Safad, his record of political struggle outside the territories, and his long support for the right of return provide some comfort. Then there are those who have closed ranks around the person deemed to have been anointed by the only power that counts, the US, their preference being in effect a reflection of the imagined preferences of others.

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