Palestine: Nation Building – or yet more of the same… / האם הפלסטינים באמת רוצים במדינה עצמאית

(This op-ed piece was carried by The Jerusalem Post a few years ago. I find it's still relevant, though)

דניאל דגן - Dieser Beitrag erschien in The Jerusalem Post vor einigen Jahren. Doch hat er an Aktualität nicht verloren. Denn auch noch heute stellt sich die Frage: Will eigentlich die palästinensische Führung einen Staat oder nicht?

Hier der Text in English:

My first encounter with Yasir Arafat took place in the UN’s Palais des Nations

in Geneva. The American government had unwisely refused to allow the Palestinian leader into New York to meet with the General Assembly, so the UN delegates had reconvened in Switzerland. It was an embarassing diplomatic flop for the U.S. and Israel and an enormous public relations coup for Mr. Arafat. A short conversation with him convinced me: This man personified the political and national aspirations of his people. No exile, no isolation, no form of indignity could wrest that leadership from him. More meetings followed. One was in Germany, where Mr. Arafat was to be awarded that nation’s Media Prize together with Yitzchak Rabin. But the Israeli prime minister had been murdered only shortly before, opening the prominent stage to Mr. Arafat alone. He spoke passionately of peace, but stuck to his trademark uniform and his appearance as a fighter and revolutionary. He chuckled at my remark that the two of us surely had a lot in common, both having been born in Cairo. „Yes,“ he allowed, „Actually we’re both Arabs. Whether we‘re Muslims, Christians, or Jews – that doesn’t matter.“ Good-natured as it was, his comment revealed a basic ideological principle. The Arab nations, who for two generations have found in Mr. Arafat their most vocal and prominent representative, do not view the Jews as a people, but rather as a religious community. That explains the continued, inner reluctance of most of the Arab world to accept Israel as a sovereign Jewish state, without fudging and equivocation. There was to be no change in this fundamental position by the occasion of a further meeting, a few years ago. I accompanied the then German president, Johannes Rau, on a Mideast visit that led us to the Palestinian offices in Gaza, Ramallah, and Bethlehem, where Mr. Arafat hosted a luncheon in Rau’s honor. A revered Arab tradition insists that no table speeches be delivered at such gatherings, allowing the guests to enjoy the oriental hospitality to its fullest. A short exchange with Mr. Arafat impressed me nonetheless. Although the sufferings of his people had left him visibly bitter, sheer pragmatism could still move him to fashion a modus vivendi with Israel. But today, with the advantage of hindsight, I must confess that I was massively mistaken in Mr. Arafat. I draw some comfort from the fact that my error puts me in the finest company – with the murdered Rabin, with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, with former President Bill Clinton, and with virtually all statespeople of international stature who have tried to defuse the powder keg of Arab-Israeli conflict. So now, it seems politically misguided and somewhat ridiculous to see the Israeli government officially declare Mr. Arafat an „irrelevant“ individual. Of course he is relevant, and he has been so continuously for almost 40 years thanks to his resilient rule over the Palestinian movement. The Arafat phenomenon must be recognized for its uniqueness: Presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, and even kings come and go. Only Mr. Arafat remains a permanent fixture on the world stage. It’s a high-profile role that Mr. Arafat will relish and maintain until his final breath – regardless of what Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intends to do or say about it. The tragedy of the Palestinian people in this story is that Mr. Arafat has failed to change the operating principles that have guided him throughout his single-handed rule. Javier Solana, the European Union’s coordinator for foreign affairs, is probably right in his assessment that Mr. Arafat cannot be expected to change anymore. That’s something for which he is simply too old, too ingrown with his role as a revolutionary leader. Mr. Arafat is still putting his bet on the suicide bombers, allowing their families to be rewarded to the tune of $25,000 for each attack. Mr. Arafat has received several good faith offers for the creation of a Palestinian state – with 97 percent of the occupied territories and replacement territorities for the remaining three percent, with Jerusalem as the capital, with peaceful cooperation, with extensive international financial and political support. But he can’t seem to devote himself to the more mundane concerns of constructing a Palestinian state, such as health care and education. That’s something he is mentally and emotionally unwilling to do, and something of which he is probably no longer capable. And that’s why Yasir Arafat will never make a real nation-builder for his people.


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