|Professor Sayigh's article, Arafat and the Anatomy of a Revolt, has come out in IISS's Survival magazine. IMO it's the most compelling explanation of how the current mess came to be -- Arafat hoped to get himself out of a sticky position in the negotiations by fanning a small crisis into a big one, and the fire got out of hand.|
It's particularly interesting to compare this article to Arafat's War, by Charles Krauthammer, in this week's The Weekly Standard (http://www.theweeklystandard.com). The two articles are quite close in their assesments of what happened, but completely opposite in why it happened. Krauthammer believes that Arafat is executing a master strategy while Sayigh believes that Arafat is in this mess because he never had a strategy, only tactics.
For my money, Sayigh is closer to the mark. What do you think?
Arafat and the Anatomy of a Revolt
by Yezid Sayigh
In October 2000, at the onset of the latest intifada, key political and security officials on both the Palestinian and the Israeli side still considered an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to be politically realisable. Some of the substance of a mutually acceptable deal finally emerged at the bilateral talks held in the Red Sea resort of Taba in late January 2001, but by then it was too late to alter the course of events. Although the basic political parameters of the Palestinian-Israeli relationship have not changed, new political dynamics on both sides make it virtually impossible to arrive at a durable diplomatic solution in the medium term, say two to four years. It is highly unlikely that a Palestinian state will emerge in this time-frame. The present situation of low-intensity conflict will almost certainly persist for the rest of 2001, and in all likelihood for at least another year beyond that.
The combination of physical and human attrition locally and of forceful diplomatic intervention by the principal outside parties might eventually prove sufficient to shift political attitudes and bring about acceptance of terms leading to a genuinely equitable and durable peace. The alternative is a ‘balkanisation’ of the conflict, as social civility and rule of law on both sides of the ‘Green Line’ give way to ethno-nationalist confrontation between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and to a deepening divide over the political status and legal entitlements of Arab citizens in Israel.1
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat bears much of the responsibility for this precarious state of affairs, though not for the reasons cited by official Israeli sources. Contrary to the Israeli account, his behaviour since the start of the intifada has reflected not the existence of a prior strategy based on the use of force, but the absence of any strategy.2 His political management has been marked by a high degree of improvisation and short-termism, confirming the absence of an original strategy and of a clear purpose, whether preconceived or otherwise. There has also been minimal Palestinian understanding of how particular modes of political and military behaviour might lead to specific end-results, whether tactical or strategic, reflecting untested and confused assumptions about their impact on the intended Israeli target.
The result has been counter-productive in the short term, causing as much damage as benefit to the PA’s standing in international public and government opinion, and seriously detrimental in the medium-term to the Palestinian national objective of securing a peace deal on terms more conducive to achieving territorial integrity and meaningful sovereignty than the Israeli proposals presented by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the Camp David summit of July 2000. Whatever the material contribution of successive Israeli governments to the collapse of the Oslo framework or Israel’s moral and legal responsibility for its own behaviour since autumn 2000, Arafat is guilty of strategic misjudgement, with consequences for the Palestinians of potentially historic proportions.3
The making of Arafat’s strategic dilemma
Israel has sought to portray the outbreak of Palestinian protests following Sharon’s visit to Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount as deliberately engineered by the PA, and subsequent Palestinian use of firearms as pre-planned. According to a view held by certain senior figures in the Israeli military and intelligence establishment, Arafat had taken a strategic decision as far back as Barak’s election in mid-1999, to initiate hostilities with Israel regardless of the expected resumption and final outcome of the permanent status peace talks. In short, the analysis goes, he was both unable emotionally to bring himself to sign a final peace treaty with Israel and determined, for domestic political reasons, to wrest Palestinian independence by a ‘war of liberation’ rather than win it through negotiation.4
Machiavellian calculations and political use of violence are certainly not beyond Arafat, and his management of events since autumn 2000 is replete with concrete (and often self-defeating) examples. In attributing premeditation to Arafat, however, the teleological nature of the Israeli argument renders the collapse of the peace process inevitable and unavoidable, thus absolving Israeli policies and side-stepping Palestinian objections to Israeli proposals at the Camp David summit.
