How to Remember Arafat

Two, three, or four young Palestinians are killed by Israeli forces every day now (we call it “restraint”), but none of them could win even a fraction of the attention given to Yasser Arafat, the dying old leader. The endless stream of words occasioned by Arafat’s long dying and death is a good opportunity to ask who and what Arafat is for the Israelis, and how he is to be remembered.

The Right-Wing Story

For official Israel, Arafat is terrorism incarnate. His terrorism is inherent, eternal, immutable. His purported death is shamelessly celebrated, even prematurely, in the barbarian manner condemned by the biblical verse “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth” (Prov. 24:17). Days before his death, Jews were reported dancing in Jerusalem (remember the Arabs reported dancing in the streets after Sept. 11?). Yediot Achronot‘s front page celebrated (Nov. 5): “THAT’S THE END … The person responsible for the murder of thousands of Israelis won’t stand on his feet ever again … Arafat is finished … Special coverage: the last moments of Terrorist No. 1.” The pseudo-liberal Minister of Justice Yosef Lapid expressed happiness at the death (Nov. 11) of “the father of international terrorism," not unlike the fascist leader Affe Eitam, who defined Arafat as “flesh and blood which is entirely pure evil."

The demonization of Arafat is part and parcel of the dehumanization of the Palestinians as a whole. While PM Menachem Begin, in order not to say the Palestinian leader’s name, dismissed him as “the man with the hairs on his face," other Israelis prefer the outright term “a bipedal animal."

This dominant image is Israel’s right-wing narrative. The Palestinians are all reduced to one person, who is reduced in turn to a murderous beast, to help Israeli soldiers, settlers, politicians and other citizens (since none of us is really free of the occupation) clear our consciences in the course of our own bestialization. The narrative was shaped and promoted by Israel’s professional killers: right-wing army generals/politicians like PM Sharon or his twin/predecessor Barak. (By the way, how ironic are recent Israeli intelligence reports welcoming the expected shift “from uniforms to suits” in the Palestinian Authority? Shall we ever see a similar shift in the Israeli leadership?) Barak’s greatest achievement was to turn the right-wing image of Arafat into the official and hegemonic Israeli (and American) narrative since the year 2000.

The Left-Wing Story

It had not always been this way. During the 1990s – the Oslo years – the Israeli Left tried to promote a different image of Arafat: that of the bitter foe who became a reconciled friend. A most popular analogy at the time was that of Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from jail to become new South Africa’s first president. This narrative reached a peak when Rabin, Peres, and Arafat together won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1994.

“From foe to friend” could be seen as a variation on the narrative framework of “conversion," which plays a major role in Israeli political theology. Every Israeli would tell you that in 1993, “PM Rabin changed his heart" from a hardline warrior to a peacemaker. Similarly, and with as little evidence in both cases, Israelis today are quite convinced of Sharon’s “reincarnation." But this complete and irreversible “change of heart” is reserved to Israeli leaders only. Neither Arafat nor any other Arab leader (Sadat, Hussein senior of Jordan) ever enjoyed such unconditional trust. No matter how many settlements Sharon actually evacuates (zero), no matter how many innocent Palestinians his army kills, he always remains “the new Sharon, man of peace." But when an Arab leader is at stake, the alleged “conversion” always leaves room for suspicions of disguise, tricks, leaps, and other inconsistencies. No matter how many experts say there is no evidence for direct involvement of Arafat in terrorism since 1993, it was a piece of cake to portray him as falling back to “the old Arafat, a terrorist." Only Jews, apparently, convert wholeheartedly.

Besides, the framework of “conversion” is obviously idiotic. Only in fairy tales and hagiography do leaders change their hearts from one day to the other for no reason. The “conversion” thesis ignores the actual motivation for change, if there was any change. This superstitious superficiality is yet another reason why the Israeli Left could so easily, virtually from one day to the next, be persuaded by Barak’s legends about “tearing off Arafat’s mask” and “exposing his true face." It was shocking indeed to see how the devoted Israeli supporters of the Oslo process – political activists, columnists, intellectuals, all those who had voted Barak “to save the Oslo peace process” – kept supporting Barak after he intentionally dissolved the Oslo process into a bloody Intifada, how easily they could all be persuaded that “old Arafat, the terrorist” replaced “new Arafat, the partner for peace." In other words, in 2000 the Israeli Left capitulated unconditionally and adopted the right-wing narrative about Arafat.

Gush Shalom’s Story

One opposition to this right-wing narrative survived the total capitulation of the Left: the version of Gush Shalom, a small but very active fraction on the dovish edge of the Israeli peace camp. Gush Shalom – known for its charismatic leader Uri Avnery – escaped Barak’s trap of turning Arafat from partner to terrorist, but not the trap of reducing the entire Palestinian people to Arafat alone. Gush Shalom therefore consistently turned a blind eye on Arafat’s political and financial corruption and authoritarianism; criticizing the Palestinian leader is a taboo.

New Arafat Needed

Now that Arafat has reached his biological end, what the Israeli peace camp desperately needs is a new narrative about him. All three narratives mentioned above are inadequate as a basis for a vision of peace: the right-wing hate narrative for obvious reasons, the left-wing “conversion” fairy tale is superficial and inadequate, and Gush Shalom’s heroism narrative is so blind-spotted that even many Palestinians reject it.

The new narrative should explain what happened to Arafat in 1993 not in terms of conversion, but in term of interests. It should take into account the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left the Palestinian National Movement without its strongest political and financial supporter. Arafat was bankrupt, exiled in Tunis with no money and with growing opposition at home. The illusory hope in Saddam Hussein too came to an abrupt end in 1991. After that Gulf War, pulled to the negotiation table by President Bush senior, Israel identified Arafat’s weakness and successfully exploited it. The Palestinian leader, knowingly or not (it doesn’t really matter), was lured to become Israel’s subcontractor. He was allowed to return home as a hero, his aides (now successors) were given economic privileges that made them rich and dependent on the new system, and the “Palestinian Authority” was given marginal, insignificant and (as we now know) easily reversible tokens of sovereignty, and at the same time relieved Israel of the cost of the occupation in terms of health, education, infrastructure, and welfare services. In return, Arafat was supposed to replace the Israeli army by granting security for the Israeli settlements, none of which was to be evacuated “in the interim phase” (which was extended indefinitely).

This narrative portrays Arafat neither as a subhuman villain nor as a superhuman hero, but as a leader overwhelmed by the forces of history, who chose to save his skin by striking a deal with his enemy and sacrificing his people’s interests. His double-talk, corruption, and tyranny are immediate derivatives of that.

Further elaboration is needed to extend this story to the other end of the Oslo process, to explain why Barak’s Israel was so eager to put a violent end to a system that served its interests so well (in 1996-1999 Israel saw economic prosperity, the settlements were expanded massively, and there was almost no Palestinian terrorism), and why Arafat was ready to risk his chair (and life) by stopping the collaboration with Israel, thus regaining among the Palestinians much of the popularity he had lost earlier by arresting activists according to Israeli orders and blacklists.

Without a new story along these lines, there is no chance for the Israeli left wing to recover from its capitulation to the right-wing hate narrative promoted by former PM Ehud Barak, a narrative that assures generations of hostility.

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at