Hazem Saghieh

On the Margins of Yasser Abed Rabbo’s Story

Reading the extensive interview (published in three episodes by this newspaper) that my colleague Ghassan Charbel conducted with Yasser Abed Rabbo, the former Secretary-General of the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), is the sort of exercise that could make a child’s head turn gray.

Lies and deceit, leaders’ megalomania and the parallel reality they lived in, as well as frivolity, ignorance of the world, irresponsibility, subordinates' fear of confronting their superiors, and contempt for public opinion, and any form of logic, however formal - these elements, and worse, shaped the regimes and factions that ruled over millions in our region and their political decisions.

These regimes and factions’ journey thus culminated in destructive wars whose high human and economic costs added to the burdens of their perpetual despotism and contempt for the bodies, minds, and rights of their people. Of course, a perpetually devastated Palestine has been and continues to be the most exploited and promoted theme of this extremely dark crime comedy.

Let us make way for Abed Rabbo and some of the incidents he recounted, which are more pithy and eloquent than anything else that could be said:

After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Arafat, Rabbo tells us, urged caution. He warned Saddam that the invasion could lead to an Iraqi "nakba" decades after the Palestinian Nakba. However, it was Minister Tariq Aziz who responded to Arafat. "Oh Abu Ammar, we want to liberate Palestine and retrieve Jerusalem for you, and you’re saying no? How can that be?"

For his part Saddam, reassured Arafat, telling him that he had "accounted for everything." He then took Arafat’s hand, and the two men stood and stared into the Baghdad night. The two men then shared the kind of moment that turns nature serene and heals spirits as the Iraqi ruler added: "I see Jerusalem's lights as I see Baghdad's before me now," implying that he would retake Jerusalem.

To Abed Rabbo’s astonishment, this very Tariq Aziz, after the meeting with Saddam, asked Abed Rabbo to urge Arafat to reiterate his warning of a nakba befalling Iraq to Saddam.

Before that, during a visit Arafat made to Damascus shortly after the assassination of the Lebanese leader Kamal Jumblat near a Syrian Deterrence Forces checkpoint, Hafez al-Assad wasted no time before asking Arafat who he thought had behind Jumblat's assassination. After a moment of tense hesitation, Arafat replied, "Who else? Who else?" When Assad (who had no idea who had been behind the assassination, of course!) asked what he meant, Arafat added: "It was Israel, of course."

With the innocence of the Syrian president now firmly established, he asked the Palestinian leader to explain why he had come to this conclusion. Arafat responded with a compelling argument: "I am familiar with the area where Kamal Jumblat had been. You go downhill, and at the bottom, there's a turn that takes you uphill. They ambushed him at the turn. Who could do that but Israel?"

Indeed, this column is too brief to include all the incidents that Abed Rabbo told us about, let alone the many similar incidents that he did not mention or did not witness. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that the three musketeers - Saddam, Assad, and Arafat - were the most prominent figures of the Arab Levant and its "struggle against colonialism" during an intermediary stage that lies between two others: on one hand, the Nasserist era that collapsed with the 1967 war, and on the other, the era of Bin Ladenism and its offshoots, which began with the attack on New York in 9/11.

During this intermediary stage, the hopes that the previous stage had dashed were rekindled, until it eventually dashed them itself, paving the way for the next stage, which we have yet to bring to a close. This trajectory warrants questioning every notion contrived by the various "anti-colonial" movements, as well as every interpretation of history that presents it as a linear struggle whose conclusion inspires hope and bliss.

Of course, conducting a radical audit of this trajectory that covers all three of its temporal-political eras, is a necessary requisite for ensuring the well-being of the Arab Levant and the soundness of reason within it. All three of the men in question wanted to "liberate us" in one way or another; the Nasserist era that preceded theirs wanted the same thing, and so did the era of Bin Ladennism and the Islamist movements that followed in its footsteps.

And now we find ourselves striving to achieve goals far less ambitious than the "liberation" that has been promised us; we have come to seek achievements like providing food for victims of famine and limiting the displacement of refugees whose homelands have been destroyed.

If we do not conduct a serious audit of these many promises of "liberation" that have been made in succession, we end up assuming that accountability can be replaced by a barrage of missiles from here and the building of tunnels from there. With this assumption in force, we now await the stories of another Yasser Abed Rabbo, one who lives close to Yahya al-Sinwar or Hassan Nasrallah and will tell us about how the contemporary political decisions making us suffer today are made.

These decisions are certainly rooted in a struggle whose commitment to "liberating us" is beyond doubt, just as there can be absolutely no doubt that those making them will embrace catastrophe once again - a catastrophe of a larger scale than those of the past and that it is bound to embrace like an arrow is bound to embrace its target.