The Chairmen

Two recent books assess the successes and failures of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas.

In mid-January 2020 Mahmoud Abbas, the octogenarian president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), announced that elections would take place the following May for the PA Legislature, in July for the PA Presidency, and in August for the National Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Declaring elections isn’t particularly significant in and of itself—the same thing happened in 2009, 2011, and 2019, before Fatah-Hamas recriminations prevented them. But if they are to go ahead—and there are several reasons that suggest they won’t—they will be the first national Palestinian elections since 2006.

Elections could be an important step towards resolving the Palestinian national movement’s many challenges. Political dysfunction and geographical division between Gaza and the West Bank has deepened. Gaza suffers from a humanitarian crisis with no imminent resolution. Israeli occupation is increasingly entrenched, with the “Palestinian issue” hardly registering as a topic of discussion over four election cycles. Despite (justified) optimism over the Biden Administration, no final status negotiations with Israel are on the horizon.

Those looking at the glass as half full might point to the suspension of Israeli plans to annex the West Bank. Yet this came at a steep price for the Palestinians. Israel’s deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco shattered the traditional Palestinian “veto” on Arab states normalizing relations with Israel in the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace. With the Arab-Israeli normalization train leaving the station, the Palestinians have been left angry and indignant on the platform.

Palestinian relations with their Arab neighbors are also at an all-time low. More worried by the specter of a nuclear Iran, the threat of Sunni fundamentalism, and the dangers inherent in continued American retrenchment from the Middle East, many Arab states have turned their back on their Palestinian brothers. Saudi media outlets have denounced the Palestinian leadership, condemned Abbas and his associates as “thieves,” and called on “wise Arabs” to distance themselves from “gangs of political opportunism” in order to negotiate a comprehensive regional peace with Israel. In an interview with television news channel Al-Arabiya, long-time Saudi diplomat Prince Bandar said scathingly that Palestinian leaders “bet on a losing side,” adding “and that has a price.”

It is this much-maligned leadership that Menachem Klein, in his book Arafat and Abbas: Portraits of Leadership in a State Postponed, as well as Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon in The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas seek to explore.

Yasser Arafat was born in Cairo in 1929, the sixth child of a Palestinian merchant. Following his mother’s death, the four-year-old Arafat was sent to Jerusalem to live with his uncle. He gained an engineering degree from Cairo University, subsequently moving to Kuwait in 1958. It was there he formed a nationalist, liberation organization, Fatah; he later became chairman of the PLO, the umbrella organisation recognized as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” (of which Fatah was the largest party). After attempts to establish power bases in Jordan and Lebanon, Arafat and his band of followers were exiled to Tunis, before triumphantly returning to the West Bank after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Yet with the stalled peace process (for a perspective that is sympathetic to the Palestinians, read Abe Silberstein’s review Preventing Peace in these pages), the failed July 2000 Camp David Summit, and the violent Second Intifada (with regard to which Arafat’s role continues to be debated), the Palestinian leader was sidelined by the international community. Arafat died in a Paris hospital in 2004, at the age of 75, and was replaced by Mahmoud Abbas as head of Fatah, Chairman of the PLO, and President of the PA.

Arafat was perhaps the political equivalent of Marmite—either loved or loathed depending on the audience. Klein seeks to explain how Arafat became a Palestinian icon, especially as he “was hardly the charismatic personality typical to the genre. He was not attractive like Che Guevara and did not symbolise the romance of the Palestinian revolution.” He wasn’t an eloquent spokesperson, nor a natural leader. He wasn’t even the most talented activist of his generation.

