Yasser Arafat and the Myth of Legitimacy

By Daniel Polisar

How the Palestinian leader built a police state and crushed all hope for democracy in the West Bank and Gaza.

Since the Palestinian Authority launched a war of terror against Israel nearly two years ago, many observers have grown increasingly skeptical of the ability of its chairman, Yasser Arafat, to lead Palestinian Arabs to a peaceful resolution of their long and bitter conflict with the Jewish state. Over the last few months in particular—as Arafat called for the sacrifice of “martyrs by the millions” in the holy war against Israel and used his headquarters in Ramallah to protect the assassins of an Israeli minister—it has become difficult to stretch the terms “peace” or “partner” in a way that could describe a role the PLO leader might conceivably play.1

Nonetheless, it is turning out to be no simple matter for Americans and other well-intentioned mediators to arrive at a conclusion similar to the one reached regarding undesirable leaders in places such as Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq: That Arafat has become harmful enough to warrant being replaced. Secretary of State Colin Powell has declared repeatedly in recent months that the United States will continue to work with Arafat, in spite of everything, because he has the “mantle of leadership given to him by the Palestinian people,” and because he “represents all the Palestinian people.”2 As State Department spokesman Richard Boucher emphasized: “I think our views have been well stated, and I’m happy to state them again: Chairman Arafat is the chosen leader of the Palestinian community.”3

This belief that Arafat must continue to be recognized as the “chosen” representative of the Palestinians is not limited to the State Department, but represents a position widely held among Western leaders—so much so, in fact, that at a summit in December 2001, the nations of the European Union passed a unanimous resolution declaring that Arafat must continue to be treated as the “elected president” of the Palestinian Authority.4 In April 2002, a few months and a few dozen suicide bombings later, the EU’s chief foreign policy official, Javier Solana, was still stressing that Arafat is the “legitimate leader of the Palestinian people and [the] interlocutor of the international community,” while Ben Bradshaw of the British Foreign Office announced that “We’re quite clear that Yasser Arafat is the democratically elected president of the Palestinian people.”5 This position has also been championed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who asserted in a recent op-ed in The New York Times that the PLO leader had become the Palestinians’ president through “a democratic election in the West Bank and Gaza which was well organized, open, and fair.”6

The reason for all of this emphasizing and re-emphasizing of Arafat’s status as the legitimately chosen leader of the Palestinians is that without it, one might easily reach the conclusion that everyone—Jews, Arabs, Americans, and Europeans—would be better off with him gone. Indeed, for many in the West, the claim that Arafat is the Palestinians’ legitimate, democratically elected leader is his last line of defense.

But is it true? To take statements such as Jimmy Carter’s seriously is to argue that while some national rulers are best viewed as illegitimate usurpers, Yasser Arafat is more like the leaders of democratic countries, who come to power through a fair expression of the popular will—and that as such, he cannot reasonably be replaced. Such a conclusion, however, would have to stand on more than the observation that an election was held in the West Bank and Gaza in January 1996 in which Arafat received nearly 90 percent of the votes. After all, plenty of dictators do that well in elections aimed principally at reinforcing their rule, and this phenomenon is particularly widespread in the Middle East.

A real look at the question of Arafat’s legitimacy, therefore, has to involve a more serious examination of the origins of his rule in the wake of the 1993 Oslo accords—and particularly the crucial two-year period in which he established the Palestinian Authority and paved the way for himself and his loyalists to win a landslide victory at the polls. Such an accounting reveals a disturbing picture, of a PLO leadership that—after having been brought in from Tunis amid widespread jubilation—used every means at its disposal to ensure that the Palestinian voter would have only one viable option as to which political party would represent him, and only one real candidate to vote for as president. Under these conditions, Arafat’s landslide victory was not an expression of democratic will, but rather a testament to the success of the measures he employed.

The story of how this came to pass is the subject of this essay. In it, I will document—in large part using original source material not previously published in the West—the rise of a regime characterized by a massive police force whose specialty was intimidation of political opponents; an executive branch in which Arafat alone made all major decisions and in which the civil service was reduced to a corrupt patronage machine; the institutionalized absence of the rule of law, and a judiciary that lacked any independence; and the intimidation of the media and human rights organizations, to the point that it became virtually impossible to transmit any message other than one personally approved by Arafat.

