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The leader and symbol of the Palestinian people is dead. His departure from the political scene has far-reaching implications, particularly for Israeli-Palestinian relations.
The official Israeli line for the past four years has been that there is no Palestinian partner and that Yasser Arafat is persona non grata. Arafat has been blamed for being personally involved in planning and encouraging terror attacks. He has been accused of using funds donated by the European Union to finance terrorist activity and of establishing close links with those “forces of evil” — Iran and Iraq. There has also been criticism for mismanaging and embezzling public resources and of using authoritarian methods to control the Palestinian administration and security apparatus.
While some of these allegations are no doubt true, they have been disseminated again and again by the Israeli government and media in order to create a “no-partner” myth. This was designed to convince the world that Arafat was an obstacle to peace, the major reason why the Oslo process collapsed.
Had it not been for Arafat, it was asserted, negotiations could have been resumed, the cycle of violence broken and ultimately peace attained. World leaders like Bush and Blair and many other shapers of public opinion all sang from the same hymn sheet, helping to promote the notion that Arafat was the primary hindrance to a just settlement.
Like every political myth, the “no-partner” one has been used to conceal rather than to reveal. It aimed to obscure the fundamental grievances fueling the conflict, namely that Israel has been occupying Palestinian land for 37 years and that the number of Jewish settlers actually doubled during the Oslo process — the years Israel was ostensibly preparing to withdraw from the territories.
The “no-partner” myth was also used to undercut basic Palestinian demands, which Arafat represented: Israel’s full withdrawal to the 1967 borders, the establishment of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, and the recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees. Finally, it sought to destroy Arafat’s persona, for he had become an international symbol of resistance, a symbol of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. And as the embodiment of this struggle, he had managed to unify Palestinian society — both exiled and occupied — and thus strengthen his people’s national identity.
This potent myth accordingly suggested that the escalating conflict was due to the absence of a partner, rather than to Israel’s unwillingness to address Palestinian grievances and demands.
Israel’s problem is that Arafat’s death will not resolve anything. The reasons for the conflict will persist. Prime Minister Sharon must therefore choose between two radically different courses of action. He can decide to address Palestinian claims, which undoubtedly would entail painful compromises by Israel but could eventually lead to peace in the region. Alternatively, he can fashion a new myth, one that would again divert the public’s gaze from the real issues, and enable Israel to continue expropriating Palestinian land and destroying the population’s infrastructure of existence. This latter option is the one Sharon will most likely embrace. The question then becomes: What new myth will be created?
NEVE GORDON teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Human Rights Center and Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His book From the Margins of Globalization: Critical Perspectives on Human Rights is scheduled to appear next month (Rowman and Littlefield). He can be reached at email@example.com
This article originally appeared in In These Times.