Yasir Arafat and the politics of denial
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 September 2003)

Yasir Arafat ended his speech to the UN General Assembly on Nov. 13, 1974 with the words, "I come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand."

It was an obnoxious child's insolent threat. Arafat was saying that the adults (the West, the UN, etc.) were responsible for his actions, however murderous they might turn out to be. He himself could go either way.

Certainly he was innocent. All Palestinians were victims of imperialist aggression, which meant they couldn't be called terrorists and were not responsible for what they did. He also said his people would create a catastrophe if they were not appeased.

Like a devious child, he appealed to the uneasy guilt of his listeners, who knew he was working a scam but nevertheless ended up taking him seriously.

Ever since, Arafat has sustained himself by projecting a uniquely juvenile mixture of pathos, irresponsibility, defiance and duplicity. Despite his consistent record of failure and misjudgement, he's remained politically alive longer than anyone else on the planet. Platoons of leaders who opposed him over the years, from prime ministers and dictators to lesser PLO figures, are dead or retired. At 74 he remains a source of potential danger, able to sentence hundreds of innocents to random death on a whim or, on peaceful days, send European Union diplomats scurrying to do his bidding.

This week, as Israel discussed how to expel him, he was once more (as a CBC reporter said yesterday morning) "the man of the hour." Supporters were keeping a 24-hour protective vigil around his headquarters in Ramallah, still cherishing him and still willing to believe, against all evidence, that he's been good for them and will be good for them in future.

That day in 1974 the UN bestowed on Arafat a greater gift than it has offered any individual in its history. His invitation to speak, endorsed by a vote of 105-4 (20 abstentions), gave him fresh legitimacy, making him look like a statesman, certifying his leadership of the Palestinians. To invite him, the UN had to forget his involvement in assassinating diplomats, hijacking aircraft, and attacking Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, as well as his frequently stated plan to destroy a UN member, Israel.

No other terrorist has ever been treated with so much respect. One of Arafat's assistants remarked years later that UN acceptance proved the effectiveness of terror. Arafat learned, as Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin point out in their absorbing new book, Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography (Oxford University Press), "that terrorism could be a main factor promoting diplomatic success and was no barrier to his receiving rewards."

Arafat lives by that belief to this minute.

No one will ever deny that he's been a force in the history of the Middle East for 35 years, but the Rubins' book convinced me that he also holds a significant place in the history of thought. The way we think and talk about Arafat demonstrates the nature of the political philosophy we live by (as opposed to the philosophy we study in books). The treatment of this sacred monster demonstrates our chronic inability to see the meaning of even the most obvious contemporary events.

Our smug belief that we can buy off our enemies, our perverse desire to flatter those who say they hate us, our need to persuade ourselves that killers are really moderates in disguise, our willingness to accept any absurdity so long as it helps us avoid facing reality -- all these tendencies play themselves out in our attitudes to Arafat. Above all, we refuse to believe threats we don't want to hear, such as Arafat's consistent threat to destroy Israel. Even in Israel itself, it's hard to see him clearly. As recently as 1997, I discovered in Jerusalem a widespread belief that a politician who remained suspicious of Arafat was probably bigoted and belligerent. By then Israel was an Arafat sponsor, having helped set up the Palestinian Authority to make him a "peace partner." (The half-demolished building in which he sits this morning is a former Israeli Defence Force headquarters.)

Perhaps the future will look on our treatment of Arafat as we now regard those who believed successfully that they could make deals with Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler -- or those who insisted that Mao was a good-hearted agrarian reformer. Perhaps our descendants will understand the comedy in our pious invocation of that dangerous phantom we call "world opinion."

With luck, they will be wiser.

That's the kind of speculation the Rubins encourage. A book is not a meal, Daniel Bell said. Rather than satisfying you, it should make you want to know and think more. The Rubin book works that way. While it provides an authoritative account of Arafat's life, it will make many of its readers wonder about his enduring appeal to foreign governments and international do-gooders. The Rubins carefully explain the forces producing conflict in the Middle East, but by implication they say just as much about the neuroses that afflict political thinking in the West.

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