Yasser Arafat

Man of inaction. 

Yasser Arafat didn’t start the riots and marches of the latest intifada, but once they began he lent them his support. Arafat didn’t want to attend the Sharm el-Sheik summit, but he allowed himself to be cajoled into participating. Arafat agreed to a cease-fire, but he has barely uttered a public word in support of it. He has been, in short, halfhearted in every way he could be. Arafat’s public image is that of a busy, constantly scheming manipulator. But the events of the past few weeks—and the events of the past 30 years—suggest that Arafat is a very different type: the passive-aggressive.

Israelis are often unwilling to recognize this, but during the past few years Arafat has been, by Palestinian standards, a raging moderate. He has been more willing to negotiate with Israel than most of his fellow Palestinians. (In polls, half of Palestinians still favor violence against Israel.) He enthusiastically unleashed his security forces to suppress Hamas and other Palestinian radicals. When the majority of Palestinians favored declaring a Palestinian state in September, Arafat resisted, still hoping for settlement.

But Arafat’s moderation has not been guided by any particular vision. Rather, he toggles between his two eternal motivations: longing for international glory and instinct for self-preservation. Since it became clear this summer that he had strayed too far from the Palestinian public, Arafat has raced back to join it. Frustrated Palestinians have become more radicalized than their leader. They are enraged that Israel continues to build settlements on the West Bank and to fragment the occupied territories into cantonments. According to polls by the Center for Palestine Research and Study, between 1997 and early 2000 his approval ratings dropped from 70 percent to less than 40 percent.

Arafat responded to the discontent. He rejected Israel’s offers at Camp David because it would have been suicidal for him to accept them. (The American media have not sufficiently acknowledged this: Though Barak’s offers are viewed here as astonishingly generous, Palestinians see them as insulting, because they didn’t satisfy Palestinian demands for control of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and didn’t make adequate provision for refugees’ right of return. Palestinians declared publicly that Arafat would be killed as a traitor if he accepted such terms.)

Since then, Arafat has essentially acted by inaction. When Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, Arafat didn’t switch on the riots. They were a popular uprising. “He was despised by the majority of the Palestinian people. He had no legitimacy [when the uprising started],” says University of Chicago professor Rashid Khalidi. “The idea that he could be sending tens of thousands of kids into the streets is ludicrous.” But once the intifada did erupt, Arafat didn’t seek to control it. He went with the flow. He tacitly signaled his Fatah followers to fight, and he released Hamas troublemakers from jail. These half-measures—not quite endorsing the intifada, not condoning it—have been enough to restore his legitimacy.

Such inactivity has been the hallmark of Arafat’s career. He had one amazing decade of vigor from the late ‘50s until the late ‘60s. During that time, his endless organizing and fierce battles with the Israelis established the Palestinian national identity and made Palestinian liberation a global cause célèbre. But ever since, Arafat’s career has been marked by faintheartedness. As long as other Palestinians kowtowed to his leadership, Arafat was content to let events unfold around him. He had no “willingness to adopt a statesmanlike position and think of the long-term consequences rather than his own popularity,” writes Said Aburish in his Arafat biography.

Despite his awful reputation in Israel, for example, Arafat was never much of a terrorist. Rival Palestinian factions skyjacked airliners and murdered civilians. Arafat sat by and let it happen. In 1970, Arafat didn’t bother to control his fighters as they set up a fief within Jordan. This prompted King Hussein to crack down on the PLO, driving them out of Jordan in “Black September.” When Palestinian kids started throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers in 1987, they weren’t acting on Arafat’s orders. The intifada was homegrown: Arafat then piggybacked on it to push the Israelis into negotiating. And as head of the Palestinian Authority, Arafat has not made an effort to organize a decent, honest government. He has relied on his strong police force to suppress dissent and intimidate rivals but never developed a more ambitious plan for nation-building or democracy. (An Arafat paradox: Despite his penchant for halfhearted action, he is personally hyperactive. It may be that he can’t concentrate on any matter long enough to do anything long-lasting about it.)

Arafat’s few attempts at boldness have generally been disastrous. In 1990, for example, Arafat sided with Saddam Hussein after his Kuwait invasion, a mistake that virtually bankrupted the PLO. It alienated his sugar daddies in the Gulf States and caused Kuwait to evict the 250,000 middle-class Palestinians working there.

Arafat’s passive-aggressiveness helps explain why he has so disappointed both his people and the Israelis and Americans he has been negotiating with. In the eyes of Palestinians, Arafat has been acted upon during the peace negotiations. He has been weak and occasionally groveling for five years, yet still has nothing to show for it. And Israel and the United States are dismayed that he has refused to be Anwar Sadat. Americans and Israelis have been constantly hoping for the grand gesture from Arafat. Sadat made a bold peace, and Arafat is expected to do the same—to bravely accept Barak’s Camp David compromises, make a magnificent sacrifice, and persuade his recalcitrant people that all is fair.

But Arafat does not have the temperament for that. Sadat had the courage to drag his people with him, and he died for that courage. Arafat has no interest in dragging Palestinians anywhere, and even less interest in dying for it. (A nation of people who will die for their cause is ruled by a man who most certainly will not.) Arafat doesn’t know how to change the Palestine popular will: He only knows how to reflect it. He is the leader of the Palestinians. To Arafat, that means that he must follow them.