What is entirely misunderstood or overlooked in this and similar Israeli accounts is both the reality of the strategic dilemma Arafat faced on the eve of the intifada and the extent to which his subsequent behaviour reflected his instinctive attempt to escape that dilemma. In the wake of Camp David, negotiation was still the only option he was actively pursuing, but his bargaining position was weakened, and in the absence of US support he clearly lacked the means to bring effective pressure to bear on Barak to deliver more favourable terms. He authorised substantive follow-on negotiations at senior level in mid-September, but the continued unravelling of Barak’s governing coalition and approach of US presidential elections threatened to deprive him imminently of two interlocutors upon whom his diplomatic strategy depended heavily. Rather than threaten this strategy, the spontaneous civilian protests sparked by Sharon’s visit on 28 September and the killing by Israeli police of unarmed protestors on Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount the following day provided Arafat with an escape from his predicament.
The Making of a Crisis
The start of the intifada allowed Arafat to employ a familiar tactic, honed throughout his long political career, of al-huroub ila al-amam (‘escape by running forwards’). Neither an initiator nor a planner, he has instead seized upon the fortuitous eruption of a major crisis or other dramatic event brought about by external agency to obscure and escape a strategic predicament, and then sought to intensify and prolong that event as a means of gaining ‘crisis dominance’ and ultimately of inducing an outcome to his advantage. Examples include the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) civil war in 1983, which allowed him to re-launch his diplomatic cooperation with Jordan (and tacitly Egypt); the ‘camps war’ with the Lebanese Shi`i Amal militia in 1985–88, which enabled him to isolate PLO factions loyal to Syria and regain acceptance by the main PLO factions of his leadership (and effectively of his diplomacy); the intifada of 1987–88, which brought the PLO back to prominence and secured a formal dialogue with the US; and on a lesser scale, the clashes with Israeli troops provoked by the September 1996 Hasmonean tunnel incident, which created the political conditions that compelled then-Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to transfer the bulk of Hebron to PA security control four months later.
The eruption of the intifada of autumn 2000 offered Arafat a similar opportunity. The killing of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, including children, by Israeli fire appeared instantly both to restore his international standing, energise vociferous Arab support and reverse the political tables on Barak. Arafat’s instinctive reaction was to maintain this advantage, which in a crude sense required a daily death toll. This does not mean that he ordered the initial Palestinian use of firearms against Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza, about three days into the intifada; but it means that once a few local Fatah activists in some cities under PA control had taken this initiative, he needed do no more than denote tacit assent to continued use of firearms, by refraining from issuing internal orders to cease fire. An implicit ‘green light’ was signalled by Arafat’s choice to leave the country at this critical moment – in order to attend events as pressing as a public rally in Tunisia and a seminar in Spain – making him conveniently unavailable to take command responsibility for the situation, while leaving Barak to ‘stew’.
By reconstructing the situation as a crisis, Arafat sought to mobilise outside parties, both regional and international, and involve them in an effort to head off the threat to the peace process and regional stability. However, in doing so he made a series of misjudgements. An early instance was the inflated Palestinian reading of the initial response of the Arab and Islamic worlds to the intifada. The threat to convene summit meetings of the League of Arab States and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference provided Arafat with an effective political tool, but its value dwindled once these organisations manifested their reluctance to offer much more than rhetorical support in light of the risks of a wider military or diplomatic confrontation with Israel or the US.
