Arafat’s Ghost

Your first bit of post-Gaza required reading should be “How Arafat Destroyed Palestine,” by David Samuels, the cover story in the September issue of The Atlantic.

Heartening and optimistic it is not.

Samuels followed Yasser Arafat for years before the Palestinan Authority leader’s death on Nov. 11, 2004, writing about him for The New Yorker and other publications.

After Arafat’s protracted demise, Samuels went back and interviewed the Palestinian leader’s closest advisers, his followers, his confidants. Taken together, their insights hint at a man who was deceitful on his best days, not to mention controlling, imperious, vague, insecure and corrupt to his core.

The case for corruption is not new, but Samuels gets some of Arafat’s closest advisers to cop to a system of handouts, extortion and patronage that makes Tony Soprano look like Gandhi. The Oslo Accords, with the concomitant bales of international aid funds, only stoked the greed.

Then there’s this discomforting revelation: Israelis became complicit, helping the tainted Arafat launder his skims by arranging Swiss bank accounts. The International Monetary Fund estimates that from 1995 to 2000, Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority funds, “an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks and rake-offs,” Samuels reports.

All told, the money stolen by Arafat and his cronies “may exceed one-half of the $7 billion in foreign aid contributed to the Palestinian Authority.”

A condemnation even comes from Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri, one of Arafat’s closest friends. Al-Masri no doubt benefited from Arafat’s good graces, but he nevertheless sees the cost clearly: “With $300 million, $400 million we could have built Palestine in 10 years,” he tells Samuels. “Waste, waste, waste.”

Though his wife and pals spent like ancient Romans, Arafat did not live ostentatiously — it’s just that he lived unaccountably, that is, no one really held him to account for his particular outrages great and small. He used international aid money to spread fear and favor throughout Palestinian society, to dole out as he wished, abetting his personal political interests and pleasures. Sometimes the money went to pay for an American college education for the children of loyal lieutenants. Other times it paid families of slain terrorists, or for actual terrorist activities. Arafat kept the ledgers in an inside coat pocket, open to no one but himself.

I’ve read about and written about Arafat’s duplicity before. But Samuels’ article is far more than a dismal eulogy about a dead Palestinian leader who spent his last days, cut off from reality, watching Road Runner, Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry cartoons on television (yes, it’s true). It is a warning about the worldview he left behind. As the father of his country, Arafat shaped the national soul of Palestine, its approach to its own citizens and to other nations. What’s clear is that Arafat cared little about either.

His view of Israel and the Jews was summed up by Orzad Lev, the Israeli investment adviser who helped siphon Palestinian funds into Arafat’s Swiss accounts.

“The whole thing about the secret accounts is to keep the financial flexibility to move money to the second stage. He thought that demographically [Palestinians] are going to win the war, and in order to do that you have to be patient and let the Israelis bleed.”

To Arafat, destroying Israel was always more important than building Palestine.

This week, as Israel completes its unilateral pullout from Gaza, the legacy of Arafat becomes even more critical.

“The real question,” writes Aluf Benn in Haaretz, “which thus far remains open, is whether the parties will succeed in moving on from here to a more stable arrangement without going through another war.”

Benn reports that sewing shops in Palestinian-controlled areas are working overtime making flags for Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, as each side rushes to fill the streets and claim credit for driving out the Israelis.

In other words, Palestinians can view the withdrawal Arafat’s way: as a step toward the Jews’ inevitable departure from Israel. Or they can abandon Arafat’s disastrous vision and use the withdrawal as a basis for building a peaceful nation, one that is responsible to its citizens and respectful of its neighbors.

Read Samuels’ article, then let me know what choice you think they’ll make.