Edition 41 Volume 2 - November 25, 2024

The Arab world after Arafat

Unshakeable -   Mustafa Aarab

The very thing for which Arafat was criticized was that for which his supporters held him in esteem: his refusal to yield under pressure.

Arafat's death: a Lebanese perspective -   Joseph Bahout

Gradually the Palestinian sociology in Lebanon resembled that of the territories, with the growing influence of several breeds of Islamist organizations.

A Jordanian Perspective: What lies ahead? -   Hassan A. Barari

The next leadership, in a bid for legitimacy, will resort to introducing genuine reform measures, thus fulfilling the conditions embedded in the roadmap.

Will the opportunity be captured this time? -   Gamal A.G. Soltan

Israeli politics constrains the Sharon government's capacity to cooperate. Positive signals from the Arab world could be of considerable value here.

 Mustafa Aarab

Arafat, the "mountain that was never shaken" by any political or military storm, was finally shaken by fate. It may seem strange that a Moroccan should find writing about Arafat so difficult, but in addition to being the symbol of occupied Palestine, he was also the symbol of challenge and resistance in all its forms and thus represented something to all Arabs.

Indeed, it was the very thing that his critics derided him for that his supporters held up as his most admirable characteristic. He remained adamant to the end on certain constants for the Palestinian people and would never yield. To Israel, Israel's supporters in the West and even some of his own comrades, this was a sign of inflexibility. To his supporters it was a sign of integrity in the face of overwhelming odds. Upon his passing, the fear for those who support the Palestinian cause is that now the logic of concession in Palestinian decision-making will dominate.

While Arafat was still in a coma, the international press put forth analyses and predictions about the post-Arafat era. Most opinions expressed in the West agreed that the passing of Arafat would be in the best interest of the Palestinians. The assumptions such reasoning were based on reflected Israeli arguments: it was Arafat who was supposed to concede so he would not be an obstacle to negotiations; it was Arafat who was supposed to prevent every Palestinian child from raising a stone in the face of heavily armed Israeli soldiers. The reasoning looked away from the fact that it was Arafat who had offered his hand in peace to the Israelis and to the international community in exchange for fair and just negotiations. These analysts forgot that Arafat had personally paid the price, besieged more than once, because of his adherence and commitment to the Palestinian cause.

Arafat has departed and the scenarios for his succession remain ambiguous. The Palestinian political scene has so far appeared calm, but it is yet unclear to whom the responsibility for the Palestinian cause will fall, whether it be Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) or Marwan Barghouti. The uncertainty generates fear, fear that the current calm is only the calm before a storm that Israel is waiting for to finally wipe the Palestinian cause from the map.

Some people are wary of Abu Mazen, given that he is welcomed by Israel and the United States. There are even more fears about Abu Mazen's supporter Mohammed Dahlan given his political leniency. There are those who pray for the release of the very popular Marwan Barghouti, and there are people who have and still prefer martyrdom to concession. It is as if the Palestinian resistance has become a prisoner of political scenarios, as if the Palestinian people will be unable to again produce leaders of the same caliber as Arafat.

But, with the Palestinian decision-making process passing through a transitional stage, perhaps the most acute political crisis the Palestinians have ever seen, one thing appears to be certain: Arafat's policies and example will remain a model for anyone who follows him and an inspiration for the entire Palestinian people. And more than that, he will remain an inspiration to all people of conscience in the Arab world, which has too often been ruined by undemocratic regimes.

Democratically elected by an overwhelming majority of his people in 1996, Arafat hitched his fate to his dream of a Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. For this, he was declared a "terrorist" by Israel, which confined him to his headquarters for over three years and publicly threatened to expel or kill him. And despite all this, he never wavered. Once again, Arafat replied, "no wind shall shake this mountain."

Arafat will thus remain a historical figure in the collective Arab memory from west to east. I do not know if the Arab peoples ever followed the news of any Arab leader like they followed that of Arafat, or mourned the death of one of their leaders like they mourned the death of Arafat.

>From Jordan to Tunisia through Lebanon, Arafat was a leader who had perfected the art of crisis management--both internally and externally. We knew him as a leader and bid him farewell as one. Now the Palestinians are approaching elections without him. This will be the first real test for Palestinian leaders and people alike after the death of a president who embraced challenge and embodied the meaning of resistance.- Published 25/11/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org.

Mustafa Aarab is an independent Moroccan journalist based in Holland and a doctor of philosophy.

Arafat's death: a Lebanese perspective
 Joseph Bahout

During the Arab League Summit held in March 2024 in Beirut, a very telling incident pitted the Lebanese presidency against the Palestinian delegation. The summit began its sessions soon after the Israeli army launched one of the most serious offensives against the compound where Yasser Arafat had been besieged since December 2024.

