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profiles Wednesday, 29 November, 2000, 15:18 GMT
Arafat: Flawed symbol of Palestine
Arafat: Asset and liability for the Palestinian cause
By Gerald Butt

For decades Yasser Arafat has been the unchallenged leader of the Palestinian people; and with his instantly recognisable appearance he is the symbol of their struggle for statehood.

rabin and arafat shake hands
High hopes: Historic handshake with Yitzhak Rabin
Mr Arafat has carried on his shoulders the burden of that struggle. But his pathological refusal to share power or delegate responsibility has taken a toll on his health and is weakening popular support.

Arafat is, without question, the Palestinians' greatest asset. But when the peace process failed to live up to expectations, more and more Palestinians lost patience with his mercurial and dictatorial style of leadership.

Mythmaker

From his earliest days, Arafat has indulged in exaggeration and the weaving of myths about his life, insisting, for example, that he was born in Jerusalem even though his birth, in 1929, is clearly recorded in Egypt.

As a young man he was, according to one biographer, "a natural publicist" and a workaholic. At the same time, he developed an obsessive desire to be leader of the pack and to get his way. The end always justified the means.

In Beirut in 1982
As early as 1959, as Palestinian exiles in Kuwait were forming Fatah, later to be the biggest group within the PLO, Arafat was only playing lip service to the idea of collective leadership.

Two years later his contemporaries noticed how he "exercised total control over the Fatah war chest and how he bribed people to join him".

But to his credit, he did more than anyone else to put the Palestinians' cause on the world agenda. Arab regimes were clearly not prepared to act to help the Palestinians.

Military campaign

Led by Arafat, the PLO took up arms themselves, hijacking airliners and committing other acts of violence.

As a military leader, Arafat often led the way into action against the Israelis. When backs were against the wall, when he took on Israel at Karameh in 1968, or Jordan in September 1970 or under siege in Beirut in 1982, Arafat never lacked for personal courage.

Return to Gaza after more than 20 years exile
His goal has always been independence for the Palestinians, with himself as president.

To these ends he has used threats and intimidation as to ensure that he alone should hold the reins of power. And thus it is today in the Palestinian territories.

Errors of judgement

But Arafat made one critical mistake for which he is paying dearly. By supporting Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, he lost vital funding from the Gulf oil states. When Iraq lost the Gulf war, the PLO found itself penniless and friendless.

Arafat had no choice but to make peace with Israel from a position of weakness. But very soon he had played all his cards, leaving such fundamental issues as Jewish settlements and the future of Jerusalem undecided.

Exactly how weak the Palestinian position was became clear when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli student opposed to handing over West Bank land to the Palestinians for peace.

Prime Minister Netanyahu: Arafat's Nemesis
The right-wing Likud bloc came to power in elections the following year determined to "lower the expectations" of the Palestinians. There was little Arafat could do but accept whatever he was offered.

It is possible, therefore, that Arafat will die before achieving his life-long goals. If so, he will die a broken man, and his flawed personality will be in large part to blame.

Arafat is a brilliant leader but a hopeless organiser and negotiator. When the peace process began, he refused to delegate, fearing that a successful negotiator could represent a threat to his leadership.

Gerald Butt is senior editor of Middle East Economic Survey (MEES)


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