November 13, 2004
The Greatest con Man of the Ages
By Margaret Wente
The Globe and Mail
Yasser Arafat a partner for peace? It was a big lie, and most of the Western world fell for it.
A couple of years ago, I visited the West Bank refugee camp of Dheisheh, just a few miles down the road from Bethlehem. There, I chatted with some schoolgirls friends of Aayat al-Akhras, a lovely and studious 17-year old who had been persuaded to blow herself up in an Israeli supermarket. The girls had modestly covered their heads, but they also wore tight jeans, platform shoes and lipstick. What, I asked, did they think of their friend's martyrdom?
" I only wish I had the courage to do what she did," said one.
This is Yasser Arafat's legacy - a world where teenagers are poisoned by hate.
As newscasters and world leaders solemnly bow their heads, it's time to speak ill of the dead. Mr. Arafat used highschool girls, pregnant women and mentally retarded adolescents as human bombs. He personally ran a vast kleptocracy that funnelled billions into foreign investments and Swiss bank accounts. The deathbed scene featured his hysterical wife, Suha, who it is reasonable to speculate, refused to pull the plug until she got her share of the loot.
Mr. Arafat conned much of the world into believing he was a partner for peace. By the time we finally realized we'd been duped, he had created an enduring myth of the Palestinians as the most cruelly martyred people on Earth.
Everyone has seen the now familiar scene of Mr. Arafat's shattered compound in Ramallah, reduced to rubble by Israeli tanks. But you never see Ramallah's villas, where top Palestinian Liberation Organization officials live comfortably while ordinary people struggle to get by. Around Ramallah's private Quaker school, the streets are jammed with BMWs and Audis as the Palestinian and United Nations elite drop off their children. "He was very friendly to his friends to ensure they lived well", a Palestinian official told The New York Times.
Aayat's large family was crammed into a two-room house, and their dream was that, one day, they would go home again to a place they had never seen. Their delusions were stoked by Mr. Arafat, who promised that, one day, the Jews would pack up and disapear and that all of Palestine from the Jordan River to the sea would be theirs again. In 1996, he made a speech in Dheisheh: "We know only one word: jihad, jihad, jihad."
That was two years after he had won the Nobel Peace Prize.
The day I met Aayat's parents, they were getting ready for a trip to Mecca, paid for by the Saudis to honour the martyrdom of their daugther. They were also eligible for Saddam Hussein's reward for martyrs' families. Mr. Arafat had been a staunch supporter of Saddam, and he and the Palestinians made millions from the special export licences dispensed by Saddam to sell Iraqi oil.
I later visited Aayat's high school, which had been built with the help of funds from the European Union and Canada. In the front hall was a giant reproduction of Aayat's pre-martyrdom photo, done in paint. It took up most of the wall. It showed her wearing a kaffieh, looking fierce, and cradling a gun. It reminded me of that famous picture of Patty Hearst after she'd been kidnapped and brainwashed. The school principal told me the whole school regarded Aayat as a hero.
For Mr. Arafat, the struggle was never about the Jewish occupation of Palestine. It was about the existence of Israel. According to the maps in the Palestinian texbooks, there is no Israel. There is only Greater Palestine. As Israeli writer, Yossi Klein Halevi says, "The reason there is no peace isn't because Jews live in the West Bank city of Hebron but because they live in Tel Aviv."
How could Mr. Arafat have conned us for so long? I guess we wanted to be conned. He even conned the Israelis, who thought that, until the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000, there really was a chance for peace.
In reality, the two sides were never even close. After that, the Israelis lost their illusions, even as the West hung on and cranked out wishful road maps. Now that Mr. Arafat is off the stage, everyone wants the Americans to butt heads again. Well, they can't. Not as long as the mullah call Jews pigs and monkeys, and music videos on Palestinian TV keep telling kids how glorious it is to die a martyr.
Mr. Arafat made a fool of Jimmy Carter, who was among his greatest fans. He made a dupe of Bill Clinton, who believed he was a man of reason. He destroyed the careers of a long succession of Israeli prime ministers. But, most impressively of all, he managed to elevate the Palestinians to the world's greatest victims.
For the leftish intellectual elites of Europe, Canada and the United States, the Palestinians took the place of the black South Africans in the essential modern narrative of colonial oppression. In this narrative, Israel is the stand-in for America, brutally repressing a helpless population that only yearns to breathe free. The Palestinians even borrowed the vocabulary of apartheid to describe their plight. Fashionable Western students stared affecting kaffiyehs to show their solidarity and turned Mr. Arafat into a new Che. As one (anti-Israeli) website put it, "he defined terrorist chic for the Western world."
Time and time again, Mr. Arafat said exactly what he meant. But he said it in Arabic. His friend Jacques Chirac was tender to the end, describing him as a man of "conviction and courage" to whom he "paid homage." The Vatican went even further; it referred to him as the "illustrious deceased" and asked God to grant eternal rest to his soul. Its statement made no mention of terrorism.
People are in mourning in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But they should be dancing in the streets. Yasser Arafat was the worst ennemy the Palestinians ever had. And most of the Western world was his enabler.