Yet for Klein, there was something about Arafat—both his strengths and weaknesses— which mirrored, or were perceived to mirror, the Palestinian national experience itself. He was symbolized as the personification of the collective. “His tendency to appear like a helpless ingénu who doesn’t understand why he is being asked for something beyond his abilities expressed, in the eyes of his people, the situation of the Palestinian nation after the 1948 defeat.” Even his less attractive qualities did the trick. “Arafat’s use of fallacious reasoning and empty slogans, and his tendency to tell the listener what they wanted to hear, or use double and ambiguous meanings, were perceived by the public as a means of survival in a hostile environment, considering that alternate leadership styles had failed to prevent the 1948 Nakba.” During his lifetime, Arafat’s dress, his place of residence, his lifestyle, and his work habits helped blur the lines between the personal and the national. Ultimately, he became an icon of total dedication to the national liberation struggle.

For the Israeli public and political establishment, Arafat was untrustworthy at best and an unreformed terrorist at worst. The failure of Camp David and the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada demoralized (some would say destroyed) the Israeli peace camp. Nevertheless Klein, who was an adviser for Jerusalem Affairs to the Israeli team and a member of the 2003 Geneva Initiative negotiations, is not entirely unsympathetic to the Palestinian leader. He does criticize him for destroying his relationship with Bill Clinton, president of the United States at the time. But he also believes that Arafat was unfairly demonized by Israelis, lamenting how Ehud Barak’s post-Camp David narrative of “there is no Palestinian partner” was erroneously absorbed into Israeli consciousness.

Klein should have perhaps dwelled more on the deep Israeli disillusionment with Arafat, which wasn’t simply the result of a PR spin by the Israeli prime minister. The then foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami (who Klein advised) charged Arafat as being “unprepared to give up Palestinian mythology.” (He also described negotiating with him as like “trying to pick up mercury with a fork.”) Gilead Sher, the prime minister’s chief of staff, saw him as a “leader of a national movement rather than a statesman.” Even left-wing Israeli novelists joined in. In a not-so-subtly titled interview in Israeli-Arab newspaper Kul Al-Arab “I hate Arafat from the bottom of my heart,” A.B Yehoshua (who these days is an advocate of an Israeli-Palestinian federation) called the Palestinian leader “a liar who cannot be trusted.” Similarly frustrated with Arafat was the administration in Washington. Clinton ended up meeting Arafat more times than any other foreign leader during his tenure. Yet in their final meeting, Clinton told Arafat that he feels like a failure and that “you [Arafat] have made me one.” Long-time negotiator Dennis Ross believed “Arafat was never ready—mentally, personally, or historically—to conclude a deal with Israel”.

Admittedly, Klein, now a professor at Bar Ilan University, brings decades of expertise to the subject. But this is not the only place where I felt Klein’s analysis and politics became too intertwined. His conjecture that the Great March of Return in Gaza—which included Hamas operatives throwing Molotov cocktails and placing explosive devices on the border fence—was “generally non-violent” and that it showed that “save for a few exceptions, Palestinians are able to stick to non-armed resistance and Hamas is ready to endorse it” raised this reader’s eyebrows. Similarly, Klein’s belief that Hamas has undergone an “impressive ideological trajectory over the years” is a point of contention for many. (Granted, Hamas’ 2017 document of principles no longer views Jews—and one assumes the Freemasons and the Rotary Club—as “cells of subversion” responsible for the French Revolution, Communism, and World War Two. But it still falls short of the Quartet Principles of recognizing Israel and rejecting violence.) All in all though, Klein’s book provides a useful history of both Arafat and Abbas, especially for those who hold a traditional Israeli narrative of their defects—even if the reader doesn’t always get a sense of their underlying motivations in decision making.

Henry Kissinger once observed that the “leaders of so-called freedom movements are typically not democratic personalities” and that “installing a government that makes its leaders dispensable—the essence of democracy—strikes most of them as a contradiction in terms.” The object of Kissinger’s scorn was Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam, but it rings true of Arafat as well. Klein describes Arafat as “not a team player, nor a dictator, but rather both the captain and the coach.” But he also contends that his transformation from a leader in exile in Tunis to the head of the newly established PA in Ramallah was a step too far. Those methods that befitted him as the exiled head of a liberation movement were insufficient for running the daily affairs of several million people.

