Tuesday, November 16, 2004
The rais is dead; long live the rais.
Arafat died while I was in Japan, and what with jetlag and digging out from under a week of mail and email on my return, I haven't had a chance to blog about it. About Arafat himself, there is little to say. I can't be as magnanimous as my President, so let me just say this: may the souls of those who were killed at his command, and those who died at his urging, be permitted to bear witness when his soul comes before the throne of judgement. It is not for me to pray for mercy for his soul, but for them.
But as for the significance of his death: it will, I think, be disappointing. There are those on the Right who made the argument that things would be better without Arafat because then, at least, "we would know whom we are facing." I heard former Ambassador Dore Gold make this argument explicitly and I asked him: okay, once we know whom we are facing, what then? Once Hamas is in power in Gaza, what then? If the objective is winning debating points about the nature of the enemy, then yes, life without Arafat will be clarifying, because there will no longer be an Arafat pretending to be interested in peaceful coexistence. But that is not the objective. Israel has no more idea of a purely military solution to a confrontation with Hamas than it did to a confrontation with Arafat.
Meanwhile, the Left's hopes - mostly outside of Israel; the Israeli left is too disillusioned for hopes - have risen somewhat that Mahmoud Abbas, or whoever succeeds Arafat, will be open to a grand gesture by Israel, and therefore are already clamoring to pressure Israel to make such a gesture. But Abbas will be very lucky simply to live long enough to take nominal power. His actual power is likely to be very limited. And the notion that, with Arafat's body still warm, someone with such a weak power base would accept even what was offered at Taba and rejected by Arafat (which is the most that Israel will ever offer - more, in fact, than Israel will ever offer again) - the idea is absurd.
Finally, there are those who think, still, that free elections will bring to power a Palestinian leadership willing to make a deal with Israel. This is the neocon dream, and it will not die. Maybe - maybe - after a lengthy period of detoxification from the poison that Arafat poured into Palestinian politics, maybe then a truly pragmatic Palestinian Arab leadership would emerge, ready for a true two-state solution. But now? Today? Even if truly free elections were possible in a situation where armed gangs dominate P.A. politics, what makes anyone think that a majority of the Palestinian people want to settle for what was rejected? They are angry about corruption; they are angry at a failing strategy. But there is not an Arab polity on earth that accepts the presence of a Jewish state in their midst, not even Egypt, whose elites understand that the confrontation with Israel has, fundamentally, been counterproductive; not even Jordan, whose rulers know they have a certain common interest with Israel based on shared enemies. Even in these countries, who are formally at peace with Israel, the population - who have no rational interest in war with Israel, having suffered from such wars in the past - is overwhelmingly hostile to Israel, to peace with Israel, to the very idea of Israel.
This is Arafat's great gift to the region. Yes, he was a murderer, and a coward, and a particularly cowardly murderer. But, sad to say, murderers are not exactly uncommon. Arafat was also a great revolutionary leader. He embodied the cause that has dominated Arab politics for over fifty years. Since the death of Nasser and until Osama came along, he was probably the single most popular leader in the Arab world, and possibly in the larger Muslim world. And, because he never settled for any concrete achievement, he kept his cause alive at the cost - though he probably would not reckon it that way - of destroying not only the Arabs of Palestine but, to a considerable extent, the prospects of the entire region. If I am right that, had Arafat died in the 1970s or early 1980s, there was at least some possibility of a happier result in the Israeli-Arab conflict, then his life was yet another proof of the Great Man theory of history (albeit Arafat was, as Louis Farrakhan said of Hitler, "wickedly great.")
Now he is dead, but I suspect his legacy will not die so quickly. Left and Right alike are going to discover that without Arafat the situation is just as intractable as it was when Arafat was alive, and that Arafat's memory makes it nearly as difficult for the Palestinians to make a rational compromise as Arafat's living presence did. If Arafat had been removed from this earth twenty years ago, perhaps that would have made a difference (which is not to say that's all it would have taken for a solution to have been possible; Israel also would have needed to take the initiative, and been serious about compromise to solve the Palestinian problem). But now, after so much has happened . . . let's just say that I'd prefer to remain a pessimist. That way there's at least a slim chance I'll be pleasantly surprised.