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Arafat in the Footsteps of Pharaoh

April 6-13, 2001

Gerald M. Steinberg


At first glance, there would appear to be very little in common between the biblical portrayal of Pharaoh, the ruler of mighty Egypt, and Yassir Arafat, the nominal head of the corrupt and decidedly unmighty Palestinian Authority.  However, on closer examination, there is a striking similarity between Pharaoh's inability to change his pattern of behavior in order to save his kingdom, as one plague followed another, and Arafat's unswerving march from one failure to the next.        

In the case of Pharaoh, during the first five plagues, beginning with turning the Nile into blood, the cost to Egypt, or rather to the leadership, was high but apparently not unbearable.  While Pharaoh initially appeared to be willing to consider Moses' relatively minimal request to allow the Israelites to depart for three days to worship and sacrifice to God, when the individual plague ended, "he hardened his heart" and said no.  However, by the sixth plague, it was God who hardened Pharaoh's heart, indicating that the Egyptian ruler had lost his free will, and the ability to control his own decisions.  The cost of each plague then increased dramatically, leading to the dramatic climax, in which the Israelites departed triumphantly, not for three days of worship, but to freedom and escape from the bondage of Egypt.        

According to Jewish tradition, the "hardening of Pharaoh's heart" was a reflection of a pattern of behavior that was so deeply ingrained that it could not be halted.  In the rational dimension, Pharaoh was fully aware of what was happening to his kingdom, and the Biblical narrative also adds that his advisors warned him to let the Jews go before Egypt was destroyed.  There is no reason to believe that Pharaoh disagreed with this assessment, but in the confrontation with Moses, he could not allow himself to back down, even the most minor way.  By the eighth or ninth plague, Pharaoh must have known that the end was near and inevitable, but like an addict, he could not bring himself to quit.

Similarly, Yassir Arafat has demonstrated, once again, that the terrorist that began his career in 1964, has not and cannot change.  The diplomatic process that began in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo agreement on the White House lawn was a performance, designed to convince those who so eagerly sought to see a new Arafat, transformed from terrorist to statesman.  In truth, the language, the uniform, the gun in the pocket, and the hatred never changed.  Like Pharaoh, going through plague after plague, Arafat repeats the same phrases ("the peace of the brave") but continues to drive headfirst into full confrontation. Even for those who clung to the illusion, until the bitter end, that Arafat and the Palestinian leadership would move towards peace and cooperation, if only for the welfare of their own people, now recognize that nothing will change. 

Yosi Sarid, the leader of the left-wing Meretz party, finally admitted that the failure of the peace process rested entirely with Arafat.  The intellectual leaders of the Left, such Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua, have reached the same conclusion. The cold-blooded murder of Shalhevet Pass in Hebron last week, was not an isolated act, but rather the continuation of Arafat's policies of terrorism for its own sake.  For over 70 years, the Palestinians have based their policies on violence, including the 1929 Hebron massacre, but they have few gains to show for thousands of murders. Jews have not been frightened into leaving, claims in the Land of Israel, including Hebron, has not been renounced or forgotten, and the return of the Jewish people has continued to accelerate.

Like Pharaoh in Egypt, who in plague after plague, was psychologically unable to make the decisions necessary to cut his losses, Arafat is trapped in the self-perpetuating cycle of terrorism that does more to hurt Palestinian interests than it damages Israel. When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, and saw Pharaoh's army drown as the waters crashed upon their chariots, the links with Egypt were severed completely.  Despite the close proximity, and the periodic nostalgia for the watermelons and cucumbers of Egypt, the Jewish people were constantly reminded of their suffering and slavery.  Many generations passed before "normal relations" could be resumed.

Similarly, as long as Yassir Arafat is the leader of the Palestinians, there will be no peace and no end to terrorism.  The events of the past year demonstrate, without a doubt, that the search for formulae for "permanent status" and acceptance of a Palestinian state are irrelevant.  Once Arafat and his generation depart, and a new leadership arises, it may be possible for Israel and the Palestinians to renew the attempts for mutual acceptance and accommodation.  However, for now, Arafat heart's, like Pharaoh's, has been hardened.