Friday, November 12, 2004

 

"Conflict is political formaldehyde"

Good analysis of Arafat from The Head Heeb:
Much has been written about the "tragedy" of Arafat, who could have been a statesman but instead turned into a corrupt, kleptocratic thug. In fact, this is among the least surprising and most predictable things about his career. Post-colonial history is littered with idealistic liberation-movement leaders who became corrupt and dictatorial after taking power: Mugabe, Kwame Nkrumah, Ne Win, Houphouet-Boigny, Kamuzu Banda, Sukarno. Seizure of the spoils, both political and financial, is common among such leaders, and all too often their people ultimately have to be liberated from them.

Arafat's case is unique, however, in that he made his transition before his people's liberation struggle was complete. At Oslo, Arafat inherited a political entity that was not a state, governing a territory with boundaries yet to be decided. No matter how the goals of the Palestinian people are framed, they had not been achieved, nor would they be at any time during the Oslo era. But this quasi-state was enough for Arafat's purposes: it gave him a platform to enrich himself and consolidate his power over rival nationalist factions.

The Palestinian territories are sometimes compared to South African bantustans, either because of functional factors such as non-contiguity and economic dependence or out of a wider (and erroneous) analogy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the apartheid system. The analogy works in at least one other way, though: the leadership of the post-Oslo government. Arafat would have been quite happy as the president of a bantustan. His rhetoric was grand during the days of his exile, but his ambitions turned out to be surprisingly petty, with personal wealth and aggrandizement taking precedence over the goals of his people. In the process of achieving these ambitions, he destroyed much of the civil society that had existed in the West Bank and Gaza prior to Oslo, built up security forces personally loyal to him, kept his government deliberately divided in order to stifle debate over succession, and in many ways diminished Palestine's capacity for peace and statehood.

This wasn't a drawback from Arafat's point of view, because the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suited him. In the immortal words of Dov Weisglass, conflict is political formaldehyde; the existence of an ongoing struggle enabled Arafat to retain his place as its icon and slowed calls for political reform. Again, it is entirely commonplace for dictators to focus on an external or internal enemy in order to distract public attention from their own failings; Mugabe uses Britain and the ghost of Rhodesia much as Arafat used Israel. In Arafat's case, though, the enemy was vastly more powerful than his own quasi-state, was itself becoming increasingly radicalized by the ongoing conflict, and was in a position to do a great deal of reciprocal damage. Maintenance of the conflict under these circumstances was a disaster waiting to happen, and it waited only until September 2000. While Israel can in no way be absolved for its role in the breakdown of the peace process or the human rights violations that occurred during the second intifada, much of the responsibility for the calamity that has befallen the Palestinians lies at Arafat's door.
Jonathan ends on a somewhat hopeful note:
In the long term, the Palestinians are a resilient people, and they will survive the damage done by both Israel and their own leaders. In Randa Jarrar's words, "Palestine was here before Arafat, and it will be here after him." I am convinced that, sometime in the relatively near future, there will be a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. I am equally convinced, however, that Arafat is one of the primary reasons why such a state does not exist today, and why it is in many ways farther from realization now than a decade ago.
Read the whole thing.

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