America’s Arafat Obsession

Mark Perry

Palestine Report, August 20, 2003

Writing in The New York Review of Books on August 14, American Middle East commentators Hussein Agha and Robert Malley provide the most succinct description of Ariel Sharon's grand strategy. "As he approaches the twilight of his political career," they write, "Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, contemplates his one last remaining task. It is the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, one that he several times has sought and that several times has eluded him: the achievement of Israel's long-term moral and existential security by eradicating a unified Palestinian national movement. He feels that he is closer than ever to achieving his goal."

Agha and Malley are not alone in their conclusion. In Washington, and through many capitals of Europe, the dynamic that spurred the Roadmap has decisively turned - where once Middle East diplomats pressed for incremental but parallel achievements by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders (and "quantifiable measures of success"), those same diplomats are now focused on continuing (in the words of an NSC official) "the reform process in the Palestinian leadership and the democratization of Palestinian civil life." That is all code. If you are an American it means that the Palestinian leadership needs to be "transparent" and trustworthy, for the Israelis it means replacing the "old Palestinian leadership" with a new and moderate leadership committed to achieving Palestinian goals without the use of violence. In other words - anybody but Arafat.

The campaign to oust Arafat from any role in Palestinian decision-making began well before the failure of the July, 2000 Camp David talks, though that failure is now most often cited as the tipping point in Israeli-Arafat relations. In the aftermath of those talks, the Palestinian leader was accused by both former US President Bill Clinton and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak of refusing, "the deal of the century." The Israelis then claimed that Arafat ordered his militias into the streets in a resort to terrorism to lay claim to his real strategic goal - the violent takeover of all of pre-partition Palestine. It was a short step from that conclusion to the view that, but for Arafat, Palestinians would now be living in a safe, secure and economically viable state.

In the three years since it has been decisively shown that not only was Arafat not offered "the deal of the century" (sweetened by a further "final" offer at Taba and then, one week later, by one more "absolutely final" offer), Israeli officials have all but openly admitted that the Palestinian state that they envisioned at Camp David would have given the Palestinians a flag, an airline, an Olympic team and a parliament. And little more. None of that matters now. Following Camp David, Barak and his successor, Sharon, worked tirelessly to supplant Arafat and stigmatize him in the eyes of the diplomatic community.

In truth, while the campaign against Arafat reached a fever pitch in the post-Camp David period it has been underway, in one form or another, since at least 1997. In March of that year, Israeli Knesset Member Moshe Peled said that he had received information from Israeli intelligence that Arafat "had prior knowledge" of the February 26, 1993 operation that successfully placed a bomb in the parking garage of the New York World Trade Center. The Peled claim, which first appeared in the Jerusalem Post (and was widely reprinted in the United States) caused such a stir that Peled's allies in the Knesset insisted that the full intelligence report be put by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Clinton. According to Peled (who quoted senior Israeli intelligence officials) the report showed that Arafat was a part of the conspiracy because of his "close personal ties" to Sudanese leader Hassan Turabi, head of Sudan's National Islamic Front.

Peled's claims were then upheld by George Washington University Professor, Yonah Alexander, a Pentagon consultant and the director of his university's terrorism studies program. Alexander told Israeli and American officials that Arafat, in cooperation with Iranian Islamic groups, maintained "a Fateh training base" in the Sudan that "trained terrorists" as well as "commanders" and "bomb-makers." Alexander's claim, in turn, was upheld by a "US Congressional investigator with close ties to Israeli officials" (the Jerusalem Post's description) who said that Hamas and Fateh both had training bases in the Sudan.

"They work together," the Jerusalem Post report said. "Arafat has strategic ties with Turabi and he has exploited them in order to forge cooperation with Hamas." That the Clinton administration would take such reports seriously is astounding, but it did: within a week of the March 1997 Jerusalem Post piece an administration "investigator" was deployed by the Clinton State Department to knock down the reports. He said that Israeli officials "might be confusing Fateh with Abu Nidal's Fatah Revolutionary Council."

That was not the first time that Israeli officials confused one Palestinian group with another. After US troops occupied Baghdad they apprehended Abul Abbas, who headed the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) and was held responsible for the attack on the cruise ship Achille Lauro. An American was murdered during that operation and Abul Abbas was condemned for the attack and hunted by American intelligence agents. But during the post-Oslo period, Arafat negotiated Abbas's return to Gaza with Yitzhak Rabin. Abbas was allowed to return and became a proponent of the Oslo peace process. Later, under pressure, Abbas fled to Iraq - where everyone, including the Americans - hoped he would sink into obscurity.

In April of 2002, Abbas was the subject of a highly publicized Israeli intelligence report that was delivered by Sharon to US President George W. Bush. The report, entitled "Arafat's and the PA's Involvement in Terrorism," reported that Abul Abbas's network of terrorists was alive and well and being trained "in camps in Iraq" and that "Baghdad has revived in the last two years the PLF/Abu-Al-Abbas organization in the PA areas."

The confusion over Abbas and his links to terrorism came when American forces apprehended him and American journalists reported that "the international terrorist Abu Abbas" was now "finally being brought to justice." That the Americans were confused by Abbas' actual role in running terrorist training camps in Iraq( none of which have been found) should not be shocking, despite widespread confusion over "the international terrorist mastermind's" Arabic name. "Isn't this the guy who's supposed to become the PA Prime Minister?" one journalist asked.

