Israeli exhibit tackles a complicated icon: Arafat

Israel's obsession with Yasser Arafat is roaring back to life. It never really disappeared, despite Israeli declarations that the Palestinian Authority (PA) president was "irrelevant."

Indeed, after effectively unseating his US-backed prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and tapping his loyal ally Ahmed Qureia to replace him, Mr. Arafat has shown himself to be anything but insignificant.

He remains the puppet master of Palestinian politics, despite getting the US and Israeli cold shoulder, despite physical confinement in a Ramallah compound, despite his age and reported ill health. And once again, Israeli politicians, frustrated by his influence, are discussing whether they can or should kill or exile him.

Arafat's reassertion of power is familiar to those who have watched him reemerge from the political ashes time and time again. This latest resurgence may or may not last, may or may not be good for Palestinians, but it will rekindle an old Israeli fixation with the man who symbolizes so many Palestinian hopes and Israeli fears.

"Most Israelis consider Arafat a demon, as the ultimate 'other' and enemy, within the ranks of all the enemies who intended to annihilate the Jewish people, from Pharaoh to Hitler," says Baruch Kimmerling, a sociology professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. But for Palestinians, Mr. Kimmerling adds, Arafat "is a symbol of ... revival and struggle."

As Secretary of State Colin Powell issued explicit warnings to Israel against expelling Arafat, officials here argued about how to deal with the principal architect of the Palestinians' often-violent struggle against Israel.

Israel's housing and construction minister, Effi Eitam, expressed a widespread feeling on the political right when he told the Jerusalem Post Monday that Israel's "battle against Arafat will end only with his death.... The world would be a better place without him."

Other members of Israel's Cabinet, including the foreign and defense ministers, advocated exile, but others objected that Arafat would wield too much influence if free to move around.

Some might see it as an extraordinary conversation to have openly about the democratically elected leader of another government, even if his mandate has run out. But Israelis will say that these are not ordinary times and that Arafat is no ordinary politician.

"Part of his impact is his performance, he's a performer," says Tel Aviv curator Ory Dessau, organizer of an exhibit that looks at the way Israelis demonize, mythologize, and use Arafat.

Mr. Dessau points to Arafat's penchant for uniforms and the checked keffiyeh (head scarf) that he is rumored to arrange in the shape of historical Palestine - now Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Adopting the faux military dress and the Palestinian headscarf and blurring a few biographical details helped Arafat establish himself as a walking symbol of the Palestinian struggle for statehood. That symbolic link is what gives Arafat so much power, even among Palestinians who consider him corrupt.

"It makes him eternal," says Dessau. "It's part of his myth that he cannot be exterminated, he will always come back from defeat."

Provocatively titled "Guess Who Died," Dessau's show raises questions about Arafat's effect on Israel and the renewed national debate about whether or not he should be killed.

Dessau wants viewers to come away thinking about "who deserves to die, whose death doesn't matter, whose death we won't prevent, and, in fact, whose death we support."

The show's title, which led Palestinians to see the show as an unusually creative Israeli government propaganda effort, comes from a 1979 Israeli comedy.

One character tells his friend: "Guess who died?" The friendsays "Arafat," and the first man says, "Don't you wish."

The works by Israeli artists range from realistic oil paintings of Arafat, to paintings that blur and warp his image, making him seem larger than life. Photographs figure prominently.

One photo shows Palestinians moving gingerly through an office shattered by an Israeli army raid. They are carrying an immense gold-framed photo of Arafat, a staple display in every Palestinian government office.

If Palestinians have made an icon of Arafat, Israelis have as well. "He's the bad guy," says Ruth Amir, a political science professor at Emek Yeezral College in northern Israel.

Ms. Amir, who studies Israeli public opinion, says the Israeli obsession with Arafat reminds her of the way Americans now see Iraq's Saddam Hussein. "He symbolizes terror and it's nice to have someone to point the finger at, to blame for everything that happens."

Israeli politicians have been doing that for decades. Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin called Arafat "a two-legged animal" and, a little more generously, "the man with hair on his face."

Shimon Peres, who went on to share a Nobel Peace Prize with Arafat for peace making efforts, coined the 1988 slogan "PLO, yes, Arafat, no."

In 1993, with the dawn of the Oslo peace process, the Israeli media overhauled Arafat's image, portraying him as an eccentric, stuttering grandfather figure.

The honeymoon ended in 2000. With the peace process unraveling, then Prime Minister Ehud Barak said negotiations at Camp David had "exposed Arafat's true face."

Some analysts argue that centering so much attention on Arafat and his death creates inertia. "It puts us in a position so that it's OK to put a hold on negotiation and everything else," says Amir. "We want to kill Arafat, but the world won't like it, so we'll wait. Meantime we'll continue with settlements in the territories and the occupation and we're not responsible for anything because we blame everything on him."

And though Mr. Sharon has long considered Arafat his nemesis, Amir believes Sharon uses the Palestinian leader as a foil. "It's one of his tactics to be the opposite of Arafat in all respects," she says. "Sharon is like a father figure, his persona is a rational, logical person and Yassir Arafat, well, he's just the guy with the fuzzy hair on his face who stutters, and of course is a terrorist."

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