By anyone’s estimation, Yasser Arafat was - and remains, posthumously – a totemic figure in the Palestinian national psyche. As is often the case with such foundational figures in the history of a people, it is difficult to separate the myth from the man, and for an honest appraisal to take place.
However, at OneVoice Europe’s film screening and panel discussion on Arafat during the February 27 event – following our heated debate on Shimon Peres January 30 – the analysis was free flowing and candid from all three panellists.
Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, Professor Manuel Hassassian, was frank in his remarks, and admitted to not having been supportive of every move his former president made. Hassassian pointed out the “oxymoronic character” of Arafat, who “had incredible charisma,” but, he felt, was sometimes guilty of political miscalculation. Hassassian ultimately praised Arafat for managing, uniquely, to wear both the “hat of a statesman and the hat of a freedom fighter,” and for being the crucial figure in the struggle for Palestinian rights and statehood.
Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre’s (BICOM) Professor Alan Johnson was critical of some of Arafat’s deeds and legacy, but stressed that the film “reminded us of how far we’ve come in terms of negotiating...Peres mentioned that it was illegal for Israelis to negotiate with the PLO,” and Arafat presided over that transformation.
Looking to the present-day leadership, there was a mixture of pessimism and optimism stemming from the panellists. Richard Symons thought that because President Mahmoud Abbas did not enjoy the same adoration as Arafat, he would have less ability to make a historic deal. Hassassian, though, has confidence in Abbas’s strategy, which he said was “negotiation and refraining from violence...he said that he is willing to make the historic compromise of agreeing to 22% of the land,” but “the basic condition to negotiate is to put a moratorium on the building of settlements.”
Ambassador Hassassian and Professor Johnson had different takes on the state of play in Israel. Hassassian argued, “the Israelis are not ready to make peace because they do not have the political will,” while Johnson disagreed and sees a window of opportunity in the recent Israeli elections, in which he views as a “significant shift to the left.”
The event was notable for the extent to which the panellists were willing to be critical about some of the shortcomings of their respective “sides” in this conflict, with some constructive ideas discussed around ways to break the current impasse and restart negotiations. All panellists agreed that the missed opportunities to reach a negotiated two-state solution can largely be blamed on a lack of leadership on both sides. As Richard Symons said, “it is all about political willpower, nothing else matters.”
Symons closed the event on optimistic note, when he pointed to a new, “younger generation of political leaders who were trying to break through” and whom he felt had the ability to really affect change. It is this generation of Israelis and Palestinians that OneVoice puts its faith in, too, training thousands of the region’s most talented young people so that they can be the change necessary to end this conflict.