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David E. Weisberg
David E. Weisberg

Understanding Arafat (and Abbas, too)

Dan Perry has written a very interesting and entertaining featured post, “A surreal encounter with Yasser Arafat,” in which he relates what happened 20 years ago, when he interviewed the legendary Palestinian leader.  There are lots of fascinating details, and I recommend it to all.

There is, however, one aspect of the post that is somewhat disappointing.  Perry seems mystified as to why Arafat would reject the offer of Israel’s then-prime minister, Ehud Barak, which would have created “a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and more than 90 percent of the West Bank, with complex arrangements to share Jerusalem in ways that no one had ever considered sharing a city.”  Perry asks: Why would Arafat turn down a Palestinian state?

Frankly, I think there is no mystery here at all.  The answer to Perry’s rhetorical question is very obvious because, in mulling over the Israeli offer, two thoughts would immediately push themselves to the very center of Arafat’s attention.

Arafat would think first of all that, if he accepted, hard-line Palestinian extremists would likely try to assassinate him as a traitor.  He would be a traitor because, for the extremists, true Palestinian nationalism demands a state in all of historic Palestine, including all territory occupied by Israel and most especially the Old City of Jerusalem, the site of the holy places.  No deal Barak could offer could conceivably satisfy those demands.

Arafat’s second thought would be that, even if he somehow avoided assassination, he would never be able to deliver the peace that Israel and the whole international community would expect in return for an independent state.  Delivering peace would be impossible, because those same Palestinian extremists would never agree to lay down arms as long as Israel retained sovereignty over land the extremists deemed to be an Islamic waqf, and particularly over the Old City.

If you hypothetically occupied Arafat’s position and those thoughts were in your mind, would you agree to a peace deal?  Neither would I.

In this context, it’s important to remember the interchange between Arafat and then-president Bill Clinton, who was trying to mediate a deal between Arafat and Barak at Camp David in 2000.  According to Pres. Clinton, when he criticized Arafat for being too inflexible in negotiations, Arafat replied, “Do you want to attend my funeral?”

So, the possibility of assassination is not an imaginary horrible that I dreamed up. Arafat’s own reply demonstrates that that possibility was very much on his mind as he considered whether he would accept the deal offered at Camp David.

There’s a song: Everything old is new again.  That title applies to both past and present Palestinian leadership.  That is to say, essentially the same considerations that motivated Arafat to reject a peace agreement 20 years ago are working today to prevent his successor, Mahmoud Abbas (who is in the 16th year of his four-year term as president of the Palestinian National Authority), from ever negotiating a peace agreement with Israel.

In 2007, when Abbas had already assumed the presidency, the terrorists of Hamas violently expelled from Gaza all forces of the P.N.A.  Gunmen were killed on both sides; no one knows how many.  Abbas has not set foot in Gaza since the coup.  I submit that he has not done so because he prefers not to be the target of an assassination plot.

Moreover, it is even clearer today than it was during Arafat’s reign that, if Palestinian “leadership” were to sign a putative peace agreement, that leadership could never deliver peace.  The takeover of Gaza by Hamas demonstrates conclusively that Abbas’ signature on a peace agreement would, in effect, be written in invisible ink.

The Islamist terrorists headquartered in Gaza are precisely the Palestinians who would have to lay down their arms if true peace were to be achieved.  Those terrorists have no allegiance to Abbas whatsoever—it would probably be a toss-up as to whom they would prefer to kill, Abbas or Israel’s current prime minister.  It is a certainty that a peace agreement signed by Abbas would only provide the Islamist terrorists with greater incentive to attack Israel.  Abbas would be powerless to prevent such attacks.

In sum, if Abbas were to sign a peace agreement, he, like Arafat before him, would be running the risk of assassination, and he would also be promising, on a world-wide stage, to deliver a peace that he would be utterly incapable of delivering.  Under those circumstances, why would he ever go through the motions of agreeing to a deal?

No one knows what the future holds.  Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, true peace will be achieved between Israel and a Palestinian state.  Let’s hope so.  But, if that does not happen, it won’t be a mystery why not.  The real mystery is how long Palestinians will continue to accept leadership that is so transparently incapable of actually leading.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=2523973
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