After the opening ceremony it was announced that the chairman of the Palestinian Authority in person would address a live video message from Ramallah to his Arab peers. The move was perceived as a way to ease his political and physical encirclement. In a quite inexplicable reaction, however, President Lahoud of Lebanon, chairing the meeting, nervously disregarded the Palestinian demand to give Arafat the floor, under the unconvincing pretext that it was not his turn to talk. The Palestinian delegation withdrew, infuriated by the offence, and it took a whole day and some princely Arab mediation to settle the conflict.

The incident, though anecdotal, brought to the surface an age-old but never forgotten mixture of feelings and resentments between Lebanon and the Palestinians. If one were to characterize the historical relationship between the two parties, the least that can be said is that it is a typical love-hate one, made up of sequences of identification, fascination, rejection, and sometimes murderous instincts. Ever since the 1948 Naqba, Lebanon has not known a single day of political life unmarked by the Palestinian factor.

Once Arafat took command after the 1967 defeat, he focused on two tasks: keeping the Palestinian cause alive at whatever cost; and regaining whatever territory was necessary or sufficient to erect the embryo of a Palestinian state. The first task was attained through a brilliant blend of terrorist actions and informational networking that increasingly took Beirut as its nerve center. And the closest thing to a state Arafat was able to create and rule was his own republic in Lebanon from 1969 onward and the creation of "Fatehland", up to 1982 when the entire venture was devastated by the Israeli invasion in the midst of a civil war in which the importance of the Palestinian trigger will still divide historians for decades to come. Many years later, as if days of animosity and hate needed to be recalled, Abu Ammar (Arafat) entered the formerly occupied Gaza Strip after the Oslo agreement, declaring: "I will rule Palestine as I once ruled Lebanon".

But Arafat's Lebanese adventure had yet another face. In the feverish revolutionary atmosphere typical of this era, Abu Ammar's PLO became the object of a quasi-mystical attraction for an entire breed of Lebanese--as well as Arab intellectuals and militants living in Beirut. The Palestinian guerrilla type of parallel state was then perceived as the exemplification of what "progressive" Arab nationalism should be and bear: Beirut was Hanoi, Abu Ammar and his lieutenants were Ho Chi-Minh, and it was in this communion between liberation and political change that a brighter Arab future was to be found. All this meant that for Lebanese contenders for power, Arafat's power base in Lebanon was not only the best ally, but also the ultimate pattern.

Herein lies one of the most striking Palestinian-Lebanese paradoxes. If most of today's Lebanese elite has been politically brought up, trained and most often funded by Abu Ammar's system and largesse, these same Lebanese figures became curiously among the harshest adversaries, not to say enemies, of Arafat's Palestinian Authority the way it emerged after Oslo. After the 1982 disaster, Syria inherited and groomed most of Lebanon's former national movement and the remainder of Abu Ammar's orphans in Lebanon; Damascus neither held Arafat in high regard nor did it consider the interim agreements he signed with Israel as being tactically or strategically sound. And following their new master, today's official Lebanese choir unanimously repeats the refrain that the Palestinian Authority is nothing but a "canton", and Arafat but "Israel's policeman".

But there is yet another paradox, and it cannot be explained by rhetoric alone. Despite --or perhaps because of--the past, Lebanese are probably today the most enthusiastic Arab supporters of the emergence of a final and effective Palestinian state. Oh, not so much because of any inclination to seek justice, but simply because it is for them the most effective guarantee that an acceptable solution will be found to the remaining Palestinian population left on Lebanese soil.

In the aftermath of 1982, the Palestinian reality in Lebanon drastically changed. The balance of power shifted first toward dissidents often stirred up against Arafat by Syria. But gradually the Palestinian sociology in Lebanon resembled that of the territories, with the growing influence of several breeds of Islamist organization, both Sunni and Shi'ite, sometimes even challenging Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In the southern camp of Ain al-Helwi, today the most important concentration of Palestinians, bloody skirmishes and sometimes open fights frequently pit Arafat's men against a mosaic of Salafi extremist and sometimes insufficiently identified groups.

To what degree Damascus--the actual host of PFLP and DFLP headquarters and leaders--is pulling the strings remains to be seen. Arafat's death has whet Syria's appetite to regain partial control over the Palestinian card and to widen its share of the new Palestinian leadership. The appointment of Faruq Qaddumi to head Fateh, one of the closest PLO officials to the leadership in Damascus, Fateh probably boosted Syria's ambitions.

