In a Ruined Country

How Yasir Arafat destroyed Palestine

The predominant note in the old guard's reminiscences of their leader is nostalgia for the sense of the historical centrality of the Palestinian national struggle that Arafat provided, which was as addictive to his followers as any drug. Arafat's longtime foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, was thirteen years old when he first heard the young Arafat asking his father for donations to help Palestinian refugees in Cairo and Alexandria. Even then, he says, he recognized the future president of Palestine. As a guerrilla leader in the sixties and seventies, Arafat led his fighters in battle; he gave them the noms de guerre that they would carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Bereft of the man that many of them regarded as their father, Arafat's companions still live by their dead leader's schedule, staying up late at night like aging bohemians. At Fatah headquarters in Ramallah, which I visit several nights a week with N., it is easy to find the ancient champions of the revolution chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking endless little cups of black coffee. The building looks like a plush union hall in New Jersey, with green-marble floors and bluish clouds of smoke that asphyxiate the potted plants. Men in black-leather coats and heavy sweaters lounge away their evenings on padded leather couches.

The new leader, Mahmoud Abbas, lacks the Old Man's personal touch, they complain. He doesn't remember birthdays and weddings, and no one comes to him to resolve personal disputes. Some of the Old Man's inner circle have already sent their families to Amman or Tunis and their money to London or Cairo.

Upstairs I meet Ahmad Abdul Rahman, the former head of Arafat's propaganda operations, who sits in his navy pea coat smoking Dunhills with their gold band, a revolutionary's privilege. His glossy jet-black hair and dark eyebrows contrast sharply with his deeply lined smoker's face. Abdul Rahman was close to Arafat for almost forty years, and frequently issued statements in the Old Man's name.

"It is because of Arafat that we stayed together for this long, long time," he explains. "He invents events if there are no events. He invents activities if there are no activities."

"Did his style of working change from Beirut to Tunis to Ramallah?" I ask.

"He faced new problems here," Abdul Rahman concedes. "If he was told 'This ministry does not need people, it is filled,' he'd say, 'Okay' and then create another ministry. In this way he built the main basis for the state."

The marble-floored Palestine Media Center is by far the snazziest government ministry in Ramallah. It is run by the veteran propagandist Yasir Abd Rabbo, who looks like a ladies' man at a red-brick college in Manchester or Leeds and walks with a limp that he claims is the result of an old war wound. An inveterate "splittist," who joined and left a long list of secular leftist Palestinian parties, he is a charter member of the Arafatist bloc. He is also a habitual gossip. He knows N. well, and is happy to grant us an interview. Like many of the men I talk to, he speaks of the late Palestinian leader in the present tense.

"Arafat's great secret is patience," Abd Rabbo explains, of the man he served for more than three decades. "He does not cut even a thread to a fly. He keeps lines open with everybody. He is Arafat the progressive, Arafat the Islamist, Arafat the conservative, and Arafat the enlightened. So he was with the Saudi kings and with the kings of the Kremlin at the same time, with Fidel Castro and all kinds of imams and the pope. The one main issue he did not compromise in his life was the independence of the Palestinian movement. He believed since the beginning that if he did not preserve the independence of the Palestinian movement from the other Arab regimes, he will be doomed."

Abd Rabbo's area of particular expertise in the 1970s was the politics of the European left and the Soviet bloc. A table near his desk shows off a laughing Buddha, a crystal eagle, and a photo book titled Russia: The Country of Vast Expanses. He explains to me how Arafat patiently led the Palestinian national movement up the ladder to the inner halls of the Kremlin. His goal was the near-hallucinatory possibility of state sponsorship by one of the two reigning Cold War superpowers. After the October War of 1973, which began Egypt's migration into the American camp, Arafat's dream of Soviet sponsorship became a reality.

"We started to meet Brezhnev, we started to meet Andropov, Chernenko, and the others. Of course, Arafat is always trying to give the impression that he is—"

"A Marxist?" I wonder out loud.

"No, never, never, never," Abd Rabbo answers, appalled. "That he is so independent, that he is Arafat the Palestinian, the nationalist, the Muslim who is building relations with Moscow. I remember in one of the first visits, suddenly, I don't know why—but I understand why—he wanted to pray the noon prayers inside the Kremlin. We were begging him, 'Don't do that, postpone it, God will permit you. There is no access to God here.' He got down on his knees in the middle of the room, on the carpet, and he bowed down to Mecca and he said his prayers. This was also a message to the Saudis, you see—'I am Arafat, the Muslim, and I built these relations with the Soviet Union.'"

Arafat's defiant behavior toward the Soviets in the seventies and eighties mirrored exactly the tantrums that would puzzle and intimidate Western diplomats in the nineties. When I ask Abd Rabbo if any of the Soviet leaders had Arafat's number, he nods.