What was Arafat’s legacy? Klein believes his main success was in pushing the PLO and Fatah “from the margins of the Arab political system to the spotlight,” an achievement all the more noteworthy because it was done “without enjoying a solid territorial base from where the PLO could uninterruptedly function.” The Oslo Accords—which Edward Said termed “a Palestinian Versailles”—were far from perfect. But for Klein, the return from exile into a land over which it claimed sovereignty was a remarkable achievement for the Palestinian National Movement, especially one hosted by what he terms “indifferent, or sometimes hostile and manipulative regimes.”

Mahmoud Abbas, who replaced Arafat following his death, is different in both temperament and approach. He doesn’t have a compelling personality, nor does he “play a heroic drama” in Klein’s words (Klein subsequently refers to him as drab and lacking all charisma, sense of humor or charm). While Arafat and other Fatah leaders were organizing commando missions against Israel, Abbas raised money, wrote articles, and helped improve the movement’s ties with oil-rich Gulf monarchies. Ashraf al-Ajrami, who later served as a cabinet minister under Abbas, once said that the future president was never one of the big shots. What became known as the generation of the First Intifada looked up to what al-Ajrami terms “the three giants of the Palestinian movement”—Arafat, Abu Jihad, and Abu Iyad. But despite these modest beginnings, Abbas was ahead of his time. And his time ultimately came.

The Last PalestinianRumley and Tibon’s well-researched and engaging The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas reads like a tragedy in three acts. In the first act, Abbas, born in 1935 in Safed and forced to flee with his family during the 1948 war, is a peripheral figure. He becomes Fatah’s “diplomat in residence,” carving out a role as the PLO’s in-house expert on Israel. Partially by accident (following the assassination of Arafat’s two closest deputies—one by Israel, one by Palestinian rivals), Abbas is catapulted into becoming one of the last surviving “founding members” of Fatah. When Arafat dies, many consider him the natural replacement.

Yet Abbas isn’t just some boring and besuited bureaucrat lost in a sea of charismatic guerrilla fighters. During these years, he promotes two positions which put him at odds with many in the movement, but which ultimately take center stage. He is one of the first Palestinian leaders to promote a state alongside Israel rather than instead of it. He also stakes out a position against armed struggle as an effective tool of liberation, maintaining this controversial stance even at the height of the Second Intifada, when it puts his life in danger.

It is in the second act that Abbas’ time to shine arrives. His 2005 presidential election victory is the high point of his career, the “golden age of Abbas’s rule” according to Rumley and Tibon. Abbas has reached the height of his political legitimacy. He has gained a popular mandate, is embraced by Washington, and has the tacit support of Israel.

Yet while this act isn’t particularly nasty or brutish, it is short. A year later, Hamas defeat Fatah in the PA parliamentary elections. Eighteen months after that, the Islamist group violently take over Gaza. Hamas attempt to assassinate Abbas. He is unable to promote the agenda with which he had become identified, and his position never recovers. Rumley, who interviewed Palestinian officials in camps and cities throughout the West Bank while researching the book, and Haaretz journalist Tibon argue that these events change the trajectory of the Palestinian national project forever. Abbas becomes a president with half a mandate. When in 2008 Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert offers a peace proposal—and later, in 2014, when U.S. president Obama does likewise—Abbas doesn’t feel he can answer in the affirmative. Instead, he never answers at all. Once a champion of democracy and reform, Abbas gradually turns into an authoritarian. From starting his presidency as a man of peace and institutions, Rumley and Tibon write that Abbas, more than a decade into his four-year term, has “morphed into another garden-variety regional autocrat.”

Yet the tragedy may not just be Abbas’ alone, but for all those, Israeli and Palestinian alike, who see partition of the Holy Land as the only just solution to a 100-year-old conflict. And after he leaves the scene things may get worse.