More seriously, Arafat over-estimated the extent to which the intifada had actually altered the strategic political balance. In turn, he miscalculated the scope and scale of concessions that could be wrung from Barak. He was also excessively optimistic about Barak’s ability to stay in office at all. Clinton’s proposal on 28 December came far closer to meeting the Palestinian demands with respect to Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Palestinian refugees’ right of return to Israel, but Arafat refused to engage, presumably hoping to win better terms from Barak. By then this was clearly not forthcoming, yet first-hand anecdotal evidence suggests that Arafat still believed he could ‘lever’ Barak as late as end January 2001. His abrupt volte-face with Israeli general elections not a week away, warning Israeli Jewish voters that Sharon would only bring war and urging Israeli Arab voters to set aside their bitterness towards Barak and ‘save peace’ by voting for him, suggests a sudden and rude awakening to political reality.
The fact that Arafat had to keep changing his operative assumptions led to shifting tactical objectives as the crisis wore on. Whereas finding a safe political exit was uppermost in his mind in late autumn 2000, this was replaced after the election of Sharon and inauguration of President George W. Bush by the single-minded striving to obtain explicit renewal of Israeli and – even more importantly, given his perception of American hegemonic influence – US recognition of his exclusive status as Palestinian leader and interlocutor.
The same paradox explains Arafat’s handling of diplomatic efforts to end the crisis, most notably the Sharm el-Sheikh summit of mid-October 2000 and the publication in late April 2001 of the report of The Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee headed by former US Senator George Mitchell. In the former instance, Arafat’s call for international fact-finding and observer missions appears to have been intended essentially to deflect external pressure to end Palestinian use of firearms and thus relinquish the advantages seemingly offered by continuation of the intifada. Similar reasoning probably lay behind his failure to capitalise on the Fact-Finding Committee’s call for a complete freeze on all Israeli settlement activity and renewal of EU language regarding the settlements as illegal under international law. He preferred instead to renew the demand for international observers, through which he could hope to implicate outside powers more intimately in the crisis.
Israeli policies have worked to Arafat’s advantage in certain respects, and in others fuelled his threat perceptions in ways that only prolonged the crisis. The attempt to employ coercive diplomacy to compel Arafat to restore the status quo ante with regard to security conditions is a case in point. Barak’s immediate use of lethal fire against unarmed demonstrators at the start of the intifada is a case in point, having been decided as a matter of policy following similar clashes the previous May. Though clearly intended to signal both resolve and restraint, Israel’s strict retaliatory policy failed to ensure ‘escalation dominance’ because it played into Arafat’s purpose to incur casualties and intensify the crisis, thus solidifying his domestic backing on the one hand and raising the profile of outside diplomatic intervention on the other.5
Recognition of this perverse consequence no doubt deterred the generally hawkish Sharon from ordering the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to re-occupy PA-controlled cities, even after the horrific Hamas suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv disco in early June 2001. Demonstrative or temporary reoccupation would only lead to an escalatory spiral with little end-reward, so long as Arafat and the PA were not wholly eliminated as actors.6
A related, if distinct factor has been the Israeli effort domestically and internationally to discredit Arafat personally as a valid negotiating partner and interlocutor. For instance, intelligence leaks to the media about his purported preparation of refuges to flee to in Iraq and Libya, converged with statements about his supposed congenital inability to close a permanent status peace deal with Israel. This has only reinforced his belief in the importance of securing an explicit statement or public demonstration renewing Israeli and US recognition of his symbolic status and practical role as political counterpart. Hence his insistence since the election of Sharon and inauguration of Bush on reconvening the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, and his anger towards his own deputy, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), for seemingly unblocking the impasse by visiting Washington DC in May 2001.