"Andropov," he answers, smiling ever so slightly at the memory of the legendary KGB spymaster who became premier of the Soviet Union for a short time in the early 1980s. When the Palestinians met with Andropov, in 1982, he seemed old and frail and appeared to doze off. "And Arafat took his time explaining everything, going from one continent to another, to the seventh sky and down, talking about everything that he had in his mind. He talked about how he had defeated the Israeli army, and how he had developed his own weapons factories, and how he made anti-tank missiles from his own secret designs. And in the middle of his—let's call them flights of fancy—Andropov raised his head up and told him, 'Chairman Arafat, let's stop it now.' So Arafat stopped talking nonsense and started talking politics."

Mamduh Nofal is the former military commander of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the commander of the Palestinian forces during the siege of Beirut. A peculiarly Palestinian amalgam of poet, op-ed writer, and guerrilla fighter, he is an imposing hulk of a man, at once friendly and fierce, like a pirate in a storybook. At the battle of Karamah, in Jordan, in 1968, Nofal was a military leader for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). It was there that he began his relationship with Arafat, he tells me when we meet in his modern office in Ramallah. The sign outside his office identifies him as a high-ranking official of Fatah.

"With the fighters, he lived with them as they lived. He sat with them on the ground. He brought food for them and fed them. This is not propaganda."

Nofal tells me that Arafat's strategic use of violence after Oslo began with permitting Hamas and Islamic Jihad to launch terror attacks. Arafat would then crack down on those same organizations to show that he was in control. Nofal first heard Arafat give orders that led directly to violence, he says, before the riots that erupted over the excavation of the Hasmonean tunnel, near the Haram al-Sharif, in 1996. Nofal says that the impetus for the violence was the statement by the newly elected Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that he would not speak to Arafat directly. Arafat was furious at the slight.

"I was with him in his office," Nofal recalls. "He got up and walked around the desk. He was very, very angry. Finally he calmed down a bit and he pointed to the phone on his desk. He said, 'I will make Netanyahu call me on this phone.'"

Arafat ordered demonstrators into the streets, and told them to provoke the Israelis. When violence erupted, the Israelis were blamed. "I was sitting with him again when the phone on his desk rang, and he looked at me and said, 'It's Netanyahu.' And it was him."

The second intifada also began with the intention of provoking the Israelis and subjecting them to diplomatic pressure. Only this time Arafat went for broke. As a member of the High Security Council of Fatah, the key decision-making and organizational body that dealt with military questions at the beginning of the intifada, Nofal has firsthand knowledge of Arafat's intentions and decisions during the months before and after Camp David. "He told us, 'Now we are going to the fight, so we must be ready,'" Nofal remembers. Nofal says that when Barak did not prevent Ariel Sharon from making his controversial visit to the plaza in front of al-Aqsa, the mosque that was built on the site of the ancient Jewish temples, Arafat said, "Okay, it's time to work."

When it became clear that Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli opposition leader, would win the Israeli elections in February of 2001, Nofal went to Arafat and urged him to call off the intifada. "There were a lot of people sitting around, including Saeb Erekat and Yasir Abd Rabbo," Nofal remembers.

"I told him, 'Abu Ammar, I need the security to speak openly.' The Bedouin say, 'Give me the security to speak freely.' He said to me, 'Speak.'

"I said to him, 'Abu Ammar, Barak will lose, Sharon is coming, the military work is not our field. It is Sharon's field. He needs it. So please, Abu Ammar, let us go out from this field, and leave Sharon as the hayawan muftaris [the flesh-eating animal]to play alone.'"

"Those who were sitting around Arafat, they said, 'Ah, you are afraid of Sharon!'" Nofal recalls, shaking his head. "'Sharon will not stay in power. Barak stayed eighteen months. Sharon will stay nine. And if we conquer him, this is the last bullet in the Israeli gun!' They said, 'So, khalas [enough already]—why are you afraid?' I said, 'I am afraid that he will destroy us in these nine months, and I doubt that he will fail.' At that time Arafat kept silent. He was listening. But most of those around opposed what I said."

"And I think Saudi Arabia also played a role in Arafat's decision to keep the intifada going," Nofal says, agreeing with a similar analysis presented to me by Abd Rabbo. "Clinton put his initiative on the table on the eighteenth of December, after three months of intifada. Arafat visited Saudi Arabia. At that time the Saudi Arabian leadership told him, 'Wait, don't give this card to Clinton. Clinton is going, Bush is coming. Bush is the son of our friend. We will get more for you from him.' Then we discovered that Saudi Arabia couldn't do anything, that it is not a matter of personal issues or friendship. And Sharon succeeded very well, and put us in a corner."

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David Samuels has written for Harper's Magazine, The New Yorker, and The American Scholar. This is his first article for The Atlantic Monthly.

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