The internal crisis in the Palestinian Authority over the leadership of Yasser Arafat has resulted in renewed efforts on his part to present himself at the end of the day as the only realistic partner for moving forward in the peace process.

In early August, in a meeting with Israeli peace activists, Arafat reiterated his readiness to meet Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to implement a ceasefire.1 Yet, at the same time - as the Palestinians requested from a delegation representing Yossi Beilin's "Geneva Understandings" that a joint declaration be made calling on the Sharon government to unconditionally release Arafat from his Ramallah compound - only one Israeli politician agreed to the idea.2

Arafat's use of the Israeli peace camp and the international community, in general, to seek rehabilitation has many sources. According to diplomatic officials, the Quartet is thinking of reintroducing Arafat into Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations after the U.S. elections, despite longstanding U.S. and Israeli opposition to such a move. As one international study recently noted: "Arafat intends to be a player in the Gaza disengagement process, and a strategy is needed for securing his cooperation or overcoming his efforts to obstruct the process."3

Already at the NATO summit at the end of June 2004, French President Jacques Chirac noted: "People can have whatever opinion they like of President Arafat or any other president, but legitimacy cannot be contested if a different legitimacy is not proposed." Chirac said it was normal for France to have contacts with the Palestinian leader who was "probably the only person who could impose compromise on the Palestinian people."4

Furthermore, former President Bill Clinton told the Guardian on 20 June 2004 that Arafat is so influential in the Palestinian territories that America and Israel have no choice but to work with him if they want Mideast peace. "Unless they just want to wait for him to become incapacitated or pass away or unless they seriously believe they can find a better negotiating partner in Hamas...then they need to keep working to make a deal," he said.5

In addition, the debate among members of Israel's intelligence and research community over Arafat's suitability as an interlocutor has sharpened in recent months. There are those who still believe, despite the results of the failed 2000 Camp David Summit, that Arafat is prepared to reach an historic compromise and to recognize the State of Israel as the Jewish homeland. However, others argue that Arafat has not abandoned his aspirations to bring about the destruction of the State of Israel, and he continues to view demographics as a prime vehicle for achieving this goal.6

The basic positions of Arafat, the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, and the Fatah organization on the issue of acceptance of Israel were analyzed by this author in the Jerusalem Viewpoints, "Understanding the Breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations," which appeared on September 15, 2002.7 The review that follows focuses specifically on Arafat's position regarding a permanent settlement as he has presented it in public during the course of the current campaign of Palestinian violence against Israel that began in September 2000 and is still continuing.8

There is no indication whatsoever that Arafat has adopted a more accommodative position regarding Israel over the last four years.

What emerges is that there is no indication whatsoever that Arafat has adopted a more accommodative position regarding Israel over the last four years. Incorporating him in the peace process will likely produce again the same negative consequences as were reached in the period from 1993 through 2000.

Israel's Original Sin

Arafat is driven by a well-defined worldview regarding the causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the roots of the historic conflict between the Palestinian national movement and Zionism, on what he views as Palestinian soil. In his view, the awakening of Jewish nationalism, which crystallized at the close of the nineteenth century into the creation of the Zionist movement which viewed "Palestine" as the historic homeland of the Jewish people, is akin to an "original sin."

In his view, Zionism drew its power from its ties to Western imperialism, which allowed Zionists to successfully garner the international support that served as the foundation for a Zionist takeover of parts of the Palestinian homeland. The Palestinian people, according to Arafat, found itself facing an overarching "Zionist-imperialist plot" that threatens "the existence, homeland, and holy places of Christianity and Islam, [and the] life, history, and future of the Palestinian people"9 - a plot to which they "will never acquiesce."10

Arafat perceives the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 on portions of Palestinian territory as the embodiment and fulfillment of this plot - a "black" and "cursed" day in the annals of the Palestinian people, whose right to Palestine was plundered and overcome by force of arms and its Palestinian inhabitants expelled from the "land of their forefathers."11 Arafat calls the establishment of the State of Israel a "national calamity" (nakba in Arabic) for the Palestinian people. He vehemently rejects any historic or religious claims of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel and demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the role of Israel in solving the "Jewish problem."12

A Religious-Based Conflict

Furthermore, Arafat insists on the total and exclusive rights of the Palestinian people to historic Palestine, basing such claims first and foremost on religious grounds. Palestinian soil is considered holy Islamic territory, eternal and indivisible, containing Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa mosque (site of the initial direction of worship for Islam prior to the change in the direction of prayer to Mecca), today the third most important holy site to Muslims after the Saudi Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina.13 In Arafat's eyes, the rights of the Palestinian people to historic Palestine are a holy "trust from the hands of Allah," passed from generation to generation "until judgment day."14 Beyond this, Arafat claims that the Palestinian people hold a birthright to Palestine as a legacy from their forefathers who resided in Palestine before the period of modern Jewish settlement15 (ignoring evidence that there was a Jewish majority in Jerusalem by 1854).16 "We are the unquestionable title-holders to this land throughout history," Arafat has declared.17

