Yet again, Yasser Arafat is dying. We thought he’d been killed back in 1982 when the Israeli air force flew around Beirut attacking apartment blocks and homes they thought he was visiting. Their bombs tore to pieces hundreds of innocent Lebanese civilians but Arafat was never there. Then we thought he’d died in a plane crash in the Libyan desert — but it was the pilot who died and the bodyguard who shielded him in his airline seat. Then we thought he’d bought it on the road to Baghdad when he suffered a blood clot. But Jordanian doctors brought him back to the world of the living. Now, again, we’re preparing for the old man’s death. Yet like the Pope, he seems to go on and on and on.
He is a wearying man, not just in his repeated death but in life as well, a man who married the Revolution — as his wife was to discover — rather than develop a coherent strategy for a people under occupation. And in the end, he became like so many other Arab leaders — and as the Israelis intended him to be — a little dictator, handing out dollars and euros to his ageing but loyal cronies, falsely promising democracy, clinging to power in his shambles of an office in Ramallah. Had he done what he was supposed to do — had he governed “Palestine” (the quotation marks are daily more important) with ruthlessness and crushed all opposition and accepted all Israel’s demands — he would be able now to visit Jerusalem, even Washington.
I recall how, just after the famous handshake on the White House lawn, I told an Israeli friend in Jerusalem that it was only fair that he would now have to live with Arafat next door. After all, I said, I’d had to suffer his near-occupation of West Beirut for seven years. Those were the days when he promised to return all the refugees of pre-1948 Palestine to their homes, when he deliberately sacrificed thousands of Palestinian lives in the Tel el-Zaatar camp to earn the world’s sympathy, when he tolerated aircraft hijacking and talked about “democracy among the guns” and eventually left his people in Beirut to Israel’s murderous henchmen in the Phalange.
The Arafat mug was never going to find its way on to university walls like Guevara or even Castro. There was — and still is — a kind of seediness about it and maybe that’s what the Israelis saw too, a man who could be relied on to police his people in their little Bantustans, another proxy to run the show when occupation became too tiresome. “Can Arafat control his own people?” That’s what the Israelis asked and the world obligingly asked the same question without realising the truth: that this was precisely why Arafat had been allowed back to the Occupied Territories — to “control” his people. The only time he did stand up to his Israeli-American masters — when he refused to accept 64 per cent of the 22 per cent of Palestine that was left to him — he returned in triumph to Gaza and allowed the Israelis to claim he was offered 95 per cent but chose war.
When he started negotiating with the Israelis, he had not even seen a Jewish settlement but he put his trust in the Americans — always a dangerous thing to do in the Middle East — and when Israel began to renege on the withdrawals, there was no one to help him. Israel broke withdrawal agreements five times.
Then came intifada two and the Palestinian suicide bombings and 11 September 2001, and it was only a matter of time — about six hours, to be exact — before Israel said Arafat was linked to Osama bin Laden and that Ariel Sharon, too, was fighting world terror in his battle with the “terrorist” Arafat. In a country where the word “terrorist” is even more promiscuously used than it is in the United States, it was applied to Arafat by every Israeli official and every right-wing journalist outside Israel.
Sitting like an old and dying owl in his Ramallah headquarters, it must have struck Arafat that he had one unique distinction. Some “terrorists” — Khomeini, for example — die of old age. Some — Gaddafi comes to mind — become statesmen courtesy of mendacious folk like Tony Blair. Others — Abu Nidal is an obvious candidate — get murdered, often by their own side. But Arafat is perhaps the only man who started off as a “super-terrorist”, was turned overnight by the Oslo agreement into a “super-statesman” and then went back to being a “super-terrorist” again. No wonder he often seems to be losing attention, making factual errors, falling ill.
Like all dictators, he made sure that there was no succession. It might have been Abu Jihad, but he was murdered by the Israelis in Tunis. It might have been one of the militant leaders whom the Israelis have been executing by air attack over the past two years. It could still be, just, the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti. And, if the Israelis decide that he should be the leader — be sure the Palestinians won’t get any choice in the matter — then the prison doors may open for Barghouti.
Yes, Arafat might die. The funeral would be the usual excruciating rhetoric bath. But the truth, I fear, is that Arafat died years ago.