THE PRISONERS OF HISTORY

By Avi Davis

As Yasser Arafat's leadership of the Palestinians enters its terminal phase, it might be illuminating to address the remarkable parallels between his career and that of an earlier Palestinian leader. The life and career of Haj Amin al Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the Palestinian leader of the 1920s and 30s, shares such an uncanny resemblance to Arafat's that it cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence. It in fact establishes a pattern that is dooming the Palestinians to a cycle of catastrophe.

Husseini was born to one of the leading families of 19th Century Palestine in 1897. In 1921, following the death of his father, he was appointed by the British as Mufti of Jerusalem, a clerical title that conferred on him dominion over Muslim religious affairs in that city. But soon Husseini began to demonstrate an appetite for power well beyond that expected of a Muslim cleric. He pressured the British Mandatory Authority on Jewish immigration into Palestine and in 1929 inspired the riots that took the lives of hundreds of Jews throughout the country.

But his most formidable impact came in 1936. In that year he made a bid for power by initiating a revolt against the British. Over the course of three years, 2,652 Jews, 618 British and 6, 953 Arabs died. But the revolt did nothing to further the cause of Palestinian nationalism. Instead it ended with the Mufti's exile, the flight of the top echelon of Palestinian leaders, the collapse of the Arab community's economy and the consequent growth of Jewish economic and military strength. After his exile, the Mufti never returned to Palestine and died largely forgotten in Cairo in 1974.

Much like Arafat, the Mufti won great acclaim in his early years as a charismatic leader whom many foreign leaders believed would lead his people into statehood. Soft-spoken with a disarmingly polite manner, the Mufti could beguile his foreign visitors with assurances of peaceable intentions. But this veneer hid the psyche of an inveterate plotter and intriguer, a vicious anti-semite whose thirst for vengeance and blood-letting knew few bounds. Like Arafat, he held sole control over the finances of his organization, squandering funds to pay cronies and using bribes to keep underlings in tow. Like Arafat, he had no patience for either opposition or moderation and spent a majority of his resources during the revolt eliminating those who advocated conciliation. Arafat replicated this tactic during the first Intifada, assassinating or forcing into flight hundreds of Palestinian moderates, who were opposed to the methods of the PLO.

But the more impressive comparison is in the staggering strategic mistakes made by the two men. As early as 1929 it was evident that British policy was swinging firmly against establishment of a Jewish homeland and in favor of Palestinian nationalism. As the Second World War approached, the British desperately attempted to curry favor with the Arabs by severely restricting further Jewish immigration while recommending the creation of a Palestinian Arab state within ten years. The Mufti would have none of it . He rejected all overtures and even took up residence in Berlin from 1941-45.

Arafat's downward trajectory has been no less spectacular. Rejecting Ehud Barak's wide ranging offers at Camp David in July 2000, he chose instead to launch an insurrection that brought down the most favorable Israeli government to Palestinians in history. He then alienated his admirers on the Israeli left and aligned himself with terrorists, just as the acts of Islamic fundamentalists galvanized the western world into a united front against terrorism. Subsequent collusion with Hizbullah and Iran and sympathy for Saddam Hussein has only brought more grievous comparison with the Mufti's cultivation of Hitler.

Cursed with such vainglorious, ineffective leadership, the Palestinians' true tragedy will be if they are unable to winnow vital historical lessons from their defeats. That, sadly, does not look likely. Palestinian history books do not regard the Mufti as a failure but as a national hero. A similar apotheosis of Arafat, despite the scale of his own massive failures and betrayals, is likely to follow.

No one can tell the Palestinians how to choose their leaders and it is unrealistic to think that they will allow them to be imposed. But if Santayana could declare those who forget the past as doomed to repeat it, surely it is just as accurate to state that a people unable to candidly record their own history will forever remain its prisoner.

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Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and the senior editorial columnist for the on-line magazine Jewsweek.com



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