In numerous speeches in recent years, Arafat has never alluded to a willingness to make any religious or historic concessions or compromises with the Jews over any part of Palestine. The opposite is true. He views the restoration of all of Palestine to its legitimate owners as akin to a "burning torch lighting the arduous path of generations of Palestinians, generation after generation."18

Arafat's worldview is intertwined with Islamic motifs. The Palestinian struggle is not merely a national-political struggle, but primarily one with religious significance that draws its inspiration from the Islamic conquests of the days of the Prophet Mohammed. Arafat repeatedly notes that Palestinian soil is a-ribat and that Palestinians are in a state of ribat until the Day of Judgment.19 Ribat is an Islamic concept that expresses the preparations of the Islamic army for jihad against an enemy, and whose objective is to awe or terrify one's adversary.20

In addition, Arafat frequently peppers his speeches with a verse from the Koran alluding to how Israel, which took Jerusalem from Muslim hands, will cease to exist and the Muslims will reconquer Jerusalem and Palestine.21

Arafat labels the Palestinian struggle a "jihad, a holy war against the infidels," and the military wings of Palestinian organizations that carry out terrorist attacks against Israel, including those that perpetrate suicide bombings and their handlers, are all, without exception, described by Arafat as "jihad warriors," as "heroes," as "brave," and as those who "by their arms" will realize the Palestinian vision.22 Moreover, Arafat has declared more than once that "we are all prepared to sacrifice our lives" for national objectives, stressing that the Palestinian people will die [i.e., martyr itself] to protect the holy places of Islam and Christianity on the soil of Palestine."23

Arafat's "Peace of the Brave"

Parallel to this intransigent and bellicose stance, Arafat seeks to present a political perspective that leaves an impression of flexibility and realpolitik in the search for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He repeatedly raises the banner of a "peace of the brave" as a strategic choice he has chosen willingly, stressing his arduous devotion to reaching a "comprehensive and just peace" that "will ensure security and stability" and "a two-state solution" based on "good neighborly relations" between peoples, for "the future of Palestinian and Israeli children."24

Arafat's "peace of the brave" means peace based on the "Stages Plan" adopted by the PLO in 1974 (i.e., to destroy Israel in stages).

However, an examination of the details of this outlook reveals that Arafat's "peace of the brave" is no different in substance from the intransigence that characterizes other fundamental Palestinian positions. Within his speeches, Arafat provides the keys to his interpretation of a political settlement in a clear and unequivocal manner. Arafat's "peace of the brave" means peace based on the "Stages Plan" adopted by the PLO in 1974 (i.e., to destroy Israel in stages),25 and on decisions of the Palestinian National Council in 1988 that were the basis for negotiations of interim agreements.26

Thus, Arafat declared: "We have chosen this strategic path on the basis of a peace of the brave and security in the future as it is expressed in the decisions of the Palestinian National Council in Cairo [1974], in Algiers [1988], in Gaza and other conventions."27 In a meeting with intellectuals and journalists in January 2001, Arafat clarified his intent: "The Palestinian Authority was established in keeping with what we summed up in Algiers [1988] to establish our Palestinian state on all parts of Palestinian land that will be liberated or from which Israel will withdraw and we are marching [forward] in accordance to what we agreed upon, step-by-step, kilometer by kilometer, mile by mile, sea by sea."28

Many times Arafat disclosed his ideology through proxy speakers. Thus, the official Palestinian Authority newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida reported on 1 January 2001 on a speech given by Fatah leader Sakher Habash in the name of Yasser Arafat, in which he stressed: "Experience proves that without the establishment of the democratic state on all the land, peace will not be realized....The Jews must get rid of Zionism....They must be citizens in the state of the future, the State of Democratic Palestine."

Arafat and the "Right of Return"

In May 2001, Arafat underscored that "Our people clings to its land, holy Jerusalem and the holy places. It will not surrender one grain of that soil of its homeland, or on even one of the legitimate international resolutions. It will not surrender the right of the Palestinian refugees to return according to Resolution 194 that stipulated the right of refugees to return to their homeland and their places of residence" [i.e., to reclaim their homes inside Israel].29 (In actual fact, UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 11 December 1948 does not recognize any "right" to return, but recommends that the refugees "should" be "permitted" to return, subject to the condition that the refugee wishes to live at peace with his neighbors.)30

In his speech on Nakba, Day on 15 May 2004, Arafat described the right of return as a "divine" command and "determinist" imperative that supersedes UN resolutions, declaring: "There is not one body in the world with the right to surrender the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. The State of Israel can never free itself of the moral, political, and international responsibility...for this tragedy visited upon the Palestinian refugees. The refugee problem is a problem of the people and the land and the problem of the homeland and the problem of [our] national destiny as a whole. There will be no concession, there will be no negotiation, and settlement [of refugees] will not take place [outside of Palestine]. Every single Palestinian refugee has the holy right to return to his homeland Palestine, in keeping with the legitimate international resolutions and, first of all, the resolution that relates to return of the refugees, 194." 31

In an interview with Arafat in Ha'aretz on 18 June 2004,32 in response to a question on whether he would agree to a solution that would preserve the character of Israel as a Jewish state, Arafat replied by referring to the decisions of the 1988 Palestinian National Council and stressing the validity of the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Palestinian lands. When the interviewer said, "You understand that Israel has to keep being a Jewish state?" Arafat responded - "Definitely," adding in the same breath, "I told them we had accepted [this] openly and officially in '88 in our Palestinian National Council."

