Although aimed to kill as many Jews as possible, the recent suicide bombings in Tel Aviv and in Gush Katif are primarily a critical phase in Yassir Arafat's desperate quest to ensure his own survival in power. Arafat must remain at the leadership of the escalating Palestinian violent struggle if he wants to ensure his legitimacy. Indeed, Arafat knows that militant Islamism is the dominant trend in the area, and that more than half of the Palestinians oppose the "peace process". Hence, even if he had ever entertained willingness to reconcile Israel's right to exist, Arafat now knows that in order to survive, let alone remain a leader, he must champion the Jihad for Israel's complete destruction. In practical terms -- Arafat had no alternative but to encourage and facilitate the escalation of Islamist terrorism and violence.
The still unfolding Palestinian Jihad is a rapidly escalating struggle with long-term solid foundations. The roots of the current dynamics are in the Intifadah of the late 1980s. Then, the true power and popular influence of the Islamists first burst into the open. While considerations of political expediency brought both Jerusalem and Washington to pretend that Arafat and the PLO had a leading role in the Intifadah, Arafat himself was not misled. The leadership of the PLO, particularly Hallil al-Wazir (a.k.a. Abu-Jihad), realized who was really in charge of the Arab street, the Palestinian population, and particularly the younger generation. The key to the power structure in the territories is not the HAMAS, or any other organization for that matter, but the undercurrent web of Islamist communities, Iran-sponsored sources of funds, as well as groups associated with mosques and preachers. All are interconnected, closely cooperate in running everyday life, and all join force to further their common sacred objective -- the establishment of an Islamic state on the entire Land of Israel. The destruction of the State of Israel is a precondition.
A veteran Muslim Brother himself, Yassir Arafat did not fail to realize the predominance of the Islamist trend already in the late 1980s. Indeed, since then he has repeatedly, and at time desperately, sought Islamist approval and endorsement. This led him to rounds of negotiations with Shaykh Hassan al-Turabi -- Sudan's spiritual leader and the "godfather" of Sunni Islamist militancy. For example, Arafat played a leading role in the Islamist conference in Khartoum in 1991 that set the foundations for the establishment of the Armed Islamist International -- the umbrella organization of Sunni Islamist international terrorism affiliated with Tehran.
Arafat's dependency on Turabi was brought to the fore during the PLO's negotiations with the HAMAS in 1995-96. Despite repeated concessions by the PLO, the Gaza-based leadership of HAMAS would not commit themselves to any agreement until they held consultations in Khartoum, and Turabi elicited specific commitments from Arafat. The agreement, concluded and ratified in December 1995 and January 1996, defined the conditions for Islamist terrorist operations at the heart of Israel in support for the Palestinian Authority's [PA] pursuit of the "peace process". Arafat himself was intimately involved in all stages of these negotiations and personally approved the agreement before the formal signing in Cairo.
The PA-HAMAS agreement is action oriented -- establishing a framework for utilizing the Islamist zeal in order to further the common objectives the Islamist militants (HAMAS, Islamic Jihad, etc.) share with the PA. The might and devastating impact of Islamist militancy were clearly demonstrated in the brief spate of martyrdom (suicide) bombings at the heart of Israel in the spring of 1996. For Arafat, the primary abject lesson of this campaign was not so much the impact on Israeli politics and elections, but the widespread reaction in the Arab street. Arafat has no doubt about extent of public adulation of, and support for, the Islamist martyrs. Indeed, after the assassination of Yahya Ayash -- "the Engineer" -- Arafat went out of his way to demonstrate his own support and admiration for the Islamists -- their martyrdom and sacrifices.
Meanwhile, the summer of 1996 was a turning point in the internal power dynamics of Arafat and his inner circle. The Likud's rise to power was perceived a devastation. Contrary to rhetoric from both Palestinian Authority and Israeli "peace camp" sources, Arafat had had no fears that the new Israeli Government would not continue the implementation of the Oslo Accords. Arafat had sufficient guarantees from Cairo and Washington to be certain that Jerusalem would proceed, at least to a large extent, to honor and implement all the agreements the previous Israeli Government had formally signed with the PA. Moreover, the deposits of cash to Arafat's own accounts in Bank Leumi, and elsewhere, were increased by the new Israeli government.
