Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Noonday Train

Twenty years of European and UN Middle Eastern policy may be lying on the deathbed with Arafat. That they had to fly in doctors to treat him in a makeshift clinic underscores how, after 50 years of UN relief and billions in European investment, there are no Palestinian institutions. Not even decent hospitals for its supreme leader. The downside of the Arab Way of War -- the Intifada in this case -- is that the concept of victory through denial is inherently pyrrhic.  'We burned our village in order to keep it from falling into enemy hands' is like lighting a match to examine the gas tank; it works but misses the point.

Palestine was cursed by the example of Algeria, which after evicting the French, could spend the next three decades cleansing itself of the poisons of terrorism. Arafat forgot that the Jews, unlike the French in Algeria, were as much a part of region as themselves. In place of protracted war, which at all events ends, Arafat embarked upon an eternal war with the eternal Jew. He would enter Algeria's tunnel of terror with no light at the end of it.

The Intifada may have hurt Israel, but it consumed Palestine, leaving it with only the counterfeit of a functioning society. Terrorism leaves nothing but ash. And when Arafat dies, as all men must, his legacy, no less than his corpse will be contested by a swarm of pretenders -- a power struggle, of possibly surpassing savagery among men nurtured -- at the European taxpayer's dime -- for their skill at terror. The Guardian has a piece, really an advance obituary, describing how only America, Israel and England refused to invest in Arafat. They mean it as reproof, unaware even of its irony.

If Mr Arafat is unable to continue as leader of the Palestinians, that too will change the politics of the region. The US and Israel, and latterly Britain, have refused to work with him, claiming he is unreliable and untrustworthy.

His successor could come from one of the new generation of politicians, either the younger Palestinians who came to the West Bank and Gaza with him from exile in Tunis 10 years ago, or the generation that was brought up in the West Bank and Gaza and led the first intifada in 1987 and participated or led the second one that began in September 2000.  ... But the succession might not be that simple. Groups outside Mr Arafat's Fatah organisation might want a claim on leadership, not least the Islamist organisation Hamas that dominates life in Gaza.

European policymakers may have realized, in some dim corner of their minds, that this day would come; but continued to invest in the frail man who now lies at death's threshold. Now the hour has come and the devil is at the door. Not just for Arafat, but for a whole failed policy. The Kansas City Star reports:

The sudden decline in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's health Wednesday night has widened a power vacuum that has already grown into a chasm in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip, and opens the real possibility of chaos and civil war in one of the world's most dangerous regions. ...

Even before the announcement of the Arafat's rapid decline Wednesday evening, factional fighting had left several cities in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories under the control of warring factions in the last year. In Jenin, a young firebrand named Zakaria Zubeidi has run the city for months, and has driven out other Palestinian officials.

In other cities, mayors have been run out of town, while other leaders have been killed by militants who are forging links with criminal gangs. There are few functioning municipal authorities and few signs of police authority. ...

While diplomats tend to discuss possible successors among the polished, urbane Palestinian political class, any realistic effort to understand what's next will have to take into account the Palestinian street, which is where the real power resides. And there is little indication thus far that any single leader can stem the political erosion Arafat and his supporters are already facing.

Liberal circles have derided the neoconservative idea of bringing democratic institutions to the Middle East as a pipe dream. Edward Said magisterially warned:

I wish I could say that general understanding of the Middle East, the Arabs and Islam in the United States has improved somewhat, but alas, it really hasn't. For all kinds of reasons, the situation in Europe seems to be considerably better. In the US, the hardening of attitudes, the tightening of the grip of demeaning generalization and triumphalist cliché, the dominance of crude power allied with simplistic contempt for dissenters and "others" has found a fitting correlative in the looting and destruction of Iraq's libraries and museums. What our leaders and their intellectual lackeys seem incapable of understanding is that history cannot be swept clean like a blackboard, clean so that "we" might inscribe our own future there and impose our own forms of life for these lesser people to follow. It is quite common to hear high officials in Washington and elsewhere speak of changing the map of the Middle East, as if ancient societies and myriad peoples can be shaken up like so many peanuts in a jar.

And heeding this advice, the Old Continent handed Arafat all the chalk he wanted to write what he wist. It would be nice if Europe were forced to live out the consequences of their policy -- to wed their superior vision to Arafat's perishable breath. But don't bet on it.