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SHALEM PRESS




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.


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S
ince 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.


Daniel Polisar is Editor-in-Chief of AZURE. During the January 1996 Palestinian elections, he led the observer team of Peace Watch, a non-partisan Israeli organization accredited by the Palestinian Authority as an official elections observer.






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