Nine years ago this week, Yasser Arafat, the symbol of Palestinian nationalism died. Yet, Palestinian nationalism was already buried in his lifetime. Arafat was responsible for creating a narrative that informed the identity of not only Palestinians, but of the Arab world at large. Palestinian nationalism spearheaded by Arafat has evolved. It has been overtaken by Islamism which in turn has also overtaken Arab nationalism in numerous Arab states.
While nationalism can be militaristic or employ terrorist tactics all in the name of the people, it can be unrealistic and romantic. Islamism as an ideology is purely one of resistance to the West couched in religious terminology. Its suicidal tactics and outcome are legitimized by romantic dividends paid not in this world, but in the afterlife. In the Palestinian territories, the seeds of Islamism were planted by Arafat that had sprouted already in his lifetime.
Israel never predicted the blowback it received for seeking to capitalize on the collapse of the Soviet Union's sponsorship of the Palestinian Authority. Israel hoped to bring the Palestinian leadership into the fold and use it as a bulwark against the rise of Islamism. At the same time, Arafat was seeking legitimacy in the Palestinian street and embracing radicalism after not being responsible for initiating the first Intifada as he was residing in Tunisia. To this end, Arafat never abandoned his PLOs phased approach of the 10 point program revealed in 1974 which was:
Through the 'armed struggle' (seen by the international community as terrorism), to establish an 'independent combatant national authority' over any territory that is 'liberated' from Israeli rule. (Article 2)
To continue the struggle against Israel, using the territory of the national authority as a base of operations. (Article 4)
To provoke an all-out war in which Israel's Arab neighbours destroy it entirely ([liberate all Palestinian territory). (Article 8) http://www.un.int/wcm/content/site/palestine/cache/offonce/pid/12354;jsessionid=ED2AC7E70A82F5C7CCB42BC6357FCDEC
This was all the while Arafat was engaging in double speak, promoting the peace process in English for the ears of the Western media while in Arabic advocating an ethos of Jihad that used suicide bombers against civilians. Still today Palestinian text books advance this ethos and its maps do not include Israel and successfully pushes off peace for at least another generation. There is no reason why it should include Israel on its maps as Arafat founded the PLO in 1964, three years before the occupation. This is why in July 2000, Arafat stunned the Americans at Camp David, as Dennis Ross reveals by rejecting the offer of 97% of the West Bank and Gaza.
The acquisition of territory essential for a state was never the true intention of Arafat. Maintaining an identity of resistance to Israel and the West mattered more than creating a viable liberal democratic state that promoted transparency, accountability and good governance. This too has been inherited by Abbas prompting Salaam Fayyad to resign.
Nationalistic claims were merely a diversionary tactic to disorientate Israel and the West. In a poignant recollection Bill Clinton revealed in his memoirs how as he was about to leave office, Arafat heaped praise on him calling him a 'great man' to which he replied, 'I am not a great man, but a fool and you made me one.'
This new form of nationalism which was zero-sum game and genocidal in its intent enabled Arafat to sign cheques for the families of suicide bombers. Saddam Hussein eagerly followed suit paying families of suicide bombers and in the process loyally repaying Arafat, the one Arab leader who stood by his side in the 1991 Operation Iraqi Freedom. A Saudi telethon in 2002 raised funds for the families of 'Palestinian martyrs.' It is easy to see how Palestinian nationalism could be supplanted by Islamism as they always had a tacit agreement between themselves dipping into each other's ethos, rhetoric and tactics.
A culture of resistance masquerading as independence, and consistently connected to Islamism is what promotes the Palestinian issue to remain at the top of successive US administration's Middle East agenda. This is to the point that US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg asserted his absurd belief in the myth that peace between Israel and the Palestinians would resolve numerous crises across the Middle East. This is all the while Iran threatens to go nuclear much to the fear of Israel and the Gulf, Egypt is experiencing state failure, Syria has used chemical weapons and has killed over 100,000 of its citizens. As a state Syria is rapidly disintegrating and its borders with other countries are eroding. This is accompanied by a massive refugee crisis threatening the security of Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.
A viable Palestinian state obviously requires territorial concessions on the part of the Israelis. It also depends on the Palestinian willingness to abandon the spirit of Arafat's resistance that has contributed nothing to the well-being of the average Palestinian. The alternative is for a newly formed Palestine to rapidly follow the state failures of its surrounding countries enjoying an 'Arab Spring'. The subsequent surge in Islamism and springboard for international terrorism in the Palestinian territories is precisely what Israel and the West originally sought to avert by embracing the PLO. Yet this is what Arafat himself reveled in.
Barak Seener is the Associate Middle East Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and founder and CEO of Strategic Intelligentia