This last point is particularly chilling, because the West Bank and Gaza boasted no small number of independent newspapers and human rights groups when Arafat replaced the Israeli government as the ruler of these areas. In describing what happened to them, I will rely heavily on material my staff and I collected when I was the head of Peace Watch, an independent monitoring organization that was the only Israeli group officially accredited by the Palestinian Authority as an observer of its January 1996 elections. This position permitted me to see firsthand how these once-democratic institutions—which represented the best hope for creating true pluralism within Palestinian society—were beaten into submission. It also permitted me to witness certain rare cases of true heroism, in which these institutions and the individuals committed to them attempted to swim against the rising tide of dictatorship.

Only after examining the way Arafat went about creating his regime, and the nature of the landslide that he won as a result of these efforts, can we return to the question of whether he deserves the kind of legitimacy he now enjoys among many leaders in the West.


The starting point for this story is May 1994, when the PLO signed an agreement with Israel that enabled Yasser Arafat to set up an interim administration in two-thirds of the Gaza Strip and a small area around the West Bank town of Jericho, which together contained about 750,000 Arab residents.7 In establishing his government, Arafat was authorized to appoint 24 members of a quasi-cabinet that would serve as legislature and executive, and to set up a 9,000-member police force.8 According to the framework laid out by the Oslo accords, this brief period of interim rule by the PLO was to be followed two months later, in July, by “direct, free, and general political elections,” with the goal of enabling the Palestinians “to govern themselves according to democratic principles.”9 These elections were to encompass the entire Arab population of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and eastern Jerusalem—around two million people in all—and were intended to select a Palestinian Council and a president to govern the PA until May 1999.10

The timing of these elections was understood by advocates of Palestinian democracy to be a crucial component of their fairness—the assumption being that the longer Arafat was allowed to head an authoritarian regime before facing voters, the more likely he was to vitiate the meaning of the elections. For similar reasons, it was critical that Arafat not be given control over the 1.1 million Palestinians who lived in the towns and villages of the West Bank until shortly before elections. Thus, one of the most important elements of the Oslo accords was the stipulation that Israel’s security forces would not redeploy “outside populated areas” of the West Bank until “the eve of elections.”11

For a longtime autocrat like Arafat, democratic elections under these circumstances posed a new challenge. Since merging his Fatah faction with the Palestine Liberation Organization and taking the PLO’s reins in 1968, Arafat had ruled the Palestinian national movement in dictatorial style for two and a half decades. During this time, he had proved adept at shifting the seat of his power from place to place, while keeping its basic foundations unchanged. From 1968 to 1970, he presided over a number of PLO mini-states located in Jordanian territory and appointed militia leaders who made their own laws and financed their operations by collecting protection money from local residents.12 From 1970 to 1982, when the PLO controlled a wide swath of territory in Lebanon, Arafat created “the Fakahani Republic”—named for the Beirut street where the PLO leader was headquartered—which was characterized by arbitrary rule and widespread corruption; indeed, the term “Fakahani” has become synonymous among observers of Arab politics with corrupt governments that rule through the force of arms.13 After 1982, when the PLO was driven from Lebanon and relocated to a seafront neighborhood in Tunis, Arafat tightened his control over the organization’s bureaucrats and its military wing, the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), to the point that he personally decided on most appointments and even signed the checks and wire transfers himself.14

Establishing his authority over the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was no easy task, however. Arafat had not spent more than a few weeks in these areas since his early childhood, and had not set foot in them since 1967, shortly after Israel captured them in the Six Day War—when he had fled dressed as a woman to escape from Israeli troops seeking to shut down the terrorist networks he had established.15 For all that the Arab residents of these areas identified with the PLO leadership and with Arafat (according to polls, he enjoyed a plurality of support among the residents of the territories), they had developed their own local leadership as well.16 A number of left-wing and Islamic movements were competing with Fatah for the loyalties of the populace, and even within Fatah, prominent leaders and Intifada activists had made it clear that they did not accept the primacy of the “PLO-Tunis”—whose top officials had been staying in five-star hotels while the residents of the territories were in the streets throwing Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers and settlers.

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