Hence, however residual in the general Lebanese political landscape of today, the Palestinian factor remains a very sensitive Lebanese issue, and the future prospects of the post-Arafat era are closely watched. With the Palestinian refugee issue still open and alive, Lebanon feels it is once again too congenial a playground for numerous regional ambitions. This brings to the fore conflictual memories. When the Lebanese followed Abu Ammar's agony and passing, most of them were probably thinking that were it not for the operation that sought to destroy his Lebanese fiefdom more than 20 years ago, he would have been buried not in his land, but perhaps in theirs.- Published 25/11/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Joseph Bahout is a professor at Sciences-Po Paris, and researcher at Academie Diplomatique Internationale.

A Jordanian Perspective: What lies ahead?
 Hassan A. Barari

Arafat's death is a breaking point in the history of the Palestinian national movement. He left the would-be Palestinian leadership saddled with problems that need to be addressed urgently. Undoubtedly, the post-Arafat era poses a strategic challenge to the Palestinians but concurrently offers the Palestinians an opportunity to change the rules of the game vis-a-vis the long-standing conflict with Israel.

A key challenge that the Palestinians need to contend with is filling the vacuum left by Arafat. Many have already made the case that it is hard to find any Palestinian with a high enough caliber who could fill Arafat's position. The trouble with this widely circulated myth is that the next elected leader will live for a while under the shadow of Arafat and influenced by such a statement. Notwithstanding whether this concern is paramount, history has taught us that the opposite is true. When a charismatic authoritarian leader leaves the political scene, the one after him--often seen as transitional--could deliver much better. When President Anwar Sadat succeeded Gamal Abdul Nasser, the most charismatic leader in the contemporary pantheon of the Arab world, few actually predicted that he would stay in power. Paradoxically, it was none other than Sadat who gave the Israelis a bloody nose in the October War and in addition, he was the one who eventually recovered Sinai after Nasser lost it.

There is no reason to assume that the next leader would not be able to lead the Palestinian people on the path of liberation and independence. Although Arafat's departure is seen as a loss as far as the Palestinians are concerned, it could provide the catalyst for the emergence of a more successful leadership with a different mode of thinking. Palestinians have learned the hard way that the need for reform is a necessity. The next leadership, in a bid for legitimacy, will resort to introducing genuine reform measures, thus fulfilling the conditions embedded in the roadmap.

Confronted with a highly organized joint Israeli-American campaign, Arafat lost his relevancy in an already stalled peace process. For this reason, the mantra "there is no Palestinian partner" was reiterated and used as a pretext for more aggressive Israeli policies. Now this mantra has outlived its usefulness and has come to an end. Furthermore, the departure of Arafat has given a new impetus to the European effort to bring about the restoration of the peace process.

Despite a possible wrangle within Fateh, Abu Mazen is expected to be the next president. Explicit in Abu Mazen's statements is that he would ditch policies that previously failed. Unlike Arafat, Abu Mazen will settle for nothing short of demilitarizing the intifada. Essential to this policy is the need to unify all Palestinian factions under one national strategy. Abu Mazen understands this logic and despite the fact that he would be treading through a political minefield, he is expected to prevail. Key players such as Jordan and Egypt will find it easier to work with Abu Mazen toward a political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Put in another way, the most obvious ramification of Arafat's departure will be the rehabilitation of the Palestinian "partner". After the removal of the "obstacle", this time it will be harder than before for Israel to dig in its heels and reject all forms of pressure. The mere presence of Arafat helped Sharon duck out from his commitment to peace. Sharon's campaign in demonizing Arafat worked and as a corollary, the American administration, obsessed with the "war on terror", refused to work with Arafat. For this reason, the American administration is bound to put some pressure on the Israeli government. Certainly, the Palestinians could assist in bringing about this outcome. If their leadership is able to appear as responsible, the rules of the game will change. It remains to be seen, however, how the Palestinians are going to manage their affairs, rise to this historic occasion, and make their independence come true.- Published 25/11/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Hassan A. Barari is professor of Middle East studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the author of "Israelism: Arab Scholarship on Israel, A Critical Assessment" (London: Ithaca, 2024)

Will the opportunity be captured this time?
 Gamal A.G. Soltan

Yasser Arafat's disappearance from the political scene in the Middle East is at one and the same time the end of an era and the beginning of another. A fresh beginning usually brings opportunities. The rise of a new Palestinian leadership should be conducive to the resumption of the peace process.

The respect enjoyed by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) should help bridge the gap between the Palestinians and the interested parties, particularly the US and Israel. Abbas' views and personal qualities make him a reliable partner in a serious peace process. Being a partner, nonetheless, is not only a matter of personal qualities. It is also a matter of political resources, which Abu Mazen has yet to acquire.

