Yasser Arafat and George Washington: How To Tell Them Apart

To Prince Bandar, all revolutionaries look alike.

In an April 5 Washington Post op-ed, Bandar bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States, compares Yasser Arafat to George Washington. Here’s the relevant passage:

I acknowledge that the Palestinians’ greatest crime is their insistence on resisting the military occupation of their country. This strange principle of resistance to military occupation of one’s country seems to be difficult for many American political, intellectual and media elite to comprehend—even though it has been practiced by others in the past, such as Nelson Mandela in South Africa under apartheid and Gen. George Washington during British colonial rule, and even Menachem Begin during the British Mandate of Palestine.These leaders from different countries and different continents share one thing in common. They were all labeled as terrorists by the occupying military force at the time. So what is the real crime, when the Palestinians resist the Israeli military occupation of their country?

Chatterbox will leave it to Israelis and South Africans to quarrel with Prince Bandar’s comparison of Arafat to Menachem Begin and Nelson Mandela. He will further set aside all controversies about where Israel’s borders lie and the obvious point that a sustained terrorist attack on your country entitles your military to retaliate. (Whether Israel’s military response to the Palestinian suicide bombings is likely to help resolve things is another, much more difficult question.) Sweeping these momentous issues out of the way, Chatterbox will focus on Bandar’s extremely faulty conceit that Yasser Arafat is some sort of reincarnated George Washington.

Point 1: During the Revolutionary War, America was not under (British) military occupation. Rather, what we now call the United States was a British colony. The Revolutionary War wasn’t fought to kick foreigners out; it was fought to break off one portion of Great Britain and turn it into a new nation. There may somewhere be people who believe that Palestinians are like the American colonists who revolted against their sovereign. But to think so requires you to believe that Israel previously maintained sovereignty over the West Bank, a point that no Palestinian is likely to concede.

Point 2: George Washington was never labeled a terrorist. The preferred Tory epithet was “traitor.” Washington and the Revolutionary Army were denounced for taking up arms against Britain, but that was a matter of soldiers killing soldiers. Did Washington massacre civilians? Chatterbox posed this question to Joshua Micah Marshall, who, in addition to publishing one of the better political Weblogs, is a Ph.D. candidate in American history at Brown University, specializing in Colonial and Revolutionary history. “There is some evidence of killing of civilians during the Revolutionary War,” Marshall conceded, “particularly in what was the Deep South.” The killing, he said, was done by local self-styled militias on both sides. But “I know of no evidence connecting Washington or the Revolutionary Army to the intentional killing of civilians.” (Important caveat: It’s very possible members of the Revolutionary Army massacred Native American civilians, just as Native Americans massacred many colonists. But the Revolutionary War wasn’t fought against Native Americans, it was fought against the British, so when Marshall says “civilians” he means “civilian Loyalists.”) By contrast, there is lots of evidence connecting Yasser Arafat and Al-Fatah to the killing of civilians. To put it another way: In the Americans’ struggle for freedom, a radical was someone who dumped tea in Boston Harbor. In the Palestinians’ struggle for freedom, a radical is someone who straps on a bomb and blows up Israeli children.

Point 3: America fought its revolution in order to create freedom and democracy. Maybe Prince Bandar thinks a new Palestinian state will be as solicitous of individual rights as its neighbor to the west. But if he does, he doesn’t have much company. And as a member of the royal family in one of the least free nations on earth, he isn’t likely to press the point.

Point 4: The closest thing to “military occupation” that the United States has ever seen was Reconstruction. But this comparison is not flattering to the Palestinians. The North “occupied” the defeated South because the South was trying to disenfranchise Negroes. When the occupation ended, Jim Crow was born.

We may now resume our discussion of the awful events in the Middle East. But please, let’s hear no more of George Washington.