Understanding Palestinian Mobocracy

If you wanted to learn about the history of Israel and get an understanding of the Zionist enterprise, what Hollywood film would you watch? If you’re under 40 the answer may not be evident, because you may not have ever seen the movie, but anyone older would know immediately the answer is Exodus.

It’s a great movie (just out on a very poor quality DVD) that captures the essence of the struggle for Jewish independence — the survivors of the Holocaust desperation to reach their homeland, the daring illegal immigration operations, the pioneering efforts to settle the land, the internal divisions between the Zionists striving for a political compromise and those who believed in bombing the British out of Palestine. Sure there were some disconcerting elements, such as the romance between the hero (Paul Newman), who is a sabra leader of the Haganah, and a non-Jewish American nurse (Eva Marie Saint), but, hey, it is a Hollywood film.

The other day I was trying to think of a comparable film that would capture the Palestinian narrative. The one that comes to mind is The Godfather. It’s not set in the Middle East, I know, but if you understand that the Palestinian Authority is a mobocracy run by a mafia-like don, then you can better appreciate the political situation.

Think about it. Why is Yasser Arafat the leader of the PA? Because he was elected? Be serious. He’s been the nominal leader of the Palestinians for decades because he successfully built a loyal family and accumulated the most bullets.

Why hasn’t anyone challenged Arafat’s leadership, even in the last six months as he has lost the support of much of the world that once adored him? The answer is that he is the Godfather. If you challenge him, you’ll get whacked. Look at poor Abu Mazen, the number two man in the family. People began to suggest that he take charge and he was forced to flee for his life to Jordan.

Watch The Godfather and you’ll see that Arafat is not serious about fighting terrorism. If he was serious, he would treat the terrorists the same way he handles his enemies: He arrests them, tries them, and shoots them, usually all in the same day. Often, the first two steps are dispensed with and he has them strung up in a public square as an example to others. It’s more effective than horse heads in bed.

The mobocracy also explains why deporting Arafat isn’t likely to help the situation. After all, he lived for years in Tunis and, despite the efforts of the Israelis, an alternative leadership never emerged in the West Bank. Why? Because the Godfather can be in Sicily and his family will still protect his interests in New York.

Consider also the names most often mentioned as possible successors to Arafat. No list contains the names of “moderates” who impress American TV audiences. Sari Nusseibeh, Hanan Ashrawi, and Abdul Rahman will never have play a leadership role in the PA. The candidates to be the next don are the heads of Gaza security, West Bank security, the Palestinian intelligence service, the militias; in other words, whoever has the second most bullets after Arafat. Bullets, not ballots, are the currency of the mobocracy.

This also has implications for the war on terrorism. If Israel were to have any hope of truly winning it, Israelis would have to fight the mob on their own terms; that is, the way Arabs fight each other in places like Lebanon (you won’t get Arafat for tax evasion like Capone).

I’m reminded of the story told during the Lebanon War. You may recall that a number of Americans were kidnapped by terrorists and held hostage, some for several years. That didn’t happen to Russians. Why? Well, the story told at the time was that some Russians were kidnapped and the Soviets let it be known that if their people weren’t released immediately, the kidnappers would be found and killed, as would be their fathers, mothers, wives, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, grandparents....You get the idea. This was the language the mobsters understood, and the Russians were released and no others ever harmed.

As harsh as Israel’s counterterrorism activities may seem to some, they are really meek by Middle Eastern standards. Demolishing the homes of terrorists is a tactic based largely on the mobster premise, but you can be sure that an Arab leader would not wait for the family to be removed before sending in the bulldozers. If instead of bombing one building or car, the IDF took out whole refugee camps or cities, then the terrorists and their supporters would get the message, the way Hafez Assad’s opponents did when he razed the city of Hama and killed 20,000 Syrians (twenty years later, I’m still waiting of a UN resolution condemning the massacre or calling for an investigation).

I am not advocating that Israel adopt its own mafia tactics. It cannot and should not. The point is that Israel is not in a fair fight. When one side fights dirty and the other tries to fight back according to some rules, it has little chance of winning.

Unless this characteristic of the Palestinian Authority is recognized, road maps will lead only to road blocks. It is not just the political system that needs reforming, it is the society, and that is not going to be easily accomplished.

In the meantime, go down to the local video store and pick up a copy of Exodus to remind yourself of what the conflict is all about and how the founding fathers and mothers fought to create a Jewish state.