From the inception of the Palestinian refugee crisis in 1948 to the rise of the second Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under Yasser Arafat’s leadership in 1969, American policy makers empathized with this human tragedy unfolding in the Middle East. This was particularly true during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. The status of almost three-quarters of a million Palestinians displaced as a result of the creation of the State of Israel continued to weigh heavily on the conscience of American decision makers. This concern took two forms: to pressure Israel (unsuccessfully) to take the Palestinians back, in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194, and to encourage the migration of the Palestinian workforce to the newly opened oil fields of the Arab Gulf.
All of this changed once the toothless campaign of the first PLO, born in 1964 under the leadership of lawyer and diplomat Ahmad Shukairy, was succeeded by Arafat’s Fatah-led PLO in the wake of the debacle of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. From that date forward, U.S. policy toward the Palestinian refugees and their militant leadership changed to hostility; the former became increasingly viewed as dangerous political actors whose struggle in the context of the Cold War was inimical to U.S. interests. The politicization of the refugees’ case was mostly due to the new leadership’s adoption of the armed-struggle strategy commonly applied in that era’s wars of liberation. This was in marked contrast to the evolutionary and regime-friendly campaign of the first PLO. As Shukairy put it during its first conference in 1964 in Jordanian Jerusalem, the aim was to liberate Palestine “west of the West Bank.” This was understandable, given the fact that his PLO was born when President Nasser was pushing the Egyptian-dominated League of Arab States to give the Palestinians a seat in that forum. But the organization almost disappeared when Shukairy resigned as a result of differences with Nasser; the PLO leader had approached the People’s Republic of China following the 1967 war without consulting the Egyptians. After the brief tenure of his successor, Yahya Hammuda, as PLO chair (1967-69), Arafat managed to unite all Palestinian factions under his new organization.
This is not the main story in Menachem Klein’s book, but it serves as a reminder that the author is correct in identifying the two lead figures here, Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, as the post-Oslo generation of leaders. He is wrong, however, in de-emphasizing the significance of Arafat’s pre-Oslo story and its contribution to his confused and confusing revolutionary-cum-statesman style of rule. Indeed, Arafat rose to power by unleashing wars against Jordan and Lebanon, and he antagonized Syria and Kuwait before surrendering his militancy following the Oslo agreements. If the author’s emphasis on the role of leadership in defeating the Palestinians’ national project is to be justified, he probably should have included the styles, tactics and strategy of Amin Husseini, and even Izz al-Din al-Qassam; they, for better or worse, shaped certain phases of the Palestinian story. The only correction I will add here to Professor Klein’s in-depth analysis is to remind him that, even though Arafat did not stress his dubious link to the Husseini family, he did court the mufti’s favor by visiting him in his Beirut exile to seek his endorsement while Shukairy was still actively engaged as the Palestinians’ leader and representative.
What justifies limiting this study to Arafat and Abbas is their experiences as heads of government over a segment of Palestinian territory that was not directly liberated through armed struggle but through a negotiated settlement, brokered and guaranteed by the United States. Indeed, this point bears emphasizing, in order to assess the veracity of the author’s basic thesis: that these conditions can only breed dictatorial, chaotic and personalistic (personalismo, as Latin Americans put it) styles of government. Yet, despite studies claiming that these traits were to be expected in the post-colonial era — and here Klein cites Roger Owen’s The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life (Harvard, 2012) — not only among heads of state but also revolutionary leaders, Klein still lays much of the blame on the iconic figures who rose to lead the Palestinian people. The author clarifies in the prologue, however, that this study is “a political profile of the whole Oslo Agreement generation” (p. ix). One can only surmise that this is why Arafat’s Lebanon years were completely ignored, although it is impossible to escape the notion that it was this bloody and often savage phase of the struggle that made him an icon of the Palestinian liberation saga. I would also argue that the limited Jordanian-Palestinian victory over the Israel Defense Forces in March 1968 in the Battle of Karameh was only the beginning of the Arafat myth-making phase; all Arab commentators assert that the achievement was that of Jordanian Lieutenant General Mashour Haditha.
