Thu, Nov 17, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Ending the myth of Yasser Arafat as troublemaker

The former Palestinian leader's portrayal in the hands of the West and Israel has been a barrier both to understanding the conflict and to peacemaking in the region

By Karma Nabulsi  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

One year after Palestinian president Yasser Arafat's death, and he has passed into silent myth and legend. As with all great historical figures, the myth is both powerful and pervasive. Yet in Arafat's case, it possesses a peculiar driving force that frames the manner in which we see the present.

Indeed, everything about the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel is shaped by this myth. In the West it is entirely a negative myth, cultivated by the press and parroted by political elites, diplomats and intellectuals. It is obvious why Israel would portray its enemy in such a bad light, but why did this negative myth take hold outside Israel with such strength and persuasion?

Myths have a function -- they are both practical and convenient. They help to justify reasons to do things and they justify reasons not to do things. The myth of Arafat as the obstacle to peace gave former US president Bill Clinton his reasons after Camp David; to maintain the myth of himself as international peacemaker, he needed a scapegoat to blame for the collapse of the talks.

Clinton underwrote then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak's portrayal of Arafat as a terrorist and an obstacle to peace in order that Barak could be re-elected. The myth instead gave rise to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as the Israeli public felt only a Sharon could deal with that mythical monster Arafat. It gave the neoconservative hawks in the US administration the opportunity to redesign the Middle East in harmony with the views of their ally Israel, and for the British government to absolve themselves from doing anything whatsoever.

Instead, they watched, some cheering, while a democratically elected leader was imprisoned for years and slowly killed, without apparently feeling any moral queasiness or shame. This myth made all that possible. Arafat the obstacle.

A year after his death, the claim that his removal would positively alter the political landscape and give the chance to Israel, the Palestinians and the international community to negotiate a settlement has proven false. And being false, it allowed an even more destructive reality to take hold.

Sharon, without serious protest and much encouragement, has in the past year turned Gaza into the largest prison on earth, moved tens of thousands of settlers into the West Bank, and built an illegal wall across Palestinian land which encircles and starves Palestinian cities and farms. In fragmenting the land, he has further fragmented the Palestinian people who belong to it, both those under occupation and those in enforced exile as refugees. This was his aim all along.

He saw Arafat as an obstacle to this ambition. With Arafat gone, he has indeed managed to achieve it. But he couldn't have done this without the negative myth's magnetic hold in the West. What of the alternative myth of Arafat -- the one that will eventually triumph in the history books? The one that will include just a fraction of the epic stories about him that most Palestinians grew up with?

Arafat, for all his flaws and mistakes, stood for a just peace, based on an historic compromise. He believed in international law, in a two-state solution based on implementing UN Resolution 242, and for a just settlement for refugees, the main victims of this conflict. His legitimacy came from more than the fact that he was democratically elected: He performed an historic purpose in the life of Palestinians, a purpose as yet unfulfilled. By representing his people's general will and collective spirit, he symbolized the absent state's sovereign institutions.

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