Last week, I wrote a piece about a poster that has been hanging in my office for more than two decades. It features a photo of Nelson Mandela embracing PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat taken when the two leaders first met following Mandela’s release from prison. The poster also included a quote from Mandela in which he likened his struggle against apartheid to the struggle of the Palestinian people. I noted that I was pleased to have had the poster signed by both men.
Some readers raised objections to the piece and made disparaging remarks about the Palestinian leader – the kindest of which was to point out the obvious fact that “Arafat was no Mandela.” While that statement was, of course, true, it missed the point. I wasn’t comparing Arafat to Mandela, I was quoting Mandela who was pointing out the similarities between the South African and Palestinian peoples’ struggles.
Some of the other comments were so ignorant of history and reality and so focused on the failings of Arafat that I was reminded of a time eighteen years ago when I was testifying at US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the state of the Palestinian economy. After I finished my remarks, a Senator challenged me asking, “Why aren’t the Palestinians able to get their economy going? Why can’t Arafat be more like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela or Russia’s Boris Yeltsin?”
The questions were “no brainers” that could only have been asked by someone who was either unaware of the Palestinian reality or so blinded by prejudice that they could not or would not see that reality even it were pointed out to them. I thought it best to assume that my questioner was simply unaware and so I answered respectfully.
The fundamental difference between Arafat’s situation and that faced the South African and Russian leaders was that when Mandela and Yeltsin assumed the presidency in their respective countries, they inherited states that were fully sovereign entities with functioning institutions and sustainable economies. They controlled their own borders, were able to freely import and export goods, collect revenues, and establish mutually beneficial state-to-state relations.
In contrast, what the Palestinian leader received as a result of his agreement with the Israelis were several tiny cantons of densely populated and largely underdeveloped areas of the West Bank and Gaza that remained surrounded by Israeli-controlled territories. Palestinians did not control their borders and were, therefore, unable to conduct normal commerce with the outside world.
In my capacity as co-chair of Builders for Peace (a project launched by then Vice-President Al Gore to promote private sector investment in the Palestinian territories), I had learned first-hand how Israeli control over imports and exports and even the movement of goods within the territories created severe impediments to investment and economic development in the West Bank and Gaza.
Additionally, within a year of the signing of their agreement with Israel, Israel denied most Palestinians access to Jerusalem and its surrounding areas. While attention is paid to the religious dimension of the city, Jerusalem was more than that. It was the Palestinian’s metropol – the hub of their commercial and cultural life. It was the center of the West Bank, housing the region’s major employers, and its medical, educational, financial, and social institutions. And so, when in 1994 Israel severed Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank it was as if the region had lost its heart. To understand the significance of this closure, imagine the impact on residents of northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland if they were suddenly cut off from entering Washington, DC.
The two realities – the Palestinian and the South African – were so profoundly different. The only way they might have been comparable was if Mandela had become the mayor of Soweto, with the apartheid regime still governing the rest of the country. But Mandela and the ANC did not assume control of just the areas of the country populated largely by blacks, he and his movement won the right to compete in elections and then the right to govern the entire country.
In contrast, the best that Arafat could hope for and what he agreed to settle for was the right to establish an independent state on the 22% of Palestine that Israel had occupied in the aftermath of the 1967 war. That is what he believed he would get. But what he got instead was the “right” to establish a captive “provisional self-governing authority” on less than one-fifth of that 22% – with limited rights to operate beyond those areas.
By the time I was testifying (about three years after Palestinians had signed their agreement with the Israelis), Palestinian income levels had declined, unemployment had sharply increased, as had Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied lands, and Palestinians had grown restive and increasingly frustrated at the failure of peace to change the quality of their lives.
There were, to be sure, profound errors made by the Palestinian leader – not the least of which was the trust he placed in the agreements he signed. But the mistakes in judgment, the lack of strategic vision, and the reliance on violence do not, alone, explain the reasons for the Palestinian dilemma. Arafat was handed a bad situation over which he had little control and few tools at his disposal and told that he was expected to perform like Mandela and Yeltsin! He was, in reality, being set up to fail. To place the blame solely on his shoulders is either ignorant of reality or just downright cruel.