Psychoanalyzing Arafat…

From an Op-ed I submitted to the New York Times in January 2002, when Arafat had launched attacks on Israel and Sharon had him surrounded in his Muqata compound in Ramallah.  He died in 2004.  This Op-ed was never printed.

Understanding Arafat 

By Roger M. Scher 

If Arafat were on the couch, what would you find out?  Is he a “together” person, or is he emotionally unstable and self-destructive?  What does he really want out of life?  Can he be trusted? 

Arafat’s behavior over the last forty years, and especially in the last two, reveals a man who is not motivated by a desire to establish a viable Palestinian state at peace with Israel, nor by a desire to eliminate Israel and establish a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea”.  Arafat’s personality is characterized by a lust for danger, violence and chaos.  Arafat seeks the exhilaration of risk-taking, feels alive when under fire, powerful when triumphing over adversity.  Some people of this nature take physical risks on the ski slope, skydiving, or car racing.  Others take huge financial risks, they gamble, try to hit it big.  Still others risk their personal lives or their health. These people are looking for attention, for a validation of their weak sense of self. 

Bill Clinton was one such risk taker, allegedly having affairs in the Arkansas Governor’s mansion and certifiably fondling an intern in the White House.  Likewise Clinton seemed to perform best with his back against the wall, like when Newt Gingrich and Co. gained control of Congress in 1994.  Clinton came back with a vengeance to win reelection.  And when he was being impeached, Clinton’s tenacity and performance in the job were admirable.   

Like Clinton, Arafat has become bored with the normal affairs of state.  If a State of Palestine were declared tomorrow and peace finally came to the Middle East, what would Arafat be?  He would be the aging leader of a small country, charged with making sure the traffic lights work, the garbage is picked up, and there is no corruption at the country’s ports.  He would not be flying to London to meet with Tony Blair.  He would not be making a triumphant address to the U.N. General Assembly or the Arab League.  He would not be waltzing into the Rose Garden with the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of the United States.  He would not be accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. 

In recent interviews, Arafat said that Sharon should not write his obituary yet.  He explained how he survived Israeli attacks in Jordan in 1968, survived Sharon’s drive to Beirut in 1982, survived assassination attempts in Tunis for years.  He revels in being in the thick of things, in the middle of the action. 

Remember — Arafat is a guerrilla, an aging, pathetic guerrilla, but a guerrilla nonetheless. Arafat is in his element right now. With Israeli tanks surrounding his compound, and violence erupting all around, he is comfortable. Much more comfortable than when he had to pore over the details of Barak’s peace offer in early 2001, to consider which settlements would be where, what Palestinian units would be deployed where, how the Gaza and West Bank would be linked. That stuff was boring. Now he will prove his mettle. He will emerge yet again from an Israeli onslaught unconquerable. He will become a true national hero to the Palestinians, reliving past glories. He won’t ever become a glorified traffic cop or a garbage collector.   

Fouad Ajami in his recent Foreign Affairs article said that Arafat unleashed the second intifida in the irrational belief that anger from the Palestinian “street” would somehow result in a messianic deliverance in which Israel would accept all Palestinian demands (which Barak largely did) because the Israelis would become demoralized and would give in to international pressure.  Interesting idea, but I don’t think Arafat thinks that far ahead.

Arafat’s motivation is much more primitive.  He seeks self-aggrandizement, and the only way he has ever known how to get this is by being in the center of the mayhem and violence and surviving, his cause and rear-end intact.   

Some Freudian ideas come to mind.  Namely, narcissism and the so-called “death instinct”.  Arafat is probably narcissistically disturbed, as are many political leaders.  He is overcome with his own grandiosity, his own mission, his own invincibility.  And, as a lifelong guerrilla, the only way he knows how to feel like a winner is by blowing things up. 

Freud’s death instinct relates to man’s natural aggressive drive, natural inclination for destruction, the opposite of his instinct for love and creation.  This instinct is obviously coursing through Yasir Arafat’s veins. 

This diagnosis of Arafat is all well and good. The trouble is that Arafat’s preference for violence has been costing the Palestinians their nationhood as well as their lives, and causing numerous deaths in Israel. What is the world to do with this pathetic, aging guerrilla? 

Short of years of psychoanalysis, what Arafat needs is to be ignored.  Ignored by Israel, ignored by the world.  Then, he might wither away and cease to cause any more harm.  The world should stop dealing with him. To deal with him is to invite further acts of violence. 

Whether you are Iran seeking to destroy Israel or AIPAC seeking to strengthen it, Arafat is not your man. He has no other goal than to remain in the center of the mayhem. By causing death and destruction and getting Tony Blair to notice him, Arafat can really feel he is somebody in this world.    

Roger Scher is a professorial lecturer in international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a member-in-training at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis.

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