All Writings
July 10, 2002

An Open Letter To Yasir Arafat

Dear Mr. Arafat:

Time has grown short, and you must now face this inevitable crossroad: Either cling to the vestiges of your power at any cost and thus torpedo any timely prospect of a solution to your people's plight, or bow out gracefully and be remembered as the hero who has established their right to statehood. Try as you may to justify your continued hold on power, in the end your refusal to step down will be to your people's detriment. I can understand your instinctive rejection of President Bush's demands that you relinquish your leadership position, but let me try to challenge the premises on which you base your objections and refute them point-by-point.

First: No one else can rally the people: For obvious reasons you want to show your people that you will not succumb to any outside dictates and that only they, and no one else, including the president of the United States, can chose their leaders. Let us assume for a moment that deep down you believe that it is time for you to go, but your pride prevents you from departing center stage, or you really believe that you are the most qualified, if not the only leader, who can finally redeem your people. Believing either of these notions, you then run for re-election and probably win. In making your choice to run, however, remember that in order to be elected you will need every Palestinian vote you can muster, including those of the many fanatic Islamist members of Hamas and Jihad who still want to dislodge Israel from the territories by force or eliminate it altogether. According to recent polls, groups like Hamas and your Fatah movement each enjoy the support of about one-third of the popular vote. Many of the remaining one-third supporting the Young Guard (the product of the first Intifadah) who also want to throw off the Israeli yoke by force. If you were elected, it would mean that the violence against Israel, including the suicide bombings, would have to continue, because unless you support these efforts of this constituencies openly or tacitly, your chances of winning would dramatically diminish. And if you do win and then decide to quit and assume a ceremonial position, it will probably be too late to achieve any thing for your people because you will have prevented another leader from establishing his authority to govern while in the interim relations with Israel further deteriorate. Are you thinking of the hardship that you will inflict on your people as a result of this futile exercise? Do not rob this generation of Palestinians of the opportunity to achieve peace with Israel. Because, simply put, you are no longer an acceptable partner to Israel in any future peace negotiations, regardless of the makeup and the political leaning of the Israeli government.

Second: You are the symbol of the Palestinian liberation: Some of your senior lieutenants insist that you remain the head of the Palestinian national movement until a state is established, because you are the symbol of the movement. Indeed, you have been, and to a great extent, continue to be that symbol. Remember however, that for all intents and purposes, the goal of the liberation movement has been achieved. The whole world recognizes the need for the establishment of a Palestinian state, even the United States and Israel. As there is no longer any question about the Palestinians' right to statehood, what remains unsettled is when and under what conditions such a state should be established. You have succeeded in making the right of your people to have a state of their own universally recognized and in that sense you have accomplished their (and your) cherished goal. Now there is a need for new leader to translate this colossal achievement into a peace agreement. Unless you believe, of course, that there is no other Palestinian leader who can fill your shoes, in which case you had better think twice. For now is the moment when you must free your people from the burdens of past mistakes and permit them a fresh start. Listen to them. They may chant the songs of patriotism, rally behind you, and hold you in the highest esteem, but they also want an end to their unceasing suffering and despair. Deep inside, the majority of your people no longer want to continue to fight a losing battle. What they seek is a dignified way out. The recent demonstrations in Gaza and the police rebelliousness in the West Bank only foreshadow what is to come.

Third: You are preventing an extremist leader from being elected: There is also a legitimate concern that if you do not run, a leader from Hamas, Jihad, or another extremist faction not representative of mainstream Palestinians, may win the election and even a majority in the legislative council. Indeed, this scenario becomes increasingly probable as long as you continue to cling to power. The sooner you announce your decision not to seek office, several members of your own Fatah movement will be free to run, among them, Mohamed Dahlan and Jabril Rajoub leaders who can capture the public's attention and mobilize the political and financial resources needed to win an election. The majority of the Palestinians know how dim the prospects of peace with Israel will be if an Islamist is elected. But your running will inadvertently dry up much of the financial resources and spread out the political support another leader needs to win, thereby leaving the door wide open for an Islamist from Hamas or Jihad to rise to the forefront. You are the only obstacle in the way of these new moderate leaders which is why you must step aside and let them begin to organize an effective election campaign.

Fourth: With reforms you can restore your credibility to lead: Although you have publically embraced many of the political, financial, judicial, and social reforms enunciated by President Bush, you remain fearful of such open-ended reforms and their implications. You are neither used to–nor able to– accept sweeping reforms, in which transparency and accountability by officials at all levels essential to their implementation. Try as you may to play by the rules, if and when such reforms are adopted, they will still seem alien to you. But without these reforms there will be no Palestinian state. That is, there will be no state that your principal benefactor and supporter, the US, and your main partner in any future peace talks, Israel, will ever enter into any negotiation with, whether you or any anyone else is at the helm. You are a product of a past generation, and, as such, like the rest of the Arab leadership, engrossed in self-grandisement, immersed in self-denial and riding on the backs of your people, because holding onto power at whatever cost is what matters the most. There are no reforms, however gradual or useful, that you can adopt and with which you can then live. When you rejected the Clinton-Barak peace proposals, you let your people down. You chose with this decision to be remembered as the revolutionary, a hero who never compromises, rather than as a leader with a vision, who rises to the occasion and leads. Your decision shows now you have forgotten the real plight of your people and what the Palestinian revolution is all about.

Look around you. What do you see? In Syria, you are persona non grata; in Jordan, you are distrusted, and in North Africa, you are an object of ridicule. The Gulf states will cheer your demise; meanwhile, Saddam Hussein uses you to forward his mischievous schemes. Iran will arm you to prolong the Palestinians' pain for its own selfish ends. For Egypt's Mubarek you are nothing but a puppet on a string. For the Russians, you have become a mere nuisance, while the Europeans will sell you down the river in a blink. For the UN, you are a burden, and in Washington, you have exhausted your last ounce of good will. In Israel, you are a terrorist whose days are numbered, and in the eyes of your own people, you are becoming a mirage personifying a once noble dream.

And so I say, "Find a way out." Do so surely for your people but also for your own sake. Blame it on your health or circumstances, but rise for once above the fray. If there ever was a time for heroism, it is now. The Israeli occupation will end in one form or another, and there is no single individual who can accelerate that process more than you. If it is a sacrifice that you must perform, it is only befitting to ultimately make it for your own people. Do not fall into the trap of Milosevic, a leader disgraced by his misdeeds, dishonored and disowned by his own people. You can still step aside with dignity, as a leader who has personified and borne the pain and suffering of his people. Like Moses, after wandering in the desert for forty years, your mission is accomplished. Recall that God chose Joshua, a new leader with a different experience and orientation to guide the Israelites to the land of Canaan. In time it will be clear that you have made your greatest contribution to the cause of your people by leaving the political stage and letting a Palestinian Joshua lead his people to the promised land.