The Religious Roots of Palestinian Rights

Giving a religious foundation to the conflict, Arafat argues that the authority of Muslim rights to Palestine emanates from the Covenant of Omar and the special status it accorded to Christians and Jews. The Covenant of Omar is named for the second caliph Omar (634-664), who according to Islamic tradition set forth the status of "protected communities" (ahl al-dimmah) under Muslim rule. Jews and Christians were allowed to keep their respective faiths but were relegated to second-class status, forced to pay special taxes such as the capitation tax (jizya) and land tax (kharaj), required to wear a yellow badge on their clothing, and faced other discriminatory measures such as a prohibition on building houses higher than those of Muslims.

Arafat has complained that the UN has failed to take steps to restore the rights of Palestinians based on the authority of the Covenant of Omar, in accordance with Islamic tradition. In essence, he wants decisions taken by the international community to be subordinate to Islamic law.33

A key element in Arafat's eyes is full realization of the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees to territories that are part of the sovereign State of Israel, after partition of the area west of the Jordan River between a Jewish state and a Palestinian state in a final status agreement. Such a move would spell the end of Israel by demographic means - first by transforming the Jewish state into a binational state through the influx of Arab refugees who would create almost a parity in numbers to Israel's Jewish population, and afterwards becoming a predominantly Arab state with a Jewish minority due to the significantly higher birthrate of Palestinians.

"Palestine is our homeland. An a-ribat land and the Holy Land, homeland of our fathers and grandfathers and the homeland of our grandchildren and the generations to come. Palestine is our homeland and it has no substitute and we have no homeland beside it. Every Palestinian refugee awaits the day when he will embrace it, his homeland, and restore the identity of the homeland and the honor of its inhabitants to the homeland Palestine [author's italics]."34

Yet Arafat is employing doubletalk when discussing the right of return. He demands that Israel implement the right of return in keeping with UN resolutions and "international legitimacy," but in the same breath shields himself from any possible change in the political posture of members of the international community, such as President Bush's statement in April 2004 that Palestinian refugees would have to seek their future in a Palestinian state, and that a return to Israel was unrealistic. Arafat declares that the right of return is absolute and is not open to alteration of any kind. In principle, Arafat adopts the ideological position of Hamas, which does not recognize UN resolutions as the supreme source of authority regarding a solution of the conflict, although he differs from Hamas in striving to appear in the public arena as if he accepts the ground rules of international politics, assuming that the most effective vehicle for forcing Israel to implement the right of return is pressure from the international community.

Nevertheless, Arafat maintains the option of returning to violence, armed struggle, and terrorism if Israel should refuse to allow Palestinians to fully realize their right of return: "A Palestinian who was expelled and dwells in the diaspora or throughout the country [a reference to both Palestinian refugees residing in the West Bank under Palestinian rule and to Israeli Arabs] has the right to return to his homeland in accordance with legitimate international resolutions including Resolution 194. There will not be peace or stability as long as Palestinian refugees [remain] expelled from their homeland, for their right is a holy entitlement."35 Arafat underscored this in a speech he delivered at the summit of the Organization of African States in July 2002: "Any initiative that will renounce the rights of the Palestinian people and that will not answer their expectations and national aspirations will never be acceptable to it. On the contrary, [the Palestinian people] will perpetuate and enflame the conflict and serve as the agent who will restore [the conflict] to a state of violence, struggle, [and] lack of security and stability in the region."36

Arafat's ideological doctrine rests on both an Islamic perspective and political-tactical pragmatism. Israel's former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami concluded years after the failed Camp David Summit: "It transpired that for Arafat, Oslo was a sort of a huge camouflage act behind which he has been exercising political pressure and terror in varying portions in order to undermine the very idea of two states for two peoples." Ben-Ami realized that Arafat was "not a leader connected to the ground," but rather was "a religious man...focused on mythological issues."37

This modus operandi is not Arafat's position alone. It has been a matter of national consensus for years among the majority of factions in Palestinian society and among the Palestinian leadership. The recent debate among Palestinians regarding Israel is not over fundamental Palestinian demands, but rather centers on the political-tactical pragmatism required to realize their demands. Moreover, this ideological doctrine has been adopted by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades as part of their formal political agenda, so that even those rebelling against the Palestinian Authority's system of governance do not question the ideological legacy that Arafat has left for future generations.

Courtesy of