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From the archives:

"Why Israel Can't Take 'Bold Steps' for Peace" (October 1985)
"The Jewish claim to Jerusalem is not a matter of rational argument; nor is the Moslem claim; nor will the two claims be reconciled, or either side appeased, by arbitration." By Conor Cruise O'Brien

"Israel and the Arabs: the Myths that Block Peace" (January 1969)
A peaceful settlement requires that both sides disarm themselves of righteous arguments with the realities. By Charles Yost

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Setting the Record Straight" (September 22, 1999)
Edward Said, author of a new memoir, Out of Place, talks about Beethoven, the Oslo Accords, Arafat, and the "enormous fabrication of lies" printed in Commentary.

Flashbacks: "The State of Israel" (November 1995)
Articles from 1949 to 1993, by David Ben-Gurion and others, look at various aspects of the spiritual and national project that is Israel.

More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.


Flashbacks
 
Arafat's Last Stand?

December 6, 2001
 
n response to three Palestinian suicide attacks that killed twenty-five Israelis over the weekend, Israel has launched military strikes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and has fired missiles into Yasser Arafat's walled West Bank compound. Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres yesterday warned Arafat that if he doesn't immediately neutralize Palestinian terrorist factions the consequences will be severe. But it is not clear whether Arafat in fact wields enough influence over his people's radical elements to rein them in.

Though Arafat himself was once a militant proponent of using violence to advance the Palestinian cause, he later recognized that if the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) wished to be taken seriously by the international community, it would need to abide by more civilized rules of engagement. His attempt to switch roles from terrorist leader to statesman, however, has not been smooth. Many Palestinians view any moderate or conciliatory stance on his part as a betrayal of their cause, and when radical Palestinians (many of whom dismiss him as a sellout to Western and Israeli interests) turn to violence against Israelis, many wonder whether he has in fact offered his tacit consent. As the figurehead of a disaffected people in a highly unstable region, he must tread a fine line between courting the interests of the powers with whom he must negotiate and those of his own people.

Several recent Atlantic articles have shed light on Arafat's prolonged and delicate balancing act. In "All You Need Is Love" (December 2001), Bruce Hoffman described how, in the early seventies, Arafat had to resort to unorthodox tactics to put a Palestinian terrorist group out of commission. In 1970, following the expulsion of Palestinians from Jordan, Arafat and several others had formed an elite corps of terrorists known as the Black September Organization. But after the group had succeeded in bringing the Palestinian cause to worldwide attention by attacking Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, Arafat felt that a terrorist arm of the PLO would now be more of a hindrance to the cause than a help.

Arafat therefore sought to have the group disbanded—in a most unusual way. A party was arranged for the Black September men to which a hand-picked bevy of beautiful young Palestinian women was invited. Three thousand dollars and an apartment were offered to anyone who decided to marry one of these women, and an additional $5,000 was thrown in for couples who produced children within a year. "Without exception the Black Septemberists fell in love, got married, settled down, and in most cases started a family," leaving their terrorist careers behind.

More than a decade later, in the late eighties, Arafat faced a new challenge of dealing with a popular anti-Israeli uprising that seemed to subvert not only Israel's authority but his own. Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip had begun protesting the Jewish occupation by hurling stones, closing their shops and businesses, and erecting barricades against Jews. In "Runaway Revolution" (June 1988), Ehud Ya'ari argued that this Palestinian uprising—or intifada—was not, as many believed, a strategic move organized by Arafat and his associates, but a spontaneous eruption of frustration on the part of local Palestinians, many of whom were radically religious. The intifada was in fact as much a surprise to Arafat as it was to the Israelis:
The PLO had no idea that an uprising was in the offing for the simple reason that its representatives in the West Bank and Gaza were not involved in kindling it. In fact, the PLO representatives tended to regard the rioting as an ill-considered and pointless explosion set off by their rivals from the Moslem fundamentalist groups in the Gaza Strip, and the tone of the demonstrations gave them good reason for concern. The youngsters in the refugee camps were not brandishing the portraits of Arafat and improvised Palestinian flags that are standard at such events. And the slogans they shouted had a distinctly religious ring to them....

The spirit in the streets was not that of the PLO; sometimes it was blatantly anti-PLO. And although Arafat succeeded in preserving the PLO's status as the emblem of Palestinian aspirations both to the outside world and to the insurgents themselves, he had an uphill battle to re-establish his authority over his constituency.
Arafat did end up managing to appropriate the spontaneous uprising as part of the PLO's effort to further its cause. But the fact that much of the intifada had been instigated and carried out by forces beyond Arafat's control pointed to a worrisome division among his people.

Finally, in "Lions in Winter" (January 1993), Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari, writing during what turns out to have been a short-lived interlude of tranquility, expressed hope that Arafat, together with then-Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin and then-Prime Minister of Syria Hafez al-Assad, might be able to hammer out an agreement that would finally lead to peace in the Middle East. All three men, they pointed out, were veteran leaders whose earlier radical views had been tempered by experience.
What has brought these players to the bargaining table is a change in perception about where they stand, in light of a number of signal international and regional events. After some thirty years of trying to destroy Israel by military means, Arafat finally grasped that his goal was no more than a pipe dream.
Of the three leaders, the authors suggested, Arafat would find himself in the most difficult bargaining position,
for he must maneuver within narrow limits set not only by the Israelis but also by his fellow Palestinians. From the very outset fundamentalist groups in the territories, such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad (which are not members of Arafat's PLO), made it known that they were against negotiating with Israel as a matter of principle.
Schiff and Ya'ari nonetheless believed that accord might be possible because "all three [leaders] sense that their peoples cannot bear another war" and because "all three are at the end of their political careers and know that they have little time left to make an indelible mark not just on the history of the Middle East but, more to the point, on its future."

Of those three leaders, however, Arafat is the only one still alive, and both his position and his life now appear to be in jeopardy. If Arafat falls it may become clear just what role he has played in helping to hold the region together.

—Sage Stossel


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Sage Stossel is an editor of The Atlantic Online. She draws the weekly cartoon feature, "Sage, Ink."

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.