To begin with, expectations should be kept low; guarded optimism could help avoid setbacks. An opportunity, not a miracle, is appearing on the horizon. The situation in the Middle East does not allow for miracles, even with Chairman Arafat no longer on the scene. The legacy of the past decade is too deep to be overcome by the mere rise of a new leadership in Palestine.

On the Palestinian side, Arafat's death provides a precious opportunity to streamline and institutionalize Palestinian politics. But his absence also deprives the Palestinian polity of a safety valve that for years proved instrumental in regulating intra-Palestinian conflicts. The ceiling for rivalry among Palestinian factions, which Arafat used to provide, is no longer there, or at least has become higher than it used to be. Intra-Palestinian strife is likely to intensify, with the competing factions struggling to improve their positions in the Palestinian political arena. This applies to the factions both within and outside Fateh. Under Arafat, the rivalry among Palestinian factions was essentially to win a bigger piece of Arafat. After Arafat, power is the big prize that everybody is seeking.

Mahmoud Abbas enjoys a great deal of respect for his personal integrity, vision and political experience. However, neither Abbas nor any other Palestinian leader has at his disposal anything approaching the influence Arafat used to enjoy. Moreover, Abu Mazen's well-known views and plans to resolve the conflict with Israel are strongly rejected by the militant Palestinian factions. Also, the four-year intifada has both radicalized and fragmented the Palestinian political community and made it less amenable to manipulation by the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas' leadership can only be established upon a compromise with the different Palestinian factions. The terms of the compromise are likely to keep changing according to developments on the ground. Many of the demands of the militant Palestinian opposition can hardly be met. It is unlikely, therefore, that the opposition will offer its unqualified support to the new Palestinian leader. It is very possible, however, that the opposition will offer Abu Mazen a sort of tacit support in exchange for him not pursuing to its conclusion the policy of ending the chaotic multiplicity of armed forces in the occupied territories, and for avoiding further escalation between the PA and the militants. A fragile ceasefire, similar to the two-month ceasefire of 2024, is likely to be reached. Such a ceasefire, however, could be even more fragile than last year's.

The structure of the Palestinian political community does not allow for such a compromise to be embodied in formal contractual arrangements. Rather, it will take the form of tacit understandings with considerable ambiguity, which will be frequently open for renegotiation, both peacefully and violently. This nascent tacit compromise in Palestine will be instrumental in avoiding a violent full-fledged intra-Palestinian conflict. It is likely, however, that accidents of intra-Palestinian violence, short of civil war, could take place.

It is reasonable, therefore, to anticipate a shaky stability in the Palestinian occupied territories, at least in the near future. The new Palestinian leadership does not have much at its disposal to consolidate its power and to enhance stability. But regional and international actors can help make up for that deficit. Israel is the most important sole actor in that regard.

Israel has to reduce its conditions for resuming serious peace talks. Demanding the immediate disarmament of Palestinian armed organizations is far beyond the current capacity of the new Palestinian leadership. Asking the new Palestinian leadership to do so is an assured prescription for failure. The integrity and trustworthiness of Abbas should be sufficient to encourage the Israeli government to drop some of its conditions. Gestures of goodwill could be invaluable in this context. Releasing Palestinian prisoners, removing checkpoints, and allowing Palestinian labor into Israel would definitely be helpful. The ultimate test for Israel's intentions is making the necessary moves to facilitate the forthcoming election in Palestine.

The United States has to do everything possible to bring about a cooperative Israeli policy. The European Union might need to reconsider its earlier decision to declare Hamas a terrorist organization. This could be done in many ways short of formally reversing the European Council's decision.

Arab countries can do a lot to help the new Palestinian leadership. No matter how angry the Palestinians are at the Arabs, explicit Arab support for Abu Mazen should help him in the struggle for legitimacy and power. The Algiers Arab Summit of next year should speak strongly in favor of the new Palestinian leadership. More efficient use of the stick and carrot by Arabs in dealing with militant Palestinian groupings would certainly be useful.

More important, Arab countries, particularly those that have diplomatic relations with Israel, should exert more effort to win its cooperation. The current maze of Israeli politics constrains the Sharon government's capacity to cooperate. Positive signals coming from the Arab world could be of considerable value here.

The change of the Palestinian leadership is an historic opportunity. But this opportunity could be missed just as many others have been missed in the past. An historic opportunity is only so if it is captured. Whether or not the parties seize the moment is yet to be seen.- Published 25/11/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Gamal A.G. Soltan is senior research fellow at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) and the editor of the center's monthly Strategic Papers.

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