November 11, 2004

The complex legacy of Yasser Arafat

Yasser Arafat's death on Wednesday evening forces us both to reflect on the nature of his life and his role in history and to speculate about the uncertain days to come. By Palestinians he is hailed as the father of the nation; in Israel his face causes even children to shudder in loathing. Guerilla, terrorist, statesman, celebrity—Arafat wore these roles with equal panache. Donning his keffiyah, with his trademark pistol on the belt hugging his olive khaki uniform, he continued until the very end to fight a battle long since ended. He was never able to finally put to rest his pan-Arab goals and the belief that Israel could eventually be destroyed by the force of arms, long after virtually all other Arab leaders in the region had done so.

If there is one thing that his critics cannot deny, it is that Arafat significantly transformed the world, both in politics and ideological movements. The concept of aircraft hijacking can be attributed to him; it was Arafat, as the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the late 1960s, who invented the tactic of hijacking an aircraft and using it and the victims onboard as pawns in a global game. Bin Laden learned from a master, and Arafat's legacy was felt stingingly on September 11, 2001 when al Qaeda sought to improve upon his design. The modern Islamic fundamentalist movement owes much to Arafat for demonstrating to the Muslim world that terrorism can achieve victories. Perhaps if he had failed to bring the Israeli government to the negotiating table in 1992 after decades of terror, bin Laden might have thought twice about bombing the World Trade Center a year later.

The late Israeli statesman and foreign minister, Abba Eban, once remarked that, "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." Arafat exemplified this statement; each time he was offered a deal, even one that exceeded expectations, he rejected it. The agreements to which he did acquiesce were made at the eleventh hour, always with a caveat and always broken. While he proved to be great at leading terrorists and at manipulating the world media, he ultimately failed to demonstrate the competence necessary to face the challenges of diplomacy and political leadership. In the end, abandoned by