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Jun 2002 Journal

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Arafat = bin Laden? (editorial)

When speakers at April's Washington National Rally for Israel equated Arafat with bin Laden they were at one and the same time speaking the truth and guilty of hyperbole. Arafat is without doubt a terrorist in the sense that Eichmann was a Schreibtischmörder (a desk-bound killer). He released previously jailed members of murder squads from prison at the start of the second intifada, and spurred on his own Tanzim militants to engage in a grizzly competition with Hamas and Islamic Jihad as to who could achieve a higher tally of Israeli civilian dead. In addition, he has condemned suicide bombing only with great reluctance.

Where the equation of Arafat with bin Laden breaks down is in the relationship of means to ends. The end desired by bin Laden is a global conflict between Islam and the exploitative, decadent, US-led West. Such an apocalyptic vision clearly marks the man out as a lethal reality-denying psychopath on a par with Hitler (who, while bogged down in the snowy wastes of Russia, blithely declared war on the United States). The means he employed, i.e. the al-Qa'eda network, was certainly capable of spreading indiscriminate slaughter, but it could never mobilise the billion-strong body of the Muslim faithful spread across half the globe for a concerted anti-Western campaign as he envisaged.

Arafat, on the other hand, vaguely symbolises an end no liberal-minded person could, in principle, take exception to: the creation of a Palestinian state. It is said by Amos Oz and others that Israel's withdrawal to the 1967 border and the disbanding of the settlements would cut the ground from under the feet of the Palestinian extremists. If the majority of Arafat's constituency thought logically this would, indeed, be the case. Alas, it cannot be taken for granted. They might listen to siren voices of extremists who would argue that having driven the Israelis back to the 1967 line, another jihad might push them all the way back to the Mediterranean coast, and make possible the re-occupation of Haifa, Jaffa, etc.

In such a situation, an awful lot would depend on the head of the newly created Palestinian state - who, all other things being equal, is bound to be Yasir Arafat. At this point, the question of whether means vitiate the end becomes relevant. Benny Morris, a historian hailing from the Israeli left who made his name by exploding the myth of a wholly voluntary Palestinian exodus in 1948, has dubbed Arafat 'the monarch of a kingdom of mendacity'.

The man certainly has a record for double-dealing that would excite the admiration of Machiavelli. He sided with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, swung back to a pro-Western stance thereafter, led Clinton and Barak by the nose at Camp David, condoned the public lynching of alleged Palestinian collaborators, says different things to English- and Arabic-speaking audiences, and spent EU subventions on building up a plethora of police forces who spy on each other.

The fact that he was recently pinned down in his bomb-scarred headquarters in Ramallah has endowed him with huge authority in Arab and, above all, Palestinian eyes. Alas, given Arafat's previous track record, it is highly questionable whether he will use this authority for constructive ends.

One of the besetting problems of the Arab-Israeli conflict is that the Jewish state is a First World country marooned among Third World neighbours. (It is typical of the fallacious thinking of the Palestine Solidarity lobby in this country that they deplore, instead of welcoming, the establishment of an enlightened Western outpost among the feudal, or priest-ridden, autocracies that make up the region.)

None is more feudal than Syria. Though nominally a republic, Syria is currently ruled by Assad the Second, whose father had a fourfold claim to fame. He sheltered the Nazi mega-murderer Alois Brunner, killed 20,000 of his own subjects at Homs, lost the Golan Heights to Israel, and turned previously independent Lebanon into a Syrian colony. When a regional peace conference between Israel and her Arab neighbours is mooted, as happened recently, it needs to be borne in mind that the Israeli representatives will be dealing with men of a totally different mindset. By then Sharon may have been replaced by Peres on the left, or Netanyahu on the right, but the Pasha of Damascus will still be Assad the Second. The problem of the Palestinian state - with which Israel will eventually have to share the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan - is that it will bear the imprint of Arafat, the monarch of mendacity, as surely as Iraq does that of Saddam Hussein.

next article:Appalling Tom Paulin