Klein’s final chapter looks at the succession struggle in the “After Abbas” era, detailing five potential scenarios. The “Abbas compatible leader,” such as the current Fatah number 2, Mahmoud Aloul; the “Security Service Man,” such as Majd Faraj or Jibril Rajoub; the “Ousted,” such as long-time rival Mohammed Dahlan, who since 2011 has resided in the UAE and is considered a close adviser to Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed; the “Popular Leader in Captivity,” such as Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail; or a takeover by movement like Hamas.

Regardless of the scenario that comes to pass, the “Day After Abbas” will undoubtedly be significant. But to paraphrase Churchill, it is unclear whether it will form the end, the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning of the Palestinian National Movement. Is it more likely that a triumvirate of leaders smoothly divide the positions of head of Fatah, Chairman of the PLO, and President of the PA; or that violent clashes break out amongst rival armed groups, leading to anarchy and chaos? Will a successor maintain opposition to armed struggle? Will formal support for a two-state solution exit the scene along with Abbas?

In any event, Klein is likely correct when he argues that the struggle over Abbas’ succession “signals a generational change among the Palestinian leadership.” In the foreword of The Last Palestinian, former American diplomat Aaron David Miller suggests that it is difficult to envision any single politician or security official replacing Abbas in the definitive way he replaced Arafat. The old guard who established Fatah and the PLO will be replaced by a younger generation who have spent most of their lives in Palestine. Rumley and Tibon posit that this new wave of leaders will spark a conflict between the liberation movement (the PLO) and the state-building apparatus (the PA), one that the latter will probably lose. Abbas, they say, is the “Last Palestinian” to authentically personify the arc of the modern Palestinian national narrative. As Hussein Agha and Rob Malley state, in a New York Review of Books essay from which Rumley and Tibon took the title of their book, Abbas is “the last Palestinian with national stature and historic credentials, the only one who can authentically speak on behalf of all.” Yet if this is the case, where does it leave Palestinians and Israelis?

A later article by Agha – this time with Ahmad Khalidi in the The New Yorker – suggests that the contemporary Palestinian national movement, “incomplete and suspended…not doing much liberating, locked in a fruitless negotiating process, and denied the means of government by a combination of Israeli obduracy and its own inadequacies,” is reaching its end.

What might replace it and what direction might it take? Some in the Palestinian diaspora believe that it is impossible to advance a “national strategy” while excluding half the population (those Palestinians living outside the West Bank and Gaza). Others feel that the PA has dropped its liberation strategy for self-determination, putting all its eggs into the precarious basket of statehood. A recent book by Israeli journalist Ohad Hemo, Different Territories [Penei Hashetach] concludes that many Palestinians dream of “a return to 1987”: the time before the First Intifada when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crossed the Green Line daily to work, and everything—from trash collection to education to security—was the responsibility of the Jewish state. From both sides of the spectrum, it seems that the allure of a Palestinian state (or statelet) alongside Israel is fading.

Agha and Khalidi suggest that perhaps we need to move past the idea of “one overarching, comprehensive, negotiated resolution that incorporates all the fundamental elements of the conflict.” Instead, what was termed “the Palestine problem” may be in the process of becoming several different challenges, requiring different solutions: “the disappearing prospects for the original national project of self-determination, statehood, and return; the peoples’ alienation from their formal representatives; the realities of the Gaza–West Bank split; the continuing trials and tribulations of the diaspora; and the daily struggle for freedom from occupation and equal rights in Israel.”

There is of course a possibility that elections renew and legitimize a more representative PLO that can provide a platform for all Palestinians—inside and outside the West Bank—to plot a path forward. Perhaps Abbas and Fatah will win a landslide, and those writing him off as an autocrat will be forced to eat humble pie. But far more likely is that the “Palestinian issue” continues its slide towards the margins of Arab political thought—a complete reversal of Arafat’s crowning achievement.

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