Interviews September 2005

The Father of Palestine

David Samuels, the author of "In a Ruined Country," on how Yasir Arafat conned the world and destroyed a nation
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With his grizzled features and checkered kaffiya, Yasir Arafat was the face of Palestine and a symbol to its people. He spent decades passionately fighting, as a terrorist and a political leader, to achieve an independent Palestinian state. Yet when he died, late last year, that eventuality seemed to be receding into the distance. In The Atlantic's September 2005 cover story, "In a Ruined Country," David Samuels traces Arafat's impact on Palestine—suggesting that the man who created Palestine was also its destroyer.

In a land known for political hardball, one can't help but acknowledge the political brilliance of Arafat. He managed to keep himself in a position of power for years—by strategic manipulation, conspiracy, and, Samuels notes, his keen "ability to dodge a threat." And yet, Samuels argues, being a deft politician hardly ensured that Arafat was a good leader for his people.

As the father of Palestine, Arafat was also the guardian of its myths, its hopes, and its possibilities. It is in this role that Samuels sees Arafat's greatest failures. Arafat's political goal of creating an independent Palestine in the ruins of the Israeli state overwhelmed all other considerations, including the welfare of his people. Palestine was founded, Samuels writes, "on a festering grievance rather than any positive imagination of the future; the worse things were in the present, the stronger the Palestinian case became." Even with financial aid and political incentives, Samuels contends that Arafat refused to build an economy, infrastructure, or even to improve refugee housing—things that would be necessary as the basis for an actual functioning, independent state. In fact, he argues, to envision a Palestinian state that is not connected to either Israel or Jordan is increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

Samuels spent months traveling around Palestine and Israel, shortly after Arafat's death. At that time, the myths surrounding Arafat's life were still in flux—no one had settled on the right thing to say just yet. Samuels was lucky enough to be one of the few reporters on the ground during that time, and he gained access to some of Arafat's most trusted advisors and family, as well as other prominent Palestinians and Western diplomats. As he traveled, all around him was the ruined country that Arafat left behind—a Palestine that in the wake of the Oslo Accords had the chance to become a functioning economic and social entity. That it is neither of these, Samuels maintains, can only be the fault of one man—Yasir Arafat.

David Samuels has written for Harper's, The New Yorker, and The American Scholar. "In a Ruined Country" is his first piece for The Atlantic.

We spoke on July 20.

Elizabeth Shelburne

Could you tell me how this piece came about?

I've been fascinated by Yasir Arafat for a long time because he combines two of my longstanding interests. The first is politics. If you're interested in politics, especially politics on the world historical scale, sooner or later your interest is drawn to the Middle East. In the case of Israel and Palestine, you're talking about a very small piece of land that has been invested over the millennia with extraordinary significance to major civilizations—Islamic, Jewish, and Christian. Everybody comes to it ready to project these strong emotions of their own centrality in a historical narrative—emotions which have had millennia to ripen, and which are by definition exclusive. Because you're dealing with questions and pieces of land whose importance is out of all proportion to what's actually on the ground, you're immediately in the realm of fantasy and myth and the emotional currents that truly drive politics on the grand scale. The people who have survived and prospered long-term in that atmosphere are extraordinary political animals. Forget about Hillary Clinton and John McCain—they are amateurs next to Ariel Sharon, Yasir Arafat, or Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, all of whom combined these highly developed capacities for fantastical thinking and mythmaking with the most finely tuned antennae for danger, which they use to sense traps and to confound their enemies.

Most people might look at political actors like this and see them all as quite pathological. But I don't know that the climate permits anything else. If one looks at them almost as a naturalist would, as someone who is very interested in the different types of political animals, Middle Eastern politics is fascinating. It's like a really scary version of the Galapagos Islands. And of all the spectacular fauna that have flourished in this bizarre and entrancing climate, Yasir Arafat is surely the most extraordinary creature. He is the embodiment of all these virtues that we in the West would regard as significant moral flaws, but that the environment around him rewarded for fifty years.

Secondly, I was interested in Arafat because I have spent a good part of my career writing about con artists. I'm fascinated by the ways in which people who are conned—the marks—come to believe things that are clearly false and clearly detrimental to their own well-being. Con artists tell you a lot about where we as human beings are most vulnerable. We like to think of ourselves as supremely rational beings. Con artists are a constant reminder of how easy it is for one person to dispel the surface illusion of human rationality and bring out our louder primal irrational essence—usually to the benefit of the con artist and to the great detriment of his victims.

How does Arafat fit the definition of a con man?

Watching Arafat over the last ten years, I found myself more and more convinced that the Oslo Accords were not entered into in the spirit that was represented to the public at large—Palestinian, Israeli, or American alike. Certainly after the death of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, Yasir Arafat had very little interest in the Oslo Accords or the vision of an Israeli state and a Palestinian state living side by side as a long-term solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict. How had I and so many other people who prided themselves on being perceptive and informed observers of the Middle East—and, in my case, also of con artists—managed to hypnotize ourselves into believing that Yasir Arafat was a Middle Eastern facsimile, however imperfect, of Nelson Mandela, rather than the person that he had manifestly been throughout his life? How had he hypnotized the refugees from the 1948 war into believing themselves to be a nation? How had he further coerced this incredibly fractured national movement, with so many charismatic and violent personalities, into accepting his leadership and his embodiment of Palestinian nationhood as absolute, without the aid of an army or a fully developed secret-police apparatus? How had he managed to convince the Soviet Union that he should be the primary instrument of Soviet policy in the Middle East? How was he able to convince Ronald Reagan that American foreign policy should move in the direction of recognizing the PLO, which the United States had claimed was the world's most dangerous Soviet-backed terrorist organization, as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people?

At a certain point the mind reels. It's like watching someone do twenty back flips in a row on a high wire. Someone who brought off one of these achievements would be a historical figure of some note, and you'd be interested in him. To do all of these contradictory things in succession is astounding. It's an incredible display of acrobatic skill.

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