Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Media and Yasser Arafat

In the days since Arafat’s death, I’ve heard people decry the “leftists” who defend Arafat. However, I have yet to encounter anyone who actually defends his actions in any broad sense of the word. The “liberal media” certainly is defending him by any reasonable definition of the word. (WARNING: Long piece, feel free to skip to the conclusions if one so desires.)

Take the Globe and Mail. Today’s editorial page is filled predominantly by a large column by Margaret Wente. Entitled, “Greatest Con Man of the Age” it’s an description of Arafat’s legacy. It includes such lines as

This is Yasser Arafat’s legacy – a world where teenagers are poisoned by hate.


Mr. Arafat used high-school girls, pregnant women and mentally retarded adolescents ad human bombs.


Mr. Arafat conned much of the world into believing he was a partner for peace. By the time we finally realised we’d been duped, he had created an enduring myth of the Palestinians as the most cruelly martyred people on Earth.


Their delusions were stoked by Mr. Arafat, who promised that, one day, the Jews would pack up and disappear and that all of Palestine from the Jordan River to sea would be theirs again.


For Mr. Arafat, the struggle was never about the Jewish occupation of Palestine. It was about the existence of Israel.

For the leftish intellectual elites of Europe, Canada and the United States the Palestinians took the place of the black South Africans in the essential modern narrative of colonial oppression. In this narrative, Israel is the stand-in for America, brutally oppressing a helpless population that yearns to be free.


Yasser Arafat was the worst enemy the Palestinians ever had. And most of the Western world was his enabler.

The Globe restricts it’s online content, so I’m not provided links, nor will I extensively quote from the November 12th issue, but I will provide a summary of the Arafat columns in the paper. For the same reasons as above, I won’t go back in the Globe another day or two, because I don’t have the hard copies around.

In “Success, Failure, Funeral” Rick Saultin praises Arafat’s ability to bring the cause of the Palestinian people onto the world and how “it became seen as legitimate and urgent.” Salutin goes onto call Arafat “a PR nightmare” and says “yet he failed, in his lifetime, and his cause may fail, too.” Like others Saltuin criticises Arafat’s inability to negotiate. However, he did say the Camp David accord was portrayed far better in the media than it actually was, and he denies Arafat is “the founder of modern terrorism.” He calls him a terrorist but points out that Nelson Mandela was once a terrorist, too. He’s the staunchest defender of Arafat you’ll find in the Globe.

Jeffrey Simpson writes about how Arafat led the Palestinian people “so poorly”; that he pursued his convictions with “disastrous tactics and an awful strategic sense”; that Arafat is “an avowed terrorist” whose renunciation of terrorism we couldn’t believe; that he never tried to stop terrorist acts of the Palestinian people and he criticises him for not accepting Camp David.

Shira Herzog writes about how Ariel Sharon must signal whether he wants to negotiate with new Palestinian leaders in “Is Peace Cleared for Takeoff?” In the article she talks more about the Israeli side, but she justifies Sharon’s refusal to talk to Arafat as long as he dismissed the Gaza plan, casting him again as someone not interested in peace.

The Globe also included a section of quotes from around the world, mainly a representation of world leaders, Arab groups and Jewish groups commenting on Arafat. There was one quote from a Palestinian mother who had twins she named Yasser and Arafat which said she was proud to name her sons after Arafat, which stood in contrast to the quote from the Palestinian on the main page that said, “No one will say this to you – not today – but in his heart every Palestinian is thinking that this is the best gift we could have received from God for Eid.”

There seems to be very little defence of Arafat here. But how does this compare to American newspapers? Such as the “liberal” New York Times.

On November 11th, there was an editorial praising both the Israelis and Palesitians for agreeing on where to bury Arafat and compromising, with no mention of his legacy.

On November 12th the paper had a rather long piece on Arafat, where they talked about his legacy.

The Palestinians… have used…Mr. Arafat's immovable presence as the all-purpose explanation for everything from internal corruption to suicide bombers.


If [Ariel Sharon] wants to avoid Mr. Arafat's fate - dying as a former hero turned obstacle to his people's progress.


Mr. Arafat's successors will be under extraordinary pressure to follow Mr. Arafat's path by talking to the West about peace while allowing the terrorists to dictate actions at home.

I didn’t see any columnists publish opinion pieces about Arafat after his death, but William Safire published one on November 10th.

The only lifelong terrorist to win a Nobel Peace Prize lies comatose in Paris


Israelis should remember Arafat's one "good deed": four years ago, a soon-to-be ousted Israeli prime minister and a Nobel-hungry U.S. president made the Palestinian Authority an incredibly generous and dangerous offer: dividing Jerusalem, handing over almost all of the West Bank, and even partially establishing a "right of return" for some Palestinians who fled an Arab invasion of the new Jewish state a half-century ago.


“Thanks to worldwide disgust at Arafat's all-or-nothing demand and his refusal to stop the killing of innocents on school buses...