Klein details most aspects of Arafat’s leadership style as those of a survivalist who successfully practiced the art of divide and rule, beginning with his maneuvering to isolate Shukairy and later defeating competitors from outside of his Fatah faction. Always regarded as the “embodiment of the (successful) Palestinian armed struggle” (p. 2), he won through an intricate system of patronage: bestowing jobs, favors and sometimes income on his aides and associates and manipulating tactical opportunities for short-term advantage. Nevertheless, Arafat was not known for personal corruption. Although lacking in the most obvious attributes of charisma, such as oratory, his embodiment of the hopes and struggles of the Palestinian people fully established his unique leadership status. The author also goes to the extent of disqualifying him from Max Weber’s political-leadership typology. These categories consist of the revolutionary, the religious or charismatic, the traditional (membership in a prominent family) and the democratic (ratified through constitutions, parliaments and elections).
Nothing here, however, explains his leadership status — in contrast to, for instance, the PLO’s opposition leaders George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh, or chief Fatah ideologue Khaled al-Hassan, or even the movement’s poet laureate, Mahmoud Darwish. Perhaps, as Klein suggests, it was the square facing the building in Ramallah, al-Muqataa, his office and eventually his prison — on Ariel Sharon’s orders — and burial place that solidified his status as a martyr. No matter how much the Israelis contributed to his demise, they ended up contributing to his legend. But did he deserve, as a martyred hero, to be forgiven for an absence of political institutions? His people did not seem to mind. They were alienated by his failure to deliver concrete results yet seemed to be impressed with his suffering, and Klein hastens to add that Arafat never played the political Islamic card. In the end, rumors of his death by poisoning at Sharon’s orders enhanced his martyrdom credentials.
Yet Israeli writers identified the Palestinian people with their leader’s stubborn insistence on maintaining a largely non-Western ethos, work habits and political style. His demonization by the Israelis was persistent, most effective in reaching Western minds through former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. In a famous article in The New York Review of Books, he lambasted the entire Palestinian and Arab people as liars and cheaters, befitting the style of their leader. Barak was not alone, as Patrick Tyler’s Fortress Israel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) demonstrates. Sharon and Menachem Begin joined in during the 1982 Lebanon war. Klein emphasizes that repetition of this propaganda, in times of both peace and war, against Arafat and Abbas was simply an Israeli type of psychological warfare intended to influence American negotiators as well as the Israeli public.
The rest of this study traces the rise of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Arafat’s successor, by virtue of the fact that he was one of the few remaining of the old guard following the assassinations of Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir) and Abu Iyad (Salah Khalaf). Abu Mazen’s leadership of the Palestine National Authority (PA) in the West Bank is discussed in three chapters: his stint as a facilitator of the Oslo negotiations, his foreign-policy efforts to create a Palestinian state and his career as a weak authoritarian president attempting to maintain a grip on the succession struggle. Two things distinguish his governing style and political objectives. One is his faith in the peace process and the Oslo legacy, which would lead to maintaining, if not expanding, the independent territory allotted to the Palestinians. The other is doing his utmost, even cooperating with the Israelis on security issues, to avoid forfeiting the shrinking PA territory to Israeli extremists. Faced with the barely concealed efforts of Israel’s rightist leadership to grant the PA minimal territory and even more restricted authority and sovereignty, Abbas always recognized that he was left with few options. We need only be reminded of Netanyahu’s famous slip of the tongue in 2017: “What I’m willing to give to the Palestinians is not exactly a state with full authority, but rather a state minus, which is why the Palestinians don’t agree [to it]” (p. 71).
