Yasser Arafat would be a welcome addition to any poker game, for the Palestinian leader has an impulsive urge for trying to take the pot with a pair of fours and a lot of bluff. Unfortunately, the poker games he deals himself into employ human lives as chips.
Arafat has been around as a leader of the Palestinians for a long time – long enough for many contemporary politicians to forget much about his career. For all the promise of the 1994 Norwegian initiative between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, it has been easy to neglect the lessons that might be learned from his past performance.
The Palestinian Arabs have grievances, many of which can be justly blamed on the Israelis. The latter wanted their own state and having seen over half of their coreligionists in Europe murdered by the Nazis, were in no mood to tolerate opposition. A nation built by dispossessed refugees created another wave of dispossessed refugees – although the finger pointing for specific blame rightly goes to all parties in the 1947-48 conflict including the Palestinians themselves.
Regardless of who was at fault for the creation (and continuation) of the Palestinian Refugee problem, they did present a continuing threat to the security of Israel, especially after the second wave of displacements were generated as Israel overran the West Bank in the 1967 War.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was created as a result of the 1964 Arab Summit Conference. It was intended to represent all Palestinian Arabs, and to function as a Leftist-Secular body aimed at the defeat of Israel. Yasser Arafat became the leader of the organization in 1969 as it turned into an umbrella group for almost all Palestinian factions.
The PLO, like its many subordinate and splinter groups, was quick to turn to “revolutionary” violence to achieve its manifold goals. They wanted to strike back at Israel, bring global attention to themselves and their cause, and further the overall campaign of instability aimed (through proxies) by the USSR at the Western World. The PLO, especially in its early days, was an avid ally and supporter of any number of would-be revolutionaries.
Joining this campaign was Arafat’s first mistake, although it might be argued that he had no choice. The PLO needed money and arms, and these were most available from the Soviet Bloc for those who were prepared to be “progressive” combatants. Terrorism and Soviet sponsorship might have looked like a dependable tactic in the heady days of 1969-70, and very few people were all that certain of the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union. The PLO’s first mistake was an easy one to make in those days, and too many other people made it as well.
One important lesson that most humans learn is never to soil one’s own bed. In 1948 and again in 1967, most Palestinian refugees went to Jordan; where they significantly changed the Kingdom’s population mix. Jordan’s 1950 Annexation of the West Bank Palestinian communities did not help matters either – nor did King Hussein’s frequent departures from the Egyptian-Iraqi-Syrian “party line” on Israel.
The aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967 intensified Jordan’s problems, particularly as the emerging PLO became increasingly truculent about openly carrying arms in Jordan, and in their opinions of its King. Arafat grew aggressive, seemingly emboldened by the new friends the PLO was attracting and refused to back down. In February, June and September of 1970, the Jordanian Army moved against the armed “commandos” of the PLO and the last round of fighting in June of 1971 resulted in their expulsion. In these cycles of “jaw-jaw, war-war” Arafat always misread his support and constantly assumed his position was stronger than it actually was.
Jordan’s new stability came at the expense of Lebanon (and it is perhaps significant that none of Israel’s main trio of enemies cared to host the PLO). Lebanon was the weakest of Israel’s neighbours and already had problems with the armed Palestinian groups that were proliferating in the late 1960s. Fighting occurred in 1969 and again in 1973, as Syria continued to funnel the PLO’s fighters through its own territory into Lebanon.
Lebanon was a multicultural state ever since it emerged in 1945. The Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shi’ia Muslims were in an uneasy balance, along with the additional presence of Druze, pro-Syrian factions and others. The large influx of Palestinians threw off the balance, particularly as Arafat continued to run the PLO as a state-within a state and to launch raids against Israel.
By April of 1975, the Lebanese Civil War began – a complex conflict that is still far from over in many respects. During the course of the War, the PLO started to build up an even larger conventional force armed with Soviet supplied armour and artillery. These were also used to attack Christian forces. In response to the PLO build-up, Israel invaded in 1982, crushing the Syrians and PLO forces they engaged. It is one of the many strange facets of this war that the Israelis were initially much welcomed as liberators by the Shi’ia. Indeed, the Shi’ia only soured on the Israelis when the latter settled in to keep an eye on their remaining opponents– and this provoked a war that still continues.
As a part of the negotiations to end this conflict, the PLO – whose leadership and remaining forces were trapped in Beruit – agreed to be disarmed and to leave Lebanon. This departure became urgent after Christian Phalangists, irked by the PLO murders of many of their own people, took the opportunity to repay the Palestinians in their own coin in September of 1982, during two massacres in refugee camps.
Upon departing Lebanon, Arafat and the PLO arrived in Tunisia, where their new hosts ensured that the disarmament process had been complete. Arafat’s two attempts to establish a regional power base and a standing military had been crushed, but he tried to stay in the game. As the 1980s wore on, the PLO’s finances and influence dwindled although Arafat twice attempted to present himself as a negotiator, particularly after his own bodyguards hijacked the cruise-liner Achille Lauro (and murdered a wheelchair bound American passenger).
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Arafat once more attempted to ease his way into the limelight… simultaneously offering his own services in brokering an end to the crisis while also endorsing Saddam Hussein. To the oil-rich Gulf nations who provided much of the PLO’s funding, this was the last straw, and the end of the 1991 Gulf War left Arafat’s finances and reputation at low ebb.
Worse, the West Bank Palestinians had been busy winning a measure of success without Arafat’s help. The Intifada had succeeded in blackening Israel’s reputation in a way the PLO had never managed, primarily by pitting teenagers with slingshots against riflemen. Moreover, Muslim fundamentalist Palestinians now led the terrorist fight against Israel; and their ideology was totally opposed to the socialist-secular notions that Arafat had represented for decades.
Enter the Americans and the Norwegians. Convinced that Middle Eastern stability rested on a Palestinian/Israeli rapprochement, the Oslo Accord triggered a new round of agreements (and as many unresolved disagreements). Part of the process allowed for a limited degree of autonomy for the West Bank Palestinians, and Arafat returned home to assume his role as leader.
Peace will not thrive when wedged between two stubborn stiff-necked peoples. The Israelis, whose boisterous democracy is backstopped by a well-learned reluctance to trust in the forbearance of any potential enemy, are understandably slow to yield concessions to Arafat. For his part, Arafat has displayed all the corruption and cronyism that the world has come to expect of socialist revolutionaries who form governments. Additionally, he has been unable to refrain from working to acquire all the trappings of a nation state and once again creating a military of his own. The 1995 Agreement restricts armed Palestinian Forces to police units alone, but no one doubts that they are the seed for a regular military.
Throughout the latter half of 2000, violence has been a regular occurrence in the West Bank communities and over 450 people have lost their lives. However, it is only the Israelis who have been pointing out that Arafat has resorted to his old tactic of instigating violence with one hand and offering to negotiate a resolution to it with the other. The old proverb that a Leopard cannot change its spots holds true… and the leaders of Europe and America who insist Israel should hug the PLO to its breast are not the people who will be disemboweled by it.