Safire’s article also praises the security fence ruled illegal by the ICC; translates Tony Blair’s request to President Bush to work on solving the problem of this conflict as though Blair proposes it will end all the fundamental Islam violence in the world and, as seen above, assumes the right of return is a fictionalised concept. This is one of only two editorials by columnists in the New York Times on Arafat’s death, and it places all the blame for the Israel/Palestine conflict on Arafat and the Palestinians.

The other is by Thomas Friedman. It includes such quotes as:

It is a sad but fitting coda to Yasir Arafat's career that the prospect of his death seemed to unlock more hope and possibilities than the reality of his life.

His corrupt, self-interested rule had created a situation whereby Palestinian aspirations seemed to have gotten locked away with him, under house arrest in Ramallah, well beyond the reach of creative diplomacy.


He was a bad man, not simply for the way he introduced a whole new level of terrorism to world politics, but because of the crimes he committed against his own people. There, history will judge him very harshly.


His obsession was with Palestinian "land," not Palestinian "life." Google the words "Yasir Arafat and martyrdom and jihad," and the matches go on for pages.


The fact that he didn't was not a mistake in judgment but an expression of character. For him, it was better to die in Paris, and have two generations of Palestinians die in exile, than be the Arab leader who officially and unambiguously agreed to share Jerusalem with the Jews. I can understand why stateless Palestinians would revere Arafat for the way he put their cause on the world map - but that became an end for him rather than a means, which is why his historical impact will be as lasting as a footprint in the desert.

This is the other, and as you can see Friedman is distraught by Arafat’s death.

We’ll try one more paper. The L.A. Times has been called liberal many times. On November 11th they had an editorial on Arafat’s death entitled, “A Second Chance in the MidEast.”

But Yasser Arafat's death offers Palestinians the historic opportunity to obtain a state of their own. They aren't likely to get as much as they would have under a deal Arafat foolishly rejected four years ago, but at least a people whose territory has been occupied by Israel for the last 37 years will get a chance to live in peace and freedom on their own land.


The president should publicly support elections and push Sharon to help clear the ground for the balloting. Israel and the U.S. say they want a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state. With Arafat gone, the chance presents itself again.

Another article that mentions Arafat as the defining roadblock to peace in the MidEast, which, along with terrorist, seems to have become a theme. This one, like so many others, doesn’t even mention the fact he brought publicity to the Palestinian cause or tried to unite the people into one cogent voice.

Let’s see what else the Times offers.

One article is entitled “Palestinians Need a Gandhi, Not a New Arafat.” Obviously, this article advocates Palestinians using non-violence to resist the Israeli occupation. While this article doesn’t comment on Arafat, per se, the implications that he was responsible for the violence and that the violence is wrong, is clear.

Max Boot comments in, “How Arafat Got Away With It"

It is considered bad form to speak ill of the dead, but I will make an exception for Yasser Arafat, the pathetic embodiment of all that went wrong in the Third World after the demise of the European empires.


Arafat benefited from this deference ever since taking over the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1969. He and his cronies pocketed billions of dollars and kept their grip on power through the cruel application of violence against various enemies and "collaborators." In return, Arafat reaped worldwide adulation and a Nobel Peace Prize.


If Arafat had displayed the wisdom of a Gandhi or Mandela, he would long ago have presided over the establishment of a fully independent Palestine comprising all of the Gaza Strip, part of Jerusalem and at least 95% of the West Bank.


His refusal to compromise, his unwillingness to give up the way of the gun consigned his people to economic and moral suicide. The current intifada, launched in September 2000 after Arafat turned down a generous peace offer from the Israelis at Camp David, has claimed three times as many Palestinian as Israeli victims.


And let us not forget his fan club among the Western intelligentsia, many of whom even now weep for his passing as if he were a great man instead of a criminal with a cause.


Now that Arafat has gone to the great compound in the sky, there will be pressure on Bush to resume the pointless "peace process," but it will be premature to do so as long as the terrorist kleptocracy spawned by Arafat continues to exist.

The second-last column written on the day of, or since Arafat’s death is by Martin Peretz. Another love-in with Arafat, it reads:

The rais — or chief, as Arafat was known — was a cruel, conniving and utterly corrupt man. Yet despite all the multiple murders he had planned and paid for, including the deaths of U.S. diplomats as well as thousands of noncombatant Israelis, President Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided at the end of the year 2000 to offer him a Palestinian state the likes of which no Israeli government will agree to ever again. (For what it's worth, I opposed those offers as perils to Jewish life.) But there was no one in the Palestinian polity to force his hand to accept them. Arafat was, in fact, a tyrant, much like his hero Saddam Hussein.


What he did achieve over the course of three decades was to keep the Palestine problem at the center of the world arena. But he sorely confused, as many Palestinian intellectuals also do, an endless array of anti-Israeli resolutions in the U.N. General Assembly and the Human Rights Commission with the real, meaningful, reasonable steps required to create a viable home for his people.


