The Father of Palestine

David Samuels, the author of "In a Ruined Country," on how Yasir Arafat conned the world and destroyed a nation

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.

The incredible thing is that I talked to Western diplomats who dealt with him almost every day for years and to Palestinians who had worked with him for twenty, thirty, forty, or even fifty years, and no one really knew him. The one thing that all of the people who worked closely with him agreed on was that they didn't know him in the end. He was a person who contained many enormous contradictions. He was very capable of being one person to you at one time and another person to you at another time, while he was being a third person to Madeleine Albright and a fourth person to the leadership of Hamas. They all felt that trying to make sense of all those contradictions was beyond them. He was bigger than they were.

What did Arafat represent for people outside of Palestine—Europeans, for example, or Christians in the U.S.?

By embracing Yasir Arafat, the Europeans were able to cleanse themselves of the humiliation of having become a U.S. protectorate during the Cold War, and perhaps even more importantly, to erase the stain of the Holocaust and colonialism. They could show that they were the champions of colonial peoples, not those bad people who murdered all the hundreds of thousands of people in Algeria and millions in Africa, but instead the beneficent and good Europeans who helped the newly liberated people of the Third World. And the person that they were embracing, Yasir Arafat, was making quite a strong case that the Jews were in fact oppressors and might legitimately be likened to Nazis, thus erasing the stain of the Holocaust. Was that all something that people sat down and worked out on a piece of paper? No, but it's that kind of mindset that certainly made European diplomats quite susceptible to believing all kinds of things about Yasir Arafat that they wouldn't have believed otherwise.

As for American Christians, they believe that the Holy Land should be a land of peace. And here's Arafat, saying that there will be peace. He seems to be asking for forgiveness and showing a desire to reconcile with the enemy. These are wonderful Christian virtues. And what better place for all of this to be on display than in the Holy Land?

I also think there is still a good deal of residual discomfort in Christian communities with the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. Christianity holds that the Christian covenant with mankind, through the death on the cross of Jesus Christ, superseded the Old Testament covenant between God and the children of Israel. And so the idea of Jews claiming that Israel is theirs, setting up a state there, and having political control over Christian holy places is a theological problem, and also deeply offensive to the sensibilities of some Christians. I think this is expecially true for the mainline Protestant churches, which reject the biblical literalism of the evangelicals—who support Israel—while exempting themselves from the very serious historical soul-searching about the theological roots of Christian anti-Semitism that the Roman Catholic Church has engaged in for the last forty years.

Following the Holocaust, however, it was very difficult for anyone to explain why Jews shouldn't have a state. And if they were to have one, then it was hard to oppose its being in the Holy Land. They were already living there and had maintained a continuous presence since the destruction of the Jewish state; the British had promised them a state there; and they seemed to want to live there. You couldn't really ask the Jews to go back to Germany and Poland after the Holocaust, and no one was exactly clamoring to resettle hundreds of thousands of Jews in Montana. The Arab Jews had all left or been expelled from their countries of origin. So you are left with this uncomfortable solution of a Jewish state in the Holy Land, which will be renamed Israel. But the end of colonialism and the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War allowed again for this image of pushy, aggressive, domineering Jews who were imposing themselves in a place where they were not wanted, and which really belonged to Christians anyway. Then there was the fact that America and Europe had both become dependent on Middle Eastern oil. In the midst of these difficulties, Arafat offers this idea that the Jews are illegitimate, that their state is bad and guilty of many crimes. With this, Christians could be on the side of the underdog and against the Jews and their political and national presence on this piece of land. The counter-narrative that Arafat promoted offered a profound sense of relief.

How did Arafat play into that? How did he take control of that idea?

He gave them a story and he embodied a presence. He was able to project this picture of perfect ambiguity. Arafat was able to speak everybody's language. When he spoke to Christians, he would talk about peace, suffering, the olive trees, and Jesus. When he talked to Muslims, he would talk about Saladin, Jerusalem, and the insults of colonialism. When he talked to the communists, he would talk about his good friends in China and the Soviet Union. When he talked to the Arab nationalists, he'd explain to them why he was the only true Arab nationalist, and had kept the true faith, while even people like Nasser had betrayed the Arab cause. Arafat could be everything to everyone. He was able to do that because the audiences he was playing to had a very strong desire to believe what he was telling them, and not to listen to the things that he was telling everyone else. The Palestinians listened to him because they were poor and scattered refugees, and he gave them hope.

People just chose to ignore what he said to others?

