With Yasser Arafat's shattered compound surrounded by Israeli tanks and bulldozers for the second time this year, the question of his fate is once more dominating headlines. The subtext to the Israeli action is the rumour, within the Palestinian Authority, that the veteran leader could be about to step down.
It is abundantly clear Arafat still believes that his destiny remains in his own hands. That, in effect, is the price he can secure from the United States and others for exiting the scene is to leave on his own terms. His own terms not only include the obvious maintenance of his wealth -- currently estimated in the millions -- but also having a large say in who will succeed him as leader of the Palestinian Authority. Crucially, his demands also include a watertight guarantee that he will not be hauled before a war crimes court.
In financial terms, Arafat is already a very rich man. Nothing new here. What is becoming more apparent, however, is just how much Arafat has creamed off from foreign donations to the PA for his own use. It has been widely reported that much of this money has been deposited in Iraq and in Swiss bank accounts. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Arafat is no fool and has plenty of experience hiding money, so we must presume that his financial networks are both extensive and diverse. Consequently, to allow Arafat to go free would be tantamount to writing off all the money he has embezzled from PA budgets since its formation in 1994.
Arafat's desire to help choose his successor reflects the perennial fear of despots that, once stripped of power, they fall prey to the political whims of their successors. Consequently, Arafat does not want his departure to cause a change of guard within the Palestinian leadership. If he is to ensure his legacy, he needs to maintain a degree of continuity with the current leadership.
From Arafat's perspective, the United States and the wider world have a key role to play in ensuring that he can see out the remainder of his days in one of his many luxury villas in the West Bank -- and not keeping Slobodan Milosevic company in The Hague. Here the U.S. State Department -- while in public stating that such decisions are beyond its jurisdiction -- has in private indicated that it would do all it could to keep Arafat out of the dock. Such is the desire of President George W. Bush to get rid of Arafat that he would in all likelihood be willing to provide similar guarantees if the time comes for Arafat to go.
Like any leader, Arafat is concerned about his legacy. At present, given the tightly controlled media, most Palestinians have little idea how serious are the charges made against Arafat. This goes a long way to explaining why so many of them still regard him as their legitimate leader.
To a certain degree, Arafat's concern over his legacy is not entirely based on selfish motives. He is acutely aware that the birth of any nation is partly based on myths. School boys will be taught about the "glorious sacrifices" the state-winning generation made, and the role of Arafat will be glorified. One can almost foresee a national Arafat Day, with statues and streets named after him. In reality, the truth about Arafat is still too painful for most Palestinians to absorb. It could be a generation before revisionist Palestinian historians start to untangle the web of lies and corruption that surround him, and reassess his role in the struggle.
And so, it would appear that the price for getting rid of Arafat the leader is to ensure the survival of Arafat the man and Arafat the myth. But that would be wrong. There are already worrying signs that both Israel and the United States are coming round to the view that this price is worth paying.
Actually the better option is to keep Arafat in power for as long as possible -- while marginalizing him diplomatically. The hope here is that the Palestinians turn against their veteran leader and remove him from office in disgrace. Last week, there were signs that such a strategy could pay dividends with the resignation of the entire Palestinian cabinet, and news that some of Arafat's crimes against his own people are being more widely discussed among the Palestinian "chattering classes."
Do not give him an exit strategy just when there are indications his own house of cards is starting to crumble.Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College, London.
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