Hitchens on Arafat

Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, evaluates Arafat.

There was a time when the Palestinian cause, throughout the Middle East, was generally identified with larger causes than itself. Its diaspora, made up of thousands and thousands of intelligent and educated and ironic people, was on the whole a force for good in the Gulf states, in Jordan, in Lebanon, and elsewhere. If you voyaged to some dark and decrepit state in the region, and could get rid of your clinging official “minder,” it was in some Palestinian apartment that music would play, drinks be served, books be passed around, and humorous remarks made with courage. It became the fashion among some Arabist reporters at this time to allude to the Palestinians as “the Jews of the Middle East.”

Well, Arafat certainly destroyed that dream. His grandiose death-or-glory campaigns made life infinitely harder for the Palestinian populations of Jordan (in 1970) and in Lebanon. Even those conflicts had at least some tincture of revolutionary ardor, in which some Palestinians–­not of Arafat’s faction–­played a role. But the nadir was reached in 1990, when “the Chairman” ranged himself on the side of Saddam Hussein and stayed with him on the obliteration and annexation of Kuwait. Suddenly, the PLO was implicitly and sometimes explicitly in favor of the erasure of an existing Arab and Muslim state, a member of the Arab League and of the United Nations.

There were two results of this. First, the enormous Palestinian population of Kuwait­–numbering between 300,000 and 400,000 people–was abruptly subjected to another nightmare. It suffered from Saddam Hussein’s aggression, and it suffered again from Kuwaiti fury at a perceived Palestinian “fifth column.” Second, the stupidity of Arafat’s bet on the wrong Iraqi horse was compounded further. In order to recover his lost credit with the Saudis and others, he began increasingly, and corruptly, to sound the note of the “Islamist” trumpeter. (Twenty percent of Palestinians are formally Christian, and a large number are secular, but I think it is pretty safe to say that the “Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades” and other surrogate groups would not care much to be called “the Jews of the Middle East,” in any tone of voice.)

In the 20th century, the age of so many national icons turned destroyers of their own nations, history has far too often turned out to be the biography of great and horrible men: Amin, Arafat, Bokassa, Castro, Ceausescu, Chiang Kai-shek, Duvalier, Franco, Hitler, Khomeini, Kim Il-sung, Mao, Marcos, Mengistu, Milosevic, Mobutu, Mugabe, Mussolini, Ne Win, Niyazov, Noriega, Pinochet, Pol Pot, Saddam, Stalin, Suharto, Videla, Zia ul Haq. Lucky are the nations who rarely have to rely on great men or women to save them, or who just happen to be blessed with a Havel, a Mandela, a Ramos-Horta, or a Sadat when the need arises.

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