Partners for War

Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon
Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon; drawing by David Levine

There is wide international agreement that Yasser Arafat, to use the well-known jargon, is not “a partner in the peace process.” This is probably a correct assessment, but not because Arafat harbors the intention of destroying the Jewish state, as so many Israelis believe. Despite his many failures of leadership, Arafat has a realistic grasp of the strengths and vitality of Israeli society and of the overwhelming power of its military.

Paradoxically, Arafat’s failings are the consequence of his inability to live up to his public image as an autocrat who does as he pleases. (Even the late Yitzhak Rabin justified the Oslo accords to critics by arguing that under their terms a dictatorial Arafat, unrestrained by a judiciary or public opinion, could deal arbitrarily with Palestinian terrorists in ways that Israel could not.) Not that Arafat harbors democratic impulses. But when presented with opportunities to take initiatives that might have dramatically improved prospects for an end to Israel’s occupation and for progress toward Palestinian statehood, opportunities that required decisions on his part that would have estranged some segments of his various Palestinian constituencies, Arafat invariably chose to do nothing rather than risk a loss of support. He rarely strikes out in new directions without first confirming a wide consensus in support of such change.

For the same reason, Arafat has rarely dared to change the status quo by resorting to violence. Arafat did not initiate the first Palestinian intifada in 1987. It was started—spontaneously—by young Palestinians without any PLO involvement. Arafat asserted his leadership of this intifada only after it was well underway and had attracted international attention.

The first major outbreak of terrorism following the Oslo accords was set off by Baruch Goldstein’s killing of twenty- nine Palestinian worshipers at prayer in Hebron in 1994, and was carried out by Hamas, not Arafat. And Arafat did not initiate the current al-Aqsa intifada, contrary to the widely held Israeli belief that he planned it even before the failed Camp David summit. The head of Israel’s Shin Bet at the time, Admiral (ret.) Ami Ayalon, has stated categorically, and repeatedly, that neither Arafat nor anyone within his Fatah organization met to consider or plan a violent intifada until after Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) in September of 2000 and the killing by Israeli security forces of large numbers of Palestinians in a demonstration on the Haram al-Sharif that followed his visit. Even then, it was not Arafat but elements within the Tanzim, a group associated with Arafat’s Fatah, who launched the new intifada. Arafat acquiesced in the violence, for he is as incapable of stopping violence that has wide Palestinian support as he is incapable of initiating it when he fears that it may lead to internal dissension and challenges to his authority.

More recently, leading Palestinians (Abu Mazen, Hanan…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.