Vol. 5 Num 171 Sat. November 13, 2004  

Currents and Crosscurrents
Post-Arafat scenario

Four decades of continuing focus of international attention on a legendary soul came to an abrupt end on the 11th instant. Yasser Arafat, the struggling symbol of Arab unity and purveyor of the hopes and aspirations of the Palestinian people breathed his last on that day in a French hospital after suffering from an undisclosed ailment. The undisputed leader of the Palestinian people who was hated by the Israeli government and its allies, calling him a terrorist, paradoxically had the distinction of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, albeit jointly with Israeli leaders Rabin and Peres, ostensibly for his commitment to establish peace in his trouble-torn homeland.

People say death normally ends the enmity of the enemies. It happened so in case of Arafat, who was showered with so much of accolade from all quarters which the deceased leader had never dreamt of in his lifetime. Even the adversaries among his own fellow Arabs, who had been critical of some of his policies, actions and wealth, also had some words of praise or at least made some gesture of sympathy for him. The notable exceptions were the leaders of Israel and America. This was not unexpected. The French government bestowed all the pomp and grandeur in the ceremony that are normally associated with state functions on the occasion of transporting Arafat's mortal remains, with full military honours, to Cairo for a state funeral prior to the burial in Arafat's last sanctuary at Ramallah.

The deceased leader's last wish to be buried in Jerusalem could not be realised due to Israeli intransigence. So were many of his other wishes. The most important among them was his dream to live in a free and sovereign homeland. Unfortunately, this wish remained unfulfilled for someone, who had struggled relentlessly for decades and lived in exile most part of it. Arafat had manifested qualities of leadership from his very childhood. He founded the Fatah movement and became the first Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. His meteoric rise was matched only by his megalomaniac determination to pursue his cherished objective. His charismatic personality was made controversial by his foes, as he did not flinch from his chosen path even in the face of heavy odds. Yet, the poor leader stumbled half-way.

Arafat's relations with Bangladesh have been very close since soon after the creation of Bangladesh. These relations grew rapidly and blossomed into friendship in no time. The people of Bangladesh, being overwhelmingly Muslim, espoused the cause of fellow Muslims, the Arab people of Palestine, and extended wholehearted support in their struggle for establishing a free and independent homeland, a state of their own. Perhaps, the similar experience of the people of Bangladesh in their liberation war helped in matching the mind of the two peoples. Bangladesh has consistently supported the oft-repeated cause of the Palestine people in the United Nations and all other international forums. The government of Bangladesh was not only among the first to recognise the State of Palestine but had provided material help to establish their diplomatic Mission in Dhaka. Over and above these, a number of Bangladeshis spontaneously went to the Lebanon to fight in the battles alongside the Palestinian brethren.

The first contact a Bangladeshi leader had with Yasser Arafat was in 1974 when Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman went to Lahore to attend the Summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference. It was an OIC delegation, which had come to Dhaka and successfully brokered the mutual recognition of Bangladesh and Pakistan before Bangladesh sent a delegation to attend the Summit in Lahore. I also happened to be a member of that delegation. It was in Lahore that Sheikh Mujib met Yasser Arafat for the first time. The occasion marked the commencement of a happy and lasting rapport and fraternal relations between the leaders and peoples of the two countries. I personally happened to meet him again, much later in 1981, while I was Ambassador to China. Arafat came to Beijing after having visited Bangladesh and we met at the Great Hall of the Peoples in Beijing at a reception hosted by the Chinese leaders. There the vibrant Palestine leader expressed his admiration for the commendable nation-building work undertaken in Bangladesh, at that time by President Ziaur Rahman.

The most distinguishing trait of Yasser Arafat's relations with Bangladesh leaders was his keenness to foster friendship with all, irrespective of their party affiliation. As his relations had been built up with Sheikh Mujib, these developed into friendship with Ziaur Rahman. It continued with Hussain Muhammad Ershad and reached a high degree of affinity with Begum Khaleda Zia. Sheikh Hasina can also genuinely claim having established cordial relations with Yasser Arafat. All these were made possible due to the personal charisma of the PLO leader and also the genuine desire professed by the Bangladeshi leaders to that end. But in the final analysis, it boils down to the fact that Bangladesh-Palestine relations are marked by deep-rooted friendship, to which all political parties are committed. The fact that Bangladesh was represented at the highest level by its President at the state funeral in Cairo substantiates this postulate. The death of the Palestine leader will, therefore, make no qualitative change in Bangladesh's relations with Palestine.

Speculation is rife about who is to succeed the great leader. Will there be a bitter struggle for succession or it will die in a whimper with a unanimous choice of new leadership. No one can say with certainty. It is natural to assume there would be severe horse trading among so many eligible contenders. There is Mahmoud Fawzi, a former Prime Minister and a founder member of Fatah, a moderate and successor to Arafat as the PLO chief, who appears to be a hot contender. The present Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie is also a strong candidate with ample experience and contribution. He already started carrying out some of the Presidential functions. The hardliner Farouk Kaddoumi, who was elected as Head of Fatah, waits on the wings. The Speaker, Rawhi Fattouh, who is the interim President, appears to be a lame duck candidate. Then there are some local leaders and yet some others, who belong to the security. The young generation, especially among the Hamas and the Islamic Jehad, should not also be lost sight of in the race for leadership. But the scenario presented as it did during the long terminal ailment of the leader did not manifest signs of a bitter struggle for leadership. If the adage, morning shows the day, is true then one should not apprehend any heavy stumbling block in the next 60 days before a new leader is elected.

The most interesting development people will be keen to watch is the follow-up of the overture indicated by Israel and America about resumption of the peace process. The Americans consider this to be an opportunity and may have finally come to realise that a Middle East settlement would not only be instrumental to peace in the region but will also drastically curtail the breeding ground for terrorism elsewhere in the world. This would help in America's war on terror. Tony Blair's visit to the While House is designed, besides talks on Iraq, to prop up George W. Bush on this issue. Even France appears inclined to encourage implementation of the Road Map already initiated for peace but is held in abeyance for Israel's refusal to negotiate with Arafat. The European Union has by and large, manifested its keenness to establish peace on the basis of legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to have their homeland in exchange for peace for Israel. The success will however, largely depend upon the degree of pressure USA would be willing to exert on Israel to see reason as well as the strength and persuasiveness of the new Palestinian leadership to sell the idea of moderation and pragmatism to its suffering people.

M.M.Rezaul Karim, a former Ambassador, is a member of BNP's Advisory Council.