One of the more fanciful, and misleading, Israeli narratives emanating from military and intelligence sources has attributed a ‘Saladin Syndrome’ to Arafat, who supposedly dreams of entering Arab East Jerusalem as a conqueror, riding a wave of intifada violence. This imagery has more to do with the Orientalist imaginings of its propagators than with the historical analogy really driving much of the PA president’s behaviour: the fate of the Palestinian nationalist leader of the mandate period, mufti Amin Huseini, who in 1939 rejected the British White Paper offering full Arab sovereignty over the entire country after 10 years (in return for limited Jewish immigration for the first 5), and was permanently exiled by the British following the collapse of the Arab Revolt of 1936–39. Huseini was blamed by his own people for the catastrophic defeat of 1948 and died a lonely death many years later. Ironically, Arafat’s determination to avoid the fate of Huseini by striking a historic deal with Israel is at risk of being neutralised by a similar fear of being outflanked by militant ‘field’ activists.
Anatomy of a dysfunctional revolt
Arafat has come to rely on the political advice of a small circle of senior PA officials of varying competence, almost all ‘returnees’ from Tunisian exile. Most influential are his personal aides and ‘gate-keepers’, who control access to the president not only of persons (including the previous circle), but also of information, which is heavily filtered. This has had contradictory effects: on the one hand, PA ministers and senior officials with access to the president practice the art of ‘Arafat-watching’, inferring political direction from his demeanour and tone and escalating or moderating the rhetoric of their own public statements accordingly; on the other hand, they express increasingly bitter frustration and disdain in private for his leadership style and policy decisions.
Arafat has the merit of being genuinely elected to public office as PA president, but his loss of direct contact with the PLO rank-and-file and ordinary Palestinian people has weakened the charismatic element of his leadership in a way that distribution of patronage from his office has not compensated, especially as the cumulative effect of his management style has been to de-institutionalise Palestinian national politics.
This has had a direct bearing on the course of the intifada. Not least is the clear disregard of his leadership for one of the most fundamental causes of the two intifadas of 1987 and 2000: Israeli settlement activity. Not only was this issue lightly skated over during negotiation of the various Oslo framework agreements, but for six years the PA left this, one of the most pressing threats to the national patrimony it sought to establish through statehood, wholly to the meagre resources of a parliamentary committee and a handful of local NGOs. Crudely put, the settlements were ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for Arafat.
Similarly, the PA failed heavily to prepare for the contest with Israel it always knew would come, to assert its claim to East Jerusalem. Rather than invest time and resources in mobilising and organising the city’s Palestinian inhabitants for an eventual campaign of peaceful protest or civilian disobedience, Arafat chose instead to undermine their best-known figure, Faisal Huseini, who strove to provide a modicum of leadership and modest institution-building until his death from natural causes in June 2001. True to style, the PA president has since tied management of the Jerusalem ‘file’ directly to himself, thus ensuring that this powerful symbolic resource cannot be used by any other to build competing legitimacy. In both the settlements and the Jerusalem ‘files’, the structure of political and bureaucratic dynamics within the PA limited the incentive and opportunity for other players (including the secular and Islamist opposition) to make these genuine and unflagging priorities.7
During the intifada, the counter-productive resort to firearms by Fatah, the principal Palestinian nationalist organisation headed by Arafat, has been as much a reflection of dysfunctional trends in Palestinian political organisation as of anger towards Israel.8 It is a far cry from the operations of Lebanese Hizbollah, which managed its own military campaign against Israel with precise political direction, disciplined implementation, organisational coherence and close integration with civilian and media activities. The political purpose is clearly different in the Palestinian case: here military means serve Arafat’s aim of ‘crisis maintenance’ and arm-twisting, rather than being intended literally to drive out the Israelis, something that local activists understand and that reduces their incentive to resolve the contradictions and dysfunctionalities in their own actions.
The use of military force has moreover reflected implicit tensions and rivalries between key players within Fatah and the PA, particularly in the West Bank. A complex relationship obtains there between Arafat, Fatah’s most-televised cadre Marwan Barghouthi, Barghouthi’s rivals within Fatah, and PA security agencies, most notably Preventive Security headed by Jibril Rajoub and, to a lesser extent, General Intelligence headed by Tawfik Tirawi. An additional dimension is the role of activists of refugee background, whose longstanding social, economic and political marginality was compounded by the minimal change in their status that large-scale membership in Fatah and PA security agencies since 1994 had granted them. In addition, the glory of martyrdom is attractive to youths with few other prospects.