Abbas has followed Arafat’s example on institution building, as well as his resistance to sharing power with a prime minister, forced on Arafat’s presidential system in 2003 by Egypt and Western leaders. Abbas continued to expand his collaboration with Israeli security personnel, even when they cheated him, releasing hardened criminals rather than “terrorists” or political activists in a general prisoner swap. Abbas was also acceptable to the Israeli peace camp as the only Palestinian to enjoy international support, capable of living up to the Oslo deal, though he reached the limits of his pragmatism with minimal achievement for his people. His most severe weakness, like Arafat’s, was his inability to create a “functioning political planning department” to help him define, adjust and perfect plans in order to achieve goals. This weakness, evident to the American policy makers who had helped Arafat set up his security apparatus and guided his government’s contacts with the Israelis, became crippling during the Camp David II negotiations and Shepherdstown talks. Abbas, unfortunately, never wavered in his rejection of violent means of resistance and his misplaced faith in the sincerity of his Israeli interlocutors and American allies. He remained oblivious to the fact that what was acceptable to the international community was not necessarily in the best interest of the Palestinian people.
The author hammers home this point, stressing the absence of qualified Palestinian experts to lead the way in negotiations. Klein, who participated as an adviser to the Israeli team in many phases of these negotiations, never fails to marvel at this dangerous gap in the Palestinian performance. Yet, he relies on the testimony of some of these Palestinian advisers, most of whom were experts recruited by the PA, especially during the Camp David II negotiations, on the eve of the second intifada. They included Oxford University professors Ahmad Samih Khalidi and Hussein Agha. Young academics, such as the Palestinian American Omar Mahmoud Dajani, also had a long involvement in the talks. The Palestinian American economist Salam Fayyad, clearly the American choice for PA prime minister (2007-13), did not fare very well. All of this demonstrates, if anything, the difficulty of building successful and functioning bureaucratic institutions in revolutionary situations and the PA’s clear identity problem, oscillating between a revolutionary apparatus and a government.
By placing his utmost faith in international legitimacy and dampening his people’s desire to continue the struggle through extra-legal means, Abbas was left with nothing to do but to resign and dismantle the entire PA government, turning over the keys to either the Israelis or the UN. Apparently, he is not willing to do this, believing, as did the latter-day Arafat, that maintaining a foothold in a bit of the land of Palestine leaves some hope for a bigger peace settlement later. What gives Abbas hope are things like the revolt of Palestinian intellectuals against suicide bombings during the second intifada and their apparent willingness to discover other methods with which to continue the struggle. That Palestinians were not touched by the Arab Spring uprisings is also a reminder of their commitment to a unique liberation struggle against the Middle East’s only nuclear power and its American ally, peacefully if at all possible.
Abbas, the accidental and transactional president, devoid of most of his predecessor’s charisma and authentic revolutionary credentials, continues to be oblivious to the passage of time and the implications of the succession drama. The aging PA president cannot find comfort looking over the list of contenders for the mantle of Arafat. The strongest candidate is Muhammad Dahlan, who is supported by some Arab Gulf leaders and Western governments, and perhaps even by the Israeli security establishment. As things stand, Dahlan would not inspire the Palestinian people, might not antagonize the Israelis and would, in all likelihood, aggravate rather than heal the Hamas-PA schism. But the Palestinians do have a leader in the making inside an Israeli jail: Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic member of Fatah’s second generation, imprisoned since the second intifada, who enjoys a huge following. He has already fashioned a lobby to bring Hamas and Fatah prisoners together around the need for unity. He envisions mass mobilization, not unlike that of the African National Congress when it succeeded in paralyzing the South African apartheid regime.
Professor Klein tells this story with much courage and much integrity, convinced of the eventual victory of the Palestinians and their support by some in the Israeli peace camp. He quotes Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of West Jerusalem: “Israelis walk and with them walk their shadow, the Palestinian people. They beat the shadow with a big stick but it does not leave them alone” (p. 20). Then Klein explains:
It is another expression of the symbiotic connection with the Palestinian Other
that has existed since the beginning of modern Zionism. Zionism tried to cope
with the Palestinian side of its identity expressed in the struggle between the
Palestinian native competing with the Zionist immigrant who wants to become
a native, in a number of ways.
These thoughtful remarks elevate this book above ordinary studies of PLO/PA leadership. No Palestinian, Zionist or American student of the issue can afford to ignore this work.