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A Final Act of Stagecraft

Martin Peretz is editor in chief of the New Republic.

Barbara Plett is the BBC correspondent in the West Bank. On Oct. 30, reporting on Yasser Arafat’s sickbed departure from Ramallah to Jordan, en route to his Paris death watch, she confided to a Radio 4 news program: “When the helicopter carrying the frail old man rose above his ruined compound, I started to cry.” Quite an admission from a journalist of record. At least she was candid. But she is not the only reporter to have been enlisted in the personal drama of Abu Amr (his nom de guerre, which literally means “father of war”) as a segue into making propaganda for his cause. ABC’s Peter Jennings has been doing it for decades, going back at a minimum to the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Palestinian leader’s first great statement on the world stage.

The spectacle of Arafat’s death was his last act of stagecraft, and it was a metaphor for his life. There wasn’t an honest moment in the whole play. With doctors in attendance from France and several Arab countries that had not exactly been faithful to the Palestinian cause, no one told and so no one knew the exact nature of Arafat’s malady. Some said he was dead, some said he was brain-dead. Others said he was talking.

Arafat’s estranged wife, Suha, wouldn’t allow his subordinates to visit, until she suddenly did -- though not before she staged a shrieking fit for Al Jazeera. Much of the mayhem was about the succession for which the Palestinian Authority is utterly unprepared. More of it, probably, was about money -- $1 billion or more, according to most estimates -- the whereabouts of which (or much of which) may now be lost between the gray and white matter of his cerebrum.

The rais -- or chief, as Arafat was known -- was a cruel, conniving and utterly corrupt man. Yet despite all the multiple murders he had planned and paid for, including the deaths of U.S. diplomats as well as thousands of noncombatant Israelis, President Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided at the end of the year 2000 to offer him a Palestinian state the likes of which no Israeli government will agree to ever again. (For what it’s worth, I opposed those offers as perils to Jewish life.) But there was no one in the Palestinian polity to force his hand to accept them. Arafat was, in fact, a tyrant, much like his hero Saddam Hussein.

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What he did achieve over the course of three decades was to keep the Palestine problem at the center of the world arena. But he sorely confused, as many Palestinian intellectuals also do, an endless array of anti-Israeli resolutions in the U.N. General Assembly and the Human Rights Commission with the real, meaningful, reasonable steps required to create a viable home for his people. Vibrant denunciations of Israel may be gratifying to the Arabs of Palestine; these may fuel their resentments and stoke their hopes, as the sheer shedding of Jewish blood also appears to lift their spirits. Tomorrow the world. But all of this is really a mirage in the desert.

Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, is said to have sired two nationalisms: the first, Jewish; the second, in imitation and opposition, Palestinian Arab. This is more cute than true. But, if a nation is galvanized by leaders, the Jewish nation was especially blessed and the Palestinians have been more than doubly cursed.

After Herzl and before statehood, there were three pivotal Zionist leaders. One was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis. His conversion to the cause swept American Jews into the Zionist orbit and helped convert Woodrow Wilson to the idea of the Jewish state. One of Brandeis’ obsessions was that Zionist leadership and its financing needed to be democratically arrived at, transparent and open. In the teens and early ‘20s, the notion that a revolutionary movement would keep accurate accounts was, well, revolutionary.

Chaim Weizmann, a Russian-born British scientist who later became the first president of the state of Israel, understood that what Jewry required was not a vast landmass it could not fill but a sovereign commonwealth to facilitate the flow of Jews from doomed European soil. He said he would accept a state “the size of a tablecloth,” and to the dismay of many of his comrades, he did. Yet when the surviving Jews of Europe made their ways out of postwar displaced-persons camps, they had a place to go.

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David Ben Gurion, who would be the first prime minister of Israel, was the head of the Yishuv, Jewish Palestine in the making. He was a headstrong man, combative and uncharitable to opponents. Nonetheless, he was a passionate democrat, and the Yishuv -- its dispersed towns and collective settlements and its various institutions -- was a model of democracy at work.

Three leaders, three achievements. Maybe this is too simple a claim, but on these rocks, a free and orderly society was born.

An independent Palestine will eventually emerge, too. But thanks in part to the leadership of Yasser Arafat from 1969 until today, its press will be intimidated. Its courts will not be independent. Its schools and universities will be centers of ugly racist and anti-Jewish doctrine. Its sciences will not be curious. Law will be determined by which faction is most cruel. Women will suffer the historical onus of their gender in Islam. Gays will try to escape to Israel. Its economy will be crippled because Israel will be wary of allowing Palestinians to come in and work. A fitting tribute to Yasser Arafat, his legacy to the Palestinians.


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