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Israeli Right, Left Both Feel Confirmed by Arafat’s Words, So Who’s Correct?

December 24, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Those who argue that Yasser Arafat speaks out of both sides of his mouth could point to last week’s events as proof.

On Dec. 16, the Palestinian Authority president offered a dramatic speech on Palestinian television calling for an end to violence — and in Arabic, no less. It seemed that Arafat finally had abandoned his time-honored practice of making conciliatory statements about the “peace of the brave” in English, while inciting his followers with the most belligerent rhetoric in Arabic.

Given the international pressure that had forced Arafat to make his speech, the reactions were flattering.

World leaders, the Israeli media — and certainly the Israeli left — praised Arafat for finally saying what needed to be said. The Israeli right, more distrustful than ever, played down the significance of the speech from a man it reviles as a chronic liar.

And then, just two days later, Arafat met with Palestinian notables from Jerusalem for the feast of Eid al-Fitr at the conclusion of Ramadan. There Arafat made another speech in Arabic — but this time his language was totally different, and the context was war.

“You are standing now at the frontline of battle,” Arafat told his guests. “Oh, brothers, there is a conspiracy to Judaize Jerusalem,” he said, playing up the flammable religious aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Then Arafat quoted an Islamic saying that could easily be interpreted as promoting violence: One Palestinian martyr in Jerusalem, he told his guests, is worth 70 martyrs anywhere else.

In other words, the more Palestinians who die fighting for Jerusalem, the better. What a perfect example of double talk, just two days after the dramatic call for an end to violence.

The Israeli right cheered. Once again, Yasser Arafat had turned out to be his own public relations nightmare, apparently impatient to collect the fruits of his “end to violence” speech.

Arafat later explained, in an interview with Ha’aretz, that he had been misinterpreted, and that it was a common Muslim practice to idolize martyrs on holidays.

Some analysts use such double talk to expose what they call Arafat’s hypocrisy and dishonesty.

Prestigious researchers like Yehoshua Porat of the Hebrew University long have argued that the left was misled by Arafat for the simple reason that most of its leaders, as well as the Israeli and Western publics, do not understand Arabic.

According to Porat, whoever followed Arafat’s statements in Arabic was left with no illusions regarding his true — hostile — intentions toward Israel.

In recent years, a number of study groups emerged in Israel to follow the Arabic media and publicize its contents to non-Arabic speakers. Among the most prestigious is the Middle East Media and Research Institute.

“It is not only Arafat, but this is the practice of many Arab speakers and media around the world,” Col. Yigal Carmon, the head of MEMRI, told JTA this week.

“Take Al-Ahram Weekly for example,” Carmon said, referring to the English edition of the official Egyptian newspaper. “When you read the English edition, it reads like Upper East Side” of Manhattan “yuppie press. But when you read the Arabic edition, well, it’s bad, very bad.”

That may be very true, but when people criticize Arafat for his double talk, it’s possible that they fail to understand the man’s political psychology.

It’s not clear that Arafat uses double talk because he believes he can fool those who do not understand Arabic. Rather, it’s likely that he does this because, from the outset of his political career, Arafat has needed to say the right things to please the right people at the right time.

Yezid Sayigh, a Palestinian intellectual at the London Institute of Strategic Studies, noted in a recent article that Arafat’s behavior since the intifada began in September 2000 has reflected not the existence of a prior strategy based on the use of force, but the absence of any strategy.

Arafat’s “political management has been marked by a high degree of improvisation and short-termism, confirming the absence of an original strategy and of a clear purpose, whether preconceived or otherwise,” Sayigh wrote.

This theory fits Arafat’s behavior last week. Europe and America wanted to hear the music of peace? Arafat made the “anti-violence” speech — though Israeli analysts who parsed the words carefully concluded that even that speech was not as pacific as it initially appeared.

The Palestinian street wanted to hear that it was part of “a nation of giants” that would fight for its dreams? Two days later, Arafat told his guests from Jerusalem, “We shall fight on this blessed land.”

Whether by design or not, the belligerent rhetoric paid some dividends.

Having just shown his warlord credentials and his support for armed struggle, Arafat could allow his security forces to enter a violent confrontation with the Islamic militants of Hamas.

Only after this show of force did Hamas agree to temporarily refrain from suicide attacks inside Israel and from firing mortars at Israeli settlements. For the first time in five years, the Palestinian Authority had enforced its will on Hamas.

But anyone waiting for the “real” Arafat to stand up will have to go on waiting.

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