Arafat's departure would benefit his people

July 25, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Here's a suggestion for the Palestinian parliament struggling in Ramallah to bring some order to the authority that supposedly runs the lives of its people in the West Bank and Gaza, and represents the aspirations of millions in the Palestinian diaspora.

They should pass an emergency decree, not a resolution, but a real law, demanding that no one in parliament or in the executive can serve beyond age 75.

Yasser Arafat will be 75 on Aug. 24. That would give him one month to dust off his fatigues, straighten out his head scarf, step into the sunlight and take a bow for all that he thinks he has done for the Palestinian people. That would be a short bow, for Arafat's retirement is long overdue. He has failed to make the transition from terrorist - freedom fighter, if you like - to statesman. He has botched every opportunity to fulfill his people's dream for a sovereign state of their own, free of Israeli occupation and brutal interference.

As matters now stand, it's difficult to ignore the appearance that Arafat and Israel's pugnacious prime minister, Ariel Sharon, have a practically symbiotic relationship. Certainly, Israel has heaped humiliation and violent vengeance on the Palestinians. Much of that is the consequence of the Palestinian leader's manifest incapacity to rescue his own people from the burden of occupation by providing them with an honest, visionary, open and free government.

Arafat is no Gandhi. He is no Mao. He is no Ho Chi Minh. He is not even a Castro. This view of him is the product of more than 30 years in which I have watched him operate, often in person, and observed the condition of his people in the West Bank and Gaza, under Israel occupation, and in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

The Palestinians decidedly are not better off now than they were before Arafat's arrival in Gaza after the signing of the Oslo Accords 11 years ago. That was a moment of euphoria for both Israelis and Palestinians who wanted peace after 15 years of an occupation that humiliated both sides.

But it was significant, I thought at the time, that at the White House ceremony marking the signing of the Oslo Accords, Arafat was still in military uniform, shaking hands with a real former general who had traded in his uniform for a suit, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Arafat couldn't make the transition.

Once Arafat arrived back in Palestine - first in Gaza, later Ramallah in the West Bank - the process of favoring and eventually enriching his cronies from their heyday in Lebanon, which they helped to ruin, and exile in Tunisia, got under way. Arafat's persistent refusal to share power got the better of him and eventually got the better of his own people.

While he and his pals - they are called "The Tunis Crowd" by many Palestinians - went about co-opting authority and enriching themselves, Islamic organizations like Hamas attracted more and more supporters. One of the arguments they have made is that unlike Arafat's mob, they are not corrupt.

One heard of the corruption and violations of rights inflicted by the Palestinian Authority on the Palestinians themselves, but Arafat remained such an icon of the so-called revolution he was not publicly criticized.

About two years ago, two years into the latest Palestinian uprising against the Israelis, Palestinians started to make noise about the bankruptcy of Arafat's leadership. I was visiting Israel and the occupied territories at the time and was astonished by the extent of the distrust and outright hatred of Arafat and his cronies that existed among Palestinians.

But these expressions against Arafat always were accompanied by the complaint that Israel and the United States made it more difficult for Palestinians to act in opposition to Arafat's policies, or the lack of them, because action would then seem to be carrying out the wishes of the enemy and its chief sponsor.

This month the chaotic condition of the Palestinians got even worse. In Gaza, where a huge population of Palestinians suffers most harshly from being penned in by the Israelis, fighting broke out between Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority. Characteristically, Arafat responded by naming his cousin to take charge of security in Gaza. This led to even more violence and Arafat withdrew the appointment. Meanwhile, his latest prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, resigned in frustration over Arafat's abiding unwillingness to let up on the levers of power.

In a parliamentary ploy that would compel Qureia to remain as acting prime minister, Arafat rejected the resignation. But, in an act of unusual boldness, the Palestinian parliament rejected Arafat's gambit by a vote of 43-4. The vote took place the day after one of Arafat's most outspoken critics, Nabil Amr, a legislator, was kneecapped by gunmen on his way home.

Does this sound like the fulfillment of a dream? Of course not. It's the continuation of a Palestinian nightmare.

Arafat is now a monster in the nightmare. Palestinians know that and they are the only ones who can take the message to him. Because his departure is so critical not only to Palestinians, but to Israelis who want peace and Americans who want that, too, the less said about it by the Bush administration and Sharon, the better.

The aging "chairman" already has been helped too much by his enemies.

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