They said, "It's not important, of course he says that to them. He tells us the truth." Yasir Arafat knew how to capitalize on the huge reserves of emotional capital that the Palestinian issue inspired. He ended up with a patch of land and a people that didn't have any oil, but they did have this tremendous emotional capital that comes from the centrality of a very small piece of land in these very big narratives, a centrality that to this day controls a shocking amount of what people actually think and feel and which therefore frames what they see happening in front of their eyes. Yasir Arafat understood that very well and used it masterfully.

In the piece, you discuss the amount of money that was taken from the state coffers by Arafat and his associates. With his death, what is the financial status of Palestine?

The Palestinian Authority now claims to have no money, and has appealed for large amounts of aid. The irony of this, of course, is that, as far as debtors go, the Palestinian Authority is actually rather well off. During the last few years eight billion dollars in foreign aid made its way into the Palestinian Authority's official accounts or into Arafat's private bank account. With half of that money they could have developed the basis for a viable economy within that piece of land, linked to Israel and presumably to the EU and to Jordan and Egypt. You could have had people making a living.

No such thing is now possible in Gaza, and no such thing is possible in the West Bank. The gap between Israeli and Palestinian society and the two economies has widened, and will continue to widen. Unfortunately, there's no way to get the last ten years back. The Palestinian people are falling further and further behind, and the chance of living a Western life, which was quite available to people in the early eighties, has receded. The chances of the Palestinians being able to attain any economic parity with the Israelis, which of course is the foundation in our world for attaining political parity or military parity, is more distant now than ever.

If it was possible to have created a viable economy, why wasn't one created?

There's no reason to suspect that the Palestinian people are not fully as capable as the Israelis of making a go of a successful Western state—except for the fact that the political culture, and indeed the national identity of the Palestinian people, was shaped in the image of this one man who couldn't have cared less about building a Western political culture or a strong economy. Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, you can't find a single place where a refugee camp was replaced with decent housing. Why not, in ten years? It's not because someone couldn't have done it, or because it wouldn't have been economically advantageous to do it. The reason that didn't happen is because Yasir Arafat forbade that from happening. It was the last thing he wanted to happen. Those refugees were political capital that belonged to him. The more miserable the Palestinian people were, the more his capital increased. He could go to the EU and say, "Look how cruel the Israelis are, look how these refugees live, eking out a living, with no jobs." He didn't care about the poor Palestinians who lived in those camps. He cared about maintaining his political capital.

At the height of his peace-making energies, Bill Clinton devoted enormous amounts of time to convincing wealthy American Jews to pledge millions of dollars to set up economic development areas where Israeli and Palestinian entrepreneurs could join together in joint ventures. There was no shortage of Palestinians who wanted to get paid a living wage and learn skills; there was no shortage of Israelis who wanted to make money by having cheap Palestinian laborers; and there was no shortage of Palestinians who would have loved to make lots of money by participating in joint ventures with Israelis. So, what was the problem? Yasir Arafat. He wasn't interested in anything that would ameliorate the conditions of the Palestinian people, or suggest that the wound could be healed by anything less than the destruction of the Israeli state and its replacement by a Palestinian state. Every move toward normalcy, toward two states living side by side, toward a successful Palestinian political and economic entity, represented a step away from the dream of one Palestine. The more people suffered and the more the living standards of the people declined, then the stronger the case against the Israelis became; and, as a result, the more central Yasir Arafat was to holding his people in check. The minimum Arafat would accept was a Palestinian state that controlled the old city of Jersualem and the return of the refugees. His goal was to keep the conflict going, not to end it.

How did Yasir Arafat die?

It was clear that Yasir Arafat suffered from some kind of chronic debilitating illness that got a lot worse in the year before he died and that concerned him throughout the nineties. He took medications throughout the day, which his personal physician carried with him. He would excuse himself to take the medications, and only his closest friends would ever witness him taking his pills. But everyone knew he took them. He also suffered from recurrent fevers and other illnesses, which diplomats came to believe were his way of saying he didn't want to see them—and it certainly served that purpose. It probably also had some basis in somatic reality. It's also known that Arafat's five-hundred-page medical chart compiled by the French government during his stay at the French military hospital where he died did not give an underlying cause of death for the disintegration of his platelets, which is what killed him.

Now, that constellation of facts fits rather well with the widely circulated rumors that Yasir Arafat died of AIDS. The Israeli government—which is normally a fountain of off-the-record, unsubstantiated rumor and speculation—was absolutely disciplined in the refusal to talk about Yasir Arafat's final illness and what might have killed him. These are people who certainly had no love for Yasir Arafat, and would be willing on any other day to tell you a million bad things about him—that he had sex with little boys, that he had a billion dollars stashed in bank accounts in Paris, or whatever other lurid details you want. True, not true, it didn't matter.