The April 2002 report on Arafat's ties to terrorism repeated some of the charges that had first surfaced in 1997, linking the Palestinian president to Iran and Iraq in supporting international terrorism, though it did not make the mistake of naming Arafat as making common cause with Iranian mullahs or Sudanese Islamists - whom he openly despises. "These are evil people," he told one reporter in a recent interview.

But the other charges in the Israeli report have been taken at face value by the American administration (and particularly by Bush), despite the skeptical stance of French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair - both of whom told Bush last August that there were "a lot of problems" with the Israeli intelligence report. "It was worse than that," a highly placed American intelligence official confirms. "Blair was stunned that Bush believed this stuff. He basically told him to run it through the CIA's fact-checking apparatus. But that never happened."

The demonization of Arafat has, most recently, had a devastating impact on America's ability to spur both Israelis and Palestinians to make progress on the roadmap and has opened up a delicate disagreement among American and Israeli officials. The administration, for example, is turning a deaf ear to Israeli claims that Arafat is working to undermine Prime Minister Abu Mazen - primarily because all of the evidence shows otherwise. "The truth is that without Arafat, Abu Mazen would not be the Prime Minister and we know it," an American administration official says. "He lined up the votes, he engineered his succession, he hammered out a final working agreement. It wasn't smooth, it almost didn't happen, but in the end he made it work."

Nor is there evidence that Arafat is doing anything to undermine the current ceasefire. "He allowed the negotiations to continue and he even spurred contacts between Fateh and Hamas," an administration official confirms. "If he wanted to end this thing all he would have to do is to pick up the telephone." Arafat has himself confirmed his own views, most recently to an American reporter. "Mr. Abu Mazen's success is our success," he said, "and his failure will be ours."

What Arafat says, however, rarely reaches American ears - and Israel's efforts to sideline him continue. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, normally one of the most astute observers of the Middle East conflict, recently wrote that Abu Mazen is succeeding, "despite the constant attempts to sabotage him by his nominal partner, Yasser Arafat." Diehl did not provide evidence for his claim, but it is hard to deny that everyone who read the column probably thought it was true.

And back in June, when CNN provided a top-of-the-hour picture of Arafat announcing that a ceasefire was "just one day away," the network's executives received an angry call from White House officials saying that his picture should not have been put on the air. The major American broadcast networks then engaged in a flurry of interviews with 'Palestinian experts' on Arafat's role in Palestinian society. "I thought he was marginalized, I thought he didn't count," CNN reporter Kitty Pilgrim said.

The news media's questioning of Arafat's role serves as a talisman of just how well the Israeli strategy to demonize the Palestinian President has worked. "If you had told me two years ago that the United States would be so easily influenced by this Israeli focus on Arafat, I would not have believed it," a former US ambassador to the region says. "But the strategy has succeeded brilliantly - Arafat is now viewed as a pariah at the White House. In spite of all contrary claims, he is ignored in foreign capitals. You hardly hear his name mentioned by Mubarak or Abdullah."

A currently serving high-level diplomat involved in implementing the Roadmap disagrees, but only slightly. "We all know that Abu Mazen and Arafat cooperate completely and we all know that without Arafat there can be no peace," this diplomat says. "But that really doesn't bother us. We need to reward democracy and that is what we are doing."

A White House official attempts to clear up these obviously ambiguous claims. "We are not focused on individuals but on processes," he states. "Ours is a much more sophisticated strategy that is not wrapped up in personalities. It is designed to strengthen institutions and not individuals."

That says it all. The United States has placed its faith in the emerging governing institutions of Palestinian society - the Palestinian Authority- and has vowed to support it with money and stature in the hopes that it can sideline the PLO and its mainline political organization, Fateh. The US administration believes that as support for the PA grows (as it is able to pay salaries and provide social services), support for Palestinian party organizations will evaporate. What will be left will be a government, not a movement.

That suits Sharon. As Agha and Malley pointed out in their August 14 article, Sharon's goal is to leave Israel with no organized Palestinian enemy. If Sharon is patient and meticulous, Agha and Malley write, "Sharon's legacy to the future will be much like the past - a heterogeneous, scattered Palestinian polity, the undoing of all that has been done for the past four decades by his nemesis, the Palestine Liberation Organization."

Indeed, the marginalization and victimization of Arafat, the continued occupation of Palestinian lands, the unceasing program of arrests, detentions, confiscations and assassinations has begun to pay off. "This conflict is all about territory," Agha and Malley argue, "and Palestinian territory is being carved up ... A new reality is taking shape."

And Arafat? "He is holed up in a largely destroyed building, under perpetual Israeli surveillance, marginalized, shunned, and liable at any moment to be expelled or worse," Agha and Malley wrote.

All true. But in June, Arafat seemed strangely comforted by his surroundings and unperturbed by Israeli threats against him. He talked easily, listened closely to his top advisors, smiled at small jokes, and endeared himself to that day's guest by asking about his family. An aide explained that the nearby oxygen tank - the apparent source of a rumor that the President was suffering from heart disease - was put in place to allow everyone to breathe should the Israelis use teargas in the compound. The guest was ushered out, finally, and the advisor admonished him. "It is not so bad," he said. "You should not concern yourself. He is in good health, and we have been here before. We were here in Amman and in Beirut. It is not so bad. We are in Ramallah in the heart of our land and in the midst of our people. This is where we want to be."

The guest nodded his understanding, but the Arafat aide had not finished. "Don't ever bet against Yasser Arafat," he said. "Do not ever bet against him. Our movement is alive and well."

This article first appeared in Palestine Report.