A Terrorist at Twilight
As Yasser Arafat reviews his life from his Paris hospital bed, what do you think he thinks? Does he regard himself as a success or not?
In some senses, he must feel he has failed. He has been waging war on Israel for four decades, and yet Israel is still there, richer and stronger than ever. He has personified Palestinian Arab nationalism—and he has led the Palestinian Arabs from one disaster to another.
Yet the old murderer surely also has abundant cause to feel successful. Once a pariah, a killer, a terrorist, he is now a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a billionaire. His agents hijacked planes, massacred civilians, organized the murder of schoolchildren and Olympic athletes—and even the assassinations of American diplomats. Yet he forced the world to recognize him as a legitimate head of government, and hundreds of millions of people worldwide regard him as the leader of a righteous cause. President Bill Clinton met with Yasser Arafat 24 times in eight years, more often than with any other international political figure. And though recent months have gone badly for him, Arafat has good reason to feel confident that he and his movement will in time recover.
Consider just this one fact: the world media’s astonishing lack of curiosity about the nature of the disease for which he has sought treatment in France. He has suffered a dramatic weight loss, memory loss and periods of disorientation, loss of muscle control and recurring nausea. His doctors tell us that his blood platelet count has dropped dramatically, but that he does not have leukemia. These symptoms sound remarkably AIDS-like, don’t they? An AIDS diagnosis would certainly accord with what is widely known about Arafat’s personal way of life. (Some of the lurid, homoerotic details can be found in the memoirs of Lt. Gen. Ion Pacepa, former head of Romanian intelligence under Nicolae Ceausescu. See page 36.)
And yet, even as the international media reports on Arafat’s condition with the kind of attention normally reserved for ailing popes, unwelcome possibilities like an AIDS diagnosis go unmentioned.
Thus Arafat’s number one reason for confidence: his command of the world press. Israel may win battle after battle on the ground, but it is losing the battle for global public opinion outside the United States. From the silence concealing Arafat’s own personal corruption to the suppression of unwanted images like those of Palestinians celebrating on 9/11, Arafat has cajoled and intimidated much of the world media into covering the Middle East as he wishes it covered.
Likewise, Arafat has enjoyed amazing success in persuading the world’s governments to draw a distinction between al-Qaeda terrorism and his own supposedly more acceptable brand. After the 9/11 attacks, the United Nations adopted Resolution 1373 calling on all member states to suppress terrorism. Yet European governments have acquiesced in the demands of Islamic states to exempt terrorist acts carried out during an “armed struggle for liberation and self-determination.”
Arafat’s diplomatic success has had important and—for him—positive political consequences. Thirty years of Palestinian terrorism have dulled the world’s moral outrage. At Nuremberg, the victorious Allies hanged German generals for atrocities against civilian populations. But atrocities against civilians are the only kind of war Arafat knows. Arafat’s forces have rarely if ever taken the field against the Israeli military. They have instead waged a war of kidnappings and random murder, very similar to that practiced by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. Yet this record has not isolated Arafat. To the contrary, the world has accepted Arafat’s terrorism—an acceptance symbolized by the fact that Arafat was allowed to wear a gun on to the rostrum of the United Nations in 1974, the only world leader ever to do so or try to do so.
So will he die content? That depends on how he defines success. To the extent that he was ever concerned about the plight of the Palestinians, ever wished to build institutions to help them, ever cared about their prosperity and freedom—then no, he must be regarded as one of history’s preeminent losers.
But if one sees him as a man motivated by the spirit of destruction—as someone who hated his enemies without ever much loving his own people—who measured his success in the grief he inflicted on others without much caring what his supporters suffered in return: In that case, Arafat scored success after success.
In the words of his fairest and best informed biographers, Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin: “This was the ultimate irony of his life: Arafat, the man who did more than anyone else to champion and advance the Palestinian cause, also inflicted years of unnecessary suffering on his people, delaying any beneficial redress of their grievances or solutions to their problems.”
For those people—for us all—the world will be a better place if he had never lived and will be a cleaner place after he is gone.