There are two explanations that I encountered for this rare, suspicious, and highly unusual ability to keep their mouths shut. One rumor, of which I received some personal confirmation, that circulated shortly after Arafat's death was that a deal had been struck between the Israelis and the top level of the Fatah leadership. The deal was that the Israelis would refrain from taking any political advantage of Arafat's death—they would not say bad things or launch military operations, and they would help the Palestinians recover money Arafat might have put in accounts. They would also agree not to pursue any of Arafat's associates for having helped to plan and sustain the intifada—providing they stayed out of such activities in the future. In exchange for that, the Palestinians would not demand that Arafat be buried in Jerusalem, which had been their chief demand when he was sick; they would not stage a huge march with his body on Jerusalem; and they would not use the occasion of his death to launch attacks on the Israelis. This was apparently a deal that had been concluded at the highest political levels, and it was one that everybody was happy with, for obvious reasons.

The other rumor I heard from many Palestinians, including figures who are well-known in the West and who are quite moderate within Palestinian political life, was that it was their strong belief that Arafat was poisoned by the Israelis. Interestingly, the only people who didn't express the belief that he was poisoned were the ones who would actually have been the parties to the deal with the Israelis. Everybody else, including Hanan Ashrawi and the current Palestinian foreign minister, Nasser al-Kidwa—Arafat's nephew—expressed the belief that he did not die of natural causes.

Of course the question is, who would he have been poisoned by? It's like a giant game of Clue. If you accept the idea that someone killed Yasir Arafat, why stop with the Israelis? There's nobody in the country house that weekend who wouldn't have wanted Arafat dead. One diplomat I talked to, mischievously but with a straight face said, Well, you know who killed him. Who had the most to gain? Mahmoud Abbas—Abu Mazen. He goes from being in exile, living in Jordan, afraid for his life and totally marginalized from Palestinian political debate, to being Arafat's successor. He came back to Ramallah a week before Arafat got sick. Why did he come back? He left because he was afraid for his life. Suddenly he's not afraid for his life anymore. Who was there at the right time? Mahmoud Abbas. Who had motive and opportunity? Mahmoud Abbas.

This diplomat wasn't serious. I don't think he believed that Mahmoud Abbas killed Arafat, but he was demonstrating that this is a conspiratorial culture and that it's very dangerous to go with your first or second or third idea about culprit and motive, because you're dealing with so many people with so many different motives, none of whom particularly make a point of telling you the truth.

If Arafat is responsible for the creation myth of Palestine, as well as for its destruction, what happens now? Does the myth die, but the country lives?

Palestine is an identity. It's a place in the mind. It combines language, culture, and a defined geography with a larger narrative about the Arab world in the twentieth century, the experience of colonization and of dispossession, and a critique of the existing Arab governments as being failures. It also contains something that's come more and more to the fore over the last twenty years—an implicit Islamic narrative about restoring the glories of the Islamic civilization and its conquests.

The idea of Palestinian-ness—the Palestinian cause —is important not just to the Palestinians. It's also important to the wider Islamic world. These are not decisions that Palestinians can make for themselves. The idea of Palestinian-ness is deeply embedded in the larger definitions of what it is to be an Arab, and what it is to be a Muslim, in the contemporary world.

These are symbolic issues, which long ago passed beyond the grasp of any particular Palestinian leader, even Arafat. Certainly with his death there will be no one of a comparable stature. Arafat was the strongest Palestinian leader imaginable, and there will never be another one comparable to him, for the same reason that there'll never be another figure like George Washington in America. That said, the question of Palestine as a functioning state has always been a bit of an illusion.

Even the maximal Palestinian state that can be imagined—let's say it was a hundred percent of the West Bank and Gaza plus an extra five percent of Israel plus all of Jerusalem—there's still no economically and territorially viable Palestinian state that doesn't include either Jordan or Israel. By itself, the rump Palestinian state that includes only the West Bank and Gaza is not a workable idea. It doesn't have any natural resources, any industrial base, or any large population of Western-educated scientists and engineers who are capable of engaging in productive economic activity, and it doesn't have the cultural or educational base to turn out such people. It does have a very large population of highly militarized religious fanatics and armed nationalist gangs who've spent the last X years of their lives fighting a terror war against Israeli civilians while extorting payoffs and kickback through violence and intimidation from their own civilians. It's hard to think of a less promising basis for a state. What that state would do, who would want to live there, how it would hold itself together—it's obviously a fantasy, and for that reason, it will not happen. That's why the Jordanians, the Israelis, the Egyptians, and everyone else in the region are so worried, even after Arafat is gone. There will not be an independent, functioning Palestinian state that exists by itself in the West Bank and Gaza.