Uri Avnery, a leader of the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom, was in 1974 the first Israeli to start conducting talks with Arafat's representatives. In 1982, he was the first Israeli to meet with and interview Arafat.
Yasser Arafat will be remembered as one of the greatest leaders of the second half of the 20th century. He is sometimes compared to Nelson Mandela. But Arafat’s task was a thousand times more difficult than that of Mandela, who spent 28 years in prison and so remained totally untainted by external struggles and internal struggles and of any association with terrorism. And in the end, he received an existing state. One day he was the leader of a liberation movement, the next day he was president.
Arafat, in contrast, received a widely scattered refugee people, all of whom were living under Arab dictatorships. A nation whose leadership was pursued by the secret services of half a dozen countries, including Israel. As a result, Arafat was compelled to lie, sometimes to this Arab leader, sometimes to that one. He had to resort to ambivalence and needed the ability to manoeuvre. That ability is perhaps one of his most prominent qualities.
Arafat also had to create a state ex nihilo. To establish a state where there was no infrastructure, no economy, no instruments of government. And he had to bridge the tensions between the veteran leadership from Tunisia and the young local leadership. And between Christians and Muslims. Between woman and men. Between hamulas [clans]. Between refugees and residents of the territories. He had to hold that whole package together, almost on his own, under unbelievable conditions. And he succeeded. He also succeeded in not giving in. He stood up to Clinton and [former Israeli prime minister Ehud] Barak and did not capitulate. So there is no doubt in my mind that he will become one of the major heroes of Arab history.
Arafat was religious, yes, but his leadership was secular. He represented an essentially secular national movement. He represented Arab nationalism in a European format. Bin Laden, in contrast, represents anti-national Islamic fundamentalism which rejects Arab nationalism just as Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] Judaism rejects Israeli nationalism.
Therefore, both Israel and the United States made a terrible mistake by not entering into an alliance with Arafat. Because henceforth all the Arab revolutions will be fundamentalist in character, whereas Arafat was the last chance for the victory of Arab nationalism in the Western format. He was the last barrier to the extremist Islamic forces.
The greatest danger facing Israel is the danger of Salah a-Din: of a counter-Crusade in which the Arab world unites under the Islamic banner. That is a true existential danger for Israel. Arafat was the total opposite of that, both in the small Palestinian arena and as a symbol for the entire Arab world. So, as the Egyptian thinker Mohammed Sid Ahmed said, if Arafat didn’t exist, Israel would have had to invent him. Arafat was a natural partner to ensure Israel’s future. But we behaved foolishly. We broke him. We didn’t understand that he was a critical element in the wall against fundamentalism. We didn’t understand that Arafat was the only counter-pole to bin Laden, his associates and his successors.
Sharon is an ignorant man and so is Bush. That is the connection between them. They are both appallingly primitive people who are incapable of grasping broad historical contexts. The joint effort by the two of them to break Arafat represents historical shortsightedness of a-historic people. People who do not understand history and do not live history. Both of them have effectively left the field to bin Laden. By Bush’s destruction of Iraq and by the fact that the two of them broke Arafat, they have inflicted a disaster on both America and Israel. But America will be able to cope. Even if the result is the destruction of another hundred towers and the transformation of the United States into a fascist dictatorship, America will ultimately recover and be healed.
For Israel, though, this is an existential problem. In breaking Arafat we made a historic
mistake, which we will probably not be able to rectify.
Arafat made two historic concessions: He recognised Israel and he recognised the Green Line. In doing that he accepted our presence here as legitimate and gave up 78 percent of the territory that constituted pre-1948 Palestine. Those are monumental concessions.
Every additional concession beyond them was actually impossible. Nevertheless, at Camp David, Arafat made three more concessions. He agreed to a limited exchange of territory, he agreed to accept the Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem and he agreed to Israeli control of the Western Wall. But those concessions were made orally, not in writing, and his successors will find it very difficult to implement them.
I have known Abu Mazen for 20 years and Abu Ala for 15 years. They are both good people, honest and decent. But if you are a young Palestinian in Jenin with a rifle and you hear their names, your reaction is, “Who are those guys, anyway? Who are they to tell me what to do?” So their authority will be very superficial. It’s possible that for the time being they will get support, because the Palestinian people does not want a civil war.
The trauma of the 1930s is engraved deep in their memory. But this quiet will necessarily be temporary. It will disappear the moment the leadership makes some sort of decision.
That is the real problem of Abu Mazen and Abu Ala: They will not be able to make decisions.
I foresee two possibilities. The one that frightens me more is a fundamentalist wave in the Arab world that will wash over the Palestinian people. That is the most serious concern. But the timetable for that development is not clear. The Islamic revolution might break out in another 20 years or it could break out tomorrow morning. It might break out in Saudi Arabia or Egypt but it could also break out in Gaza or Ramallah.
There’s no way to know.
There is also another possibility, of a more immediate character. Already today the Shin Bet [security service] is telling us that there are hundreds of Palestinians who are ready to become suicide bombers on any given day. That is the case with Arafat still here, with his restraining influence. But without Arafat there won’t be five or six militant organisations but 50 or 60, or maybe 500 or 600. And no one will be able to control them. There will be no restraining entity to curb them. A chaotic situation of that kind will be terrible for the Palestinians first of all. But it will also make the lives of Israelis hell.