An independent Palestine will eventually emerge, too. But thanks in part to the leadership of Yasser Arafat from 1969 until today, its press will be intimidated. Its courts will not be independent. Its schools and universities will be centers of ugly racist and anti-Jewish doctrine. Its sciences will not be curious. Law will be determined by which faction is most cruel. Women will suffer the historical onus of their gender in Islam. Gays will try to escape to Israel. Its economy will be crippled because Israel will be wary of allowing Palestinians to come in and work. A fitting tribute to Yasser Arafat, his legacy to the Palestinians.

Here, finally, is an opinion piece written by Robert Malley. I’ve never heard of him before, but Robert Malley was President Clinton’s special advisor for Arab-Israeli affairs, and was involved with the Camp David negotiations. Interestingly, he offers the only editorial in an American paper I’ve read that seems to be even moderately praising Arafat.

It took Yasser Arafat many years to persuade his fellow Palestinians of the wisdom of the two-state solution, and it took longer still to convince Americans and Israelis of the genuineness of his views.


Those talks failed, and in the aftermath a myth was born that has had a lasting and devastating effect: that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made the most generous offer possible, but that Arafat summarily turned it down. He did so, the story goes, because he never really believed in the Jewish state's right to exist in the first place and because he had never really hoped to reach a just, comprehensive and lasting peace with Israel.


I was a member of the U.S. delegation at those talks and have never concealed my frustration with the Palestinians' attitude. Divided, they spent more time backstabbing each other than seeking a deal. Suspicious, they were quick to see potential loopholes and slow to recognize possible leads. Passive, they failed to put forward their own ideas, leaving it to others to present proposals they could then conveniently turn down. In all this, Arafat played his customary role — sitting back, standing still, staying mum.


First, the question is not whether Arafat was up to the occasion — clearly, he was not — but whether his attitude reflected an inherent inability or unwillingness to end the conflict. As many Israeli and U.S. participants in the talks now acknowledge, numerous alternative explanations help account for his behavior: utter distrust of Barak, whom he saw as having humiliated and ignored the Palestinians and who he believed violated commitments; a rushed timetable oblivious to Palestinian political constraints; concern about domestic opposition at the popular level and divisions within the elite; and the absence of support from Arab countries for a deal. Arafat, as anyone who dealt with him knows well, moved only when compelled, preferring the ambiguity of deferral to the clarity of choice. At Camp David he had every reason to postpone and, as he saw it, little incentive to decide.

Second, although Camp David undoubtedly was a breakthrough, and although Israel was prepared to concede far more than in the past, the deal nevertheless didn't meet the minimum requirements of any Palestinian leader. Washington now welcomes the new leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Korei, but it is worth bearing in mind that neither could have embraced the Camp David ideas — and neither did.

A third oft-neglected point about Camp David is that the Palestinian positions, though clearly inconsistent with Israel's, nonetheless were compatible with the existence of a Jewish state: a Palestinian state based on the lines of June 4, 1967; Israeli annexation of limited West Bank territory to accommodate settlement blocs in exchange for the transfer of an equivalent amount of land from Israel proper; Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and over its holy sites; and implementation of the refugees' right of return in a manner designed to protect Israel's demographic interests. Those stances probably went beyond what the Israeli people could accept. But why is that any more relevant than whether Barak's stances went beyond what the Palestinian people could stomach?

Malley goes onto speculate why Arafat also turned down the Clinton parameters of December, 2000.

Arafat, ever the short-term tactician and with his finger invariably fastened to the public pulse, wanted neither to reject the deal nor embrace it, basking in his reinvigorated popular status and unsure whether he could swiftly turn his people's mood from anger at Israel to peace with it.


Whoever succeeds him will lack his legitimacy, and any future peace agreement inevitably will be measured against what, in his people's eyes, would have been his stance. Arafat was a man who resorted to violence and tragically missed several opportunities. But he also was the first Palestinian leader to embrace the two-state solution and recognize
Israel's right to exist. If we wrongly choose to depict Arafat as the man who could only say no, his successors will find it virtually impossible ever to say yes.

Interestingly, the only commentator who was involved with the Camp David talks is the least critical of Arafat. Some might argue this is indicative of how the Clinton administration was too generous to the Palestinians or how they were biased against Israel, or something. However, I think it’s telling that someone involved in the negotiations criticises Arafat for being slow to act, violent and in many ways a poor leader, but he defends how he turned down Camp David and says Arafat was willing to recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Now, I’m not saying that anything written in the numerous articles above is necessarily wrong. However, the “left-wing” element that defends Arafat hardly seems to exist to me. Or maybe they do, but you’d have to read the Omaha Times to find them. I thought the mainstream media were supposed to be part of the “leftist intelligentsia?” Maybe everybody around the world views Arafat like the Palestinian in the Globe does. In that case where are the “leftist intellectual elites” Wente writes about? And if not, why have they have been shut out of commenting on Arafat’s death?

And another thing, most articles talk about how Arafat turned into the voice of his people for the past half-century or so. Might it not be a good idea to get some Palestinians to comment on the man who had become their leader for so long? One would think that would lend a more authentic voice to those commenting on Arafat’s reign, rather than having a bunch of old, white men in their New York City offices deciding how to interpret his legacy.


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