These internal dynamics help explain the often chaotic and counter-productive nature of Palestinian military activity. The PA has achieved greater control over firing from areas under its exclusive security control since April 2001. But uncoordinated, ‘freelance’ attacks launched haphazardly from built-up areas or around facilities and crossing points of vital economic interest to the Palestinians themselves, coupled with the tendency of senior PA officials and local media to exaggerate the scope and scale of Israeli military action, had previously scored several ‘own goals’. The result was to: raise threat perceptions and heighten insecurity among the civilian population and even among PA and security personnel; draw Israeli return fire and thus contribute to a civilian exodus from emerging front-line areas; provide justifications for Israeli closure of passage points for travellers and goods between the dispersed enclaves of PA control; and undermine international sympathy for the Palestinian position. Similarly, Fatah’s attempt since April 2001 to match military means to political ends, by concentrating its attacks on Israeli settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza, has been offset by its unwillingness to oppose Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s tactic of bombing ordinary civilian targets inside Israel proper.
The most serious leadership failing has arguably been the absence of any sustained effort to deliver a specific political message to the Israeli government, parliamentary parties and voting public. Without clear enunciation of concrete Palestinian demands, Israeli audiences have been unable to calculate the comparative costs and benefits of pursuing one course of action or another towards the Palestinians (in contrast to the experience with Hizbollah). Their fallback has been to assume the worst about Palestinian intentions, leading the Israeli domestic political field to the ‘default’ position of the nationalist right, which sees an opportunity to roll back the Oslo framework and even remove its main consequence, the establishment of the PA as a self-governing political institution. A Palestinian strategy combining diplomatic and military means with clear strategic aims, effective leadership and some sense of political end-state would still have entailed high risks, but in its absence the resort to violence has had a hugely negative impact on Israeli perceptions. Not only have attitudes across the Israeli political spectrum hardened towards the substantive terms of peace with the Palestinians, especially regarding the return of even token numbers of refugees, but in a polarised climate the political rights and very presence of the country’s own Israeli-Arab citizens are being called into question.
The other side of the coin is the Palestinian leadership’s failure to address its own constituency. Arafat has yet to state the strategic and tactical aims of the intifada directly to his people, or even to the PA and Fatah rank-and-file. Indeed, this is consistent with the PA leadership’s reluctance throughout the negotiations (up to, and including the Camp David and Taba peace talks), to engage in debate, whether publicly or even internally, about the substance of what would constitute an acceptable deal. The close-lipped manner in which Arafat led the process and the discrepancy of substantive views relayed by different members of the senior negotiating echelon gave a distinct impression of embarrassment and left the Palestinian public unprepared for necessary compromises and trade-offs, even when the balance of evidence suggests that the public correctly anticipated these and was willing to entertain them, if properly approached and as part of a package deal.9
The PA leadership’s incapacity to enunciate clear (and realisable) goals has in turn led to palpable ambivalence among various Palestinian audiences towards the violent means and ultimate outcome of the intifada. Frustration with Israeli policies and resolution not to submit to coercion appear only to have deepened as poverty and daily humiliation at Israeli checkpoints have intensified, and as the general public has gradually grown accustomed to the escalating military tactics and weaponry deployed by the IDF. But there is an equally clear desire for an end to the conflict and mixed feelings about the PA’s performance. Dissent, which with a few exceptions has remained informal and private, has focused on correcting the above litany of flaws in the interest of attaining national objectives at future negotiations with Israel and of achieving internal reforms in governance and leadership.10 But Arafat’s resistance severely inhibits the PA’s ability to take the initiative and steer a new direction towards more constructive and ultimately rewarding forms of negotiation (or, if necessary, confrontation) with Israel.