Arafat's trepidation was over the informal "understandings" he had reached with Mr. Peres and Mr. Beillin. Particularly crucial for Arafat were the "understandings" over the "right of return" and other measures aimed to address the issue of the 1948-49 refugees -- Arafat's real constituency. Significantly, Arafat had been relying on this Palestinian "diaspora" to serve as a power base to counter-balance the rise of Islamism as the predominant socio-political force in the territories. Now, Mr. Netanyahu's Jerusalem was adamantly opposed to recognizing, let alone implementing, the "informal understandings" reached between Mr. Peres and Arafat. Hence, with the support of the "diaspora" constituency in decline, it has become imperative for Arafat to strengthen his standing with the younger militant Islamists in the territories.
Examined in the context of Arafat's political doctrine, this was a milestone development. It should be remembered that Arafat and a few friends established al-Fatah in 1963, and that the Fatah's original Covenant called for the destruction of pre-1967 Israel and disavowed interest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- then held by Jordan and Egypt respectively. Only in 1968, in the aftermath of the Six Days War, the PLO altered the Covenant to demand the establishment of a Palestinian State on the entire territory of the Land of Israel. Thus, the PLO was built around the refugees of 1948-49, and, more than a generation later, these refugees still constitute the core of the PLO's leadership and support cadres. Hence, it is imperative for Arafat to placate his pre-1967 constituency even while he pretends to be accepting a Palestinian entity limited to the West Bank and Gaza.
This distinction is also of crucial importance to understanding Arafat's real objectives. His struggle has never been for the return to Nablus or Jericho -- but for the return to Ramle, Jaffa and Acco. In other words, Arafat's objective has remained the destruction of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state in its stead. Since it is self-evident that no Israeli government will commit national suicide by realizing Arafat's real objective, the only way for Arafat to demonstrate and prove his enduring commitment to the sacred objective of his constituency is through the escalation of the armed struggle -- particularly terrorism at the heart of Israel.
Concurrently, Arafat must continue the charade of pursuing the "peace process" and striving to establish a Palestinian state only in the West Bank and Gaza. Since Arafat and the PA elite are widely known for their corruption, there is a lingering fear and mistrust among the Palestinians whether Arafat has been bribed into pursuing the "peace process". Consequently, Arafat has severe problems of retaining his constituency and supporters. There remains the recurrent fear of Arafat's dumping by the "diaspora" over his commitment to "returning" to pre-1967 Israel. Any such attempt to unseat Arafat would not be the first time the "diaspora" elite sought to get rid of him. And the younger Islamists do not need Arafat to pursue and escalate their Jihad for the destruction of Israel. Moreover, for guidance, these Islamists turn to Turabi in Khartoum and to Tehran -- not to Arafat's Gaza.
Therefore, to survive, the PA leadership must cope with dominant currents in the Arab World, especially as expressed among Palestinians.
The SOLE common denominator and objective of all constituencies Arafat has to please is the complete destruction of Israel.
Therefore, Arafat -- the quintessential survivalist -- must demonstrate that he is at the forefront of any campaign to destroy Israel that is bigger than anything the Islamists can pull on their own in the territories. The present challenge is not the first time Arafat used this approach to bolster his standing and ensure his survival. Back in the late 1980s, when he was marginalized by the Intifadah, he maneuvered himself into becoming the champion of the Arab military intervention that would build on the Intifadah and destroy Israel. Toward this end, in 1990-91, Arafat allied himself with Saddam Hussein during the Gulf Crisis. While Iraq was devastated in the ensuing war, Arafat's popularity soared in the aftermath of the Iraqi launch of several ballistic missiles into Israel. Indeed, the Labor-Meretz Government of Israel rushed to embrace and bolster that Arafat of the early 1990s by engaging in the Oslo process.
Presently, and toward the same end, Arafat is once again reaching out to seek alliance with, and guarantees from, the dominant forces in the Muslim World that are committed to, and preparing for, the destruction of Israel by force of arms. Indeed, in the fall of 1996 Arafat reached out to Syria and Iran to gain their blessing and support for the escalation of the Jihad in the territories. Arafat's unstated objective was to ensure that these powers would not engineer his overthrow, or even destabilization, as part of their grand design. Consequently, the PA is now fully integrated into the regional Jihad -- the major war against Israel Iran and Syria are actively preparing for. Both Damascus and Tehran condition their tolerance of Arafat in the PA's active support for the escalation of the armed struggle -- the key to their regional strategy. Indeed, Arafat has already demonstrated his resolve and willingness to shed blood in the "mini-Intifadah" of late September 1996. The tunnel issue was a mere excuse for foreign consumption. Presently, Arafat continues the course by encouraging the resumption of Islamist terrorism.
