In the aftermath of the Camp David debacle, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat offered his famous three reasons why he had failed to sign on to an extremely generous deal. First, the chairman suggested that he would never accept an “end of conflict” clause to any permanent agreement. Can you imagine the implications of such a stipulation? Arafat had the temerity to demand an Israeli withdrawal from the most strategic military territory in the entire world, without a written assurance that all future claims be totally expunged from any international doubt. In other words, the exact validity of their agreement would not preclude the PLO from pocketing its significant material gains, while making preparations for future rounds of conflict. Did this sound like the position of a man who represents the interests of the weaker party?
Second, Arafat continued to demand the complete return of all Arab refugees and their multitude of descendants from the original Palestinian-Israeli war of 1948. If such an event were to happen, Israel would become a bi-national state with a Jewish minority. The Jewish people have long experience with minority status in both the Muslim and the Christian worlds. Neither of these historical eras ever engendered the remotest sense of security or justice within the long memory of the Jews. Yet Arafat had the audacity to base his so-called “peace of the brave” on such a spurious concept as this “right of return”. Did this sound like the position of a man interested in anything other than the complete defeat of Jewish sovereignty in any part of the Holy Land?
Finally, Arafat acknowledged that the Palestinian struggle with the Jewish state had less to do with nationalism, and was essentially rooted in a Muslim religious context. In a speech before the Arab League in October of 2000, the PLO leader explained that the conflict was primarily a religious struggle: “A new, religious dimension was added to the Arab-Israeli struggle. Everyone is well aware of the critical nature of this dimension, and knows how difficult it is to contain it and control its repercussions,” he said.
From a historical perspective, Arafat’s statement has large elements of both truth and falsehood simultaneously. Yes, it is fundamentally true that in the minds of most Muslims, Jewish power in Palestine (an Islamic land from their theological point of view) is perceived as anathema. But there is nothing new about this. From the very inception of the Arab-Israeli conflict, from 1920 onward, the religious dimension was primary. The first Palestinian leader, Hajj Amin el-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, was a disciple of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Arafat knew this. He also felt that in a world of 1.2 billion Muslims, the Palestinians would certainly outlast Israel in a religious war of attrition. In order for that to happen, the religious dimension became essential. Arab nationalism never served the interests of Palestinian nationalism. On the contrary, in the various large-army nation-state wars against Israel, it was Egyptian, Jordanian or Syrian interests which always superseded the interests of Palestine.
Arab nationalism had a secular veneer, but it failed to take root in what is essentially a supernaturally oriented social structure. It was always couched with Islamic religious symbols. Arafat’s charisma was based on his personal ability to exploit many of these same symbols. But religion couldn’t save Arab nationalism. Its lifespan was brief, nothing more than fifteen years in its heyday. Arafat understood all along that religious authority in the Muslim world is far deeper in terms of culture and meta-historical psychology than any form of nationalism. Islam would fight the long war against the Jews, Arafat understood this. Hamas was the true future of the Palestinian movement, and Arafat understood this as well.
The Chairman of the PLO simply couldn’t sign on to a final-status agreement at Camp David. He refused to go down in history as a Sadat or a King Hussein. Arafat was playing for time, a whole lot of time. He understood that it was Israel which was the weakest and smallest party to the conflict. After all, Islam had once conquered nearly two-thirds of the known world. And Arafat was an Islamic believer, a nephew of the Grand Mufti himself. When his private plane went down in the vast desert of the Libyan Sahara, the PLO chairman termed his rescue no less than miraculous, the very work of Allah. When he started the second intifada, he had completely abandoned Oslo and was in full cooperation with Hamas. In fact, Arafat was always with Hamas, if not in body then in spirit. In the final analysis, he believed in the complete rejection of the right of the Jewish people to a state in any part of the ancient Holy land. At Camp David, when confronted by US President Bill Clinton as to the historical validity of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, he denied it ever existed. To a modern Jew or Christian, this response is not only contrary to history, it also reveals a deep structural rejection of anything but Islamic hegemony. It is extreme Islam at its core.
So what were the Oslo accords all about? The short answer is that Oslo represented the true genius of Yasser Arafat, or what I call the “myth of moderation.” Oslo was a mask, a disguise for a gullible left-wing European and American audience who knew next to nothing about the vagaries of language in the Muslim Near East. The PLO leader was the master of these two very distinct tongues — one in English, of moderation, and another in Arabic, as to true intentions. Even the Labor Party in Israel succumbed to Arafat’s siren song of peace, but not the Likud. They warned the West. They warned repeatedly, but to no avail. The nations of the European Enlightenment have a predilection for rational answers to most problems, including issues of war and peace. It mattered little to these Westerners that the battle for the Holy Land had a theological dimension, which can only be rooted out by a novel and revelational (Torah and Koran) approach to the Islamic-Judaic dialogue.
Normal, non-aggressive politics has long become the absent phenomenon within the context of Islamic political succession. As for interfaith struggles, the Crusades were a historical laboratory for long wars of Muslim attrition. The key lesson to be learned from these Crusades and the centuries of conflict is that the West Bank of the Jordan River is the vital strategic territory in the battle for Israel-Palestine. Arafat understood this. That was the reason for his mask. But when push came to shove at Camp David, the mask came off. When offered ninety percent of the West Bank for a demilitarized state, he refused. Arafat was a Muslim through and through. NO, he was NOT able to sign an agreement with an “end of conflict” clause. NO, he would NOT allow Israel to remain on the Jordan River Valley. His strict interpretation of his religion wouldn’t allow for such compromises.
Arafat was not a true moderate, because moderation is not a component of modern Palestinian history. For most of the conflict, religious sentiment has been the primary focus of Palestinian politics. Only for a very brief period were the Palestinians masquerading as secular socialists or democrats. Essentially, this was a tactical ploy in order to maintain a strong connection with the Soviets, while also engendering sympathy from their anti-religious left-wing friends in Western Europe. Islamic Palestine has always been the norm. Arafat’s rejectionism was merely a variant or subspecies of this ongoing religious paradigm. The Hamas “holy war” is as old as the conflict itself. In order for peace to reign, the Jews must always remain vigilant when confronted with demands for West Bank withdrawal. Simultaneously, they must develop a devastating theological argument (rooted in the current struggle itself) to overcome a vast world of Muslim religious rejection. If little Israel is successful, the region will have a future. If it isn’t successful, G-d will only help those who remain true to the idea of a genuine peace.