Hence, supporting Islamist terrorism is a key to Arafat's survival. The PA made these objectives and priorities clear to the HAMAS and other Islamist organizations by releasing their leadership and key operatives of Islamist terrorists organizations. Moreover, between late February and early March, 1997, Arafat ascertained that the Islamist leadership has no doubt about his commitment. In a series of key strategy sessions, particularly in Nablus and Gaza, he strove to consolidate what HAMAS leaders term "national reconciliation". The latest of these meetings was the "Green Light" session where Arafat started to explicitly state his call for terrorism. He was cut by an aide who assured him those present understood his intentions and instructions without an explicit and potentially incriminating statement. The first bomb exploded in Tel Aviv soon afterwards.
Ultimately, from strategic and political perspectives, more important is the transformation of Arafat's rhetoric and messages as presented in high-level forums in recent weeks. Among these forums are the OIC [Organization of Islamic Countries] Congress in Islamabad, the Jerusalem Conference in Rabat, and the Summit of Arab Foreign Ministers in Cairo, as well as a host of meetings with Arab and Muslim leaders. In these events, Arafat adopted and stressed the key all-Islamist theme -- the urgent need to prevent the Israeli destruction of al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock -- as the rallying cry for escalating the Jihad that had begun with the recent terrorist strikes in Israel.
"The situation is dangerous," Arafat declared in Cairo, "the Palestinian lands are subjected to usurpation and aggression." Arafat told all audiences that the Israeli government is challenging "the entire Ummah" -- not just the Arabs, let alone the Palestinians. He repeatedly warned that "the Israeli attempts to Judeize the city are dangerous. ... They include [threats to] the Holy places of Muslims and Christians. For example, the tunnel that exits into ... the al-Aqsa Mosque .... and the tunnel [that] continues under the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock..." Arafat stressed that the Palestinians "have proofs of this dangerous crime." For example, Arafat pointed out that "the current Prime Minister of Israel gave the Patriarch of Jerusalem a relief-map of Haram al-Sharief [the Temple Mount] and on it there are neither al-Aqsa Mosque nor the Dome of the Rock, but the Temple of Solomon instead." Arafat added that "there is that map that proves the horrible crime of building the Temple of Solomon in place of the mosques," and distributed a host of maps and drawings from both Israeli/Jewish and Islamist sources to prove his point.
Significantly, Arafat interpreted recent events in Israel in the context of this conspiracy against the Mosques in Jerusalem. He portrayed the various security measures recently undertaken by the Israeli Defense Forces in connection with the growing upheaval in the territories as parts of a bigger conspiracy. According to Arafat, these are preventive measures aimed to contain the inevitable, and Arafat stresses imminent, Palestinian uprising. This popular eruption would take place once Israel destroyed the Mosques in order to build the Temple, Arafat explained. He added that the Israeli security measures were therefore "a declaration of war" aimed not just against the PA, but the entire Ummah.
And the emphasizing of this theme -- even more than Arafat's release of HAMAS and Islamic Jihad militants, as well as the "green light" to resumption of terrorism -- demonstrates the extent of Arafat's joining the Islamist camp. Ultimately, this return to militant Islamism need not surprise. It is only natural for an old Muslim Brother that highlights his family ties to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem -- Hajj Amin al-Hussayni. Indeed, according to several Muslim leaders, both Arab and non-Arab, who recently listened to, or met with, Arafat, he has left no doubt that he has given up on the "peace process". Arafat has convinced these leaders that he is in "a state of war with Israel", and that he is embarking on a new phase in the "confrontation", most likely armed confrontation, with Israel.
Meanwhile, always the survivor and the power hungry, Arafat is driven by the desperate need to ascertain the support of, and legitimization by, the increasingly radicalized Arab street. With the Tehran- and Damascus-led Muslim World actively preparing for an assault on Israel, Arafat must be at the forefront or else he'd be crushed by the onslaught. At the same time, given Arafat's desire for funds and concessions from Washington and Jerusalem, he needs an excuse for the unleashing of Islamist terrorism. The building of a Jewish neighborhood on Har Homa is as good an excuse as any.
Ultimately, the Palestinians are captivated by the Islamist zeal and commitment to a Jihad with maximalist objectives -- the complete destruction of Israel -- that even the "peace process" as pursued by Mr. Peres and his government cannot deliver. Therefore, there is a mounting outcry for an armed Jihad, and Arafat is once again pushing for the escalation of terrorism, this time by the Islamists. And irrespective of his true aspirations, Arafat the survivalist has already made himself a champion of the militant Islamist cause -- the sole alternative to becoming the Islamists' victim.
Yossef Bodansky is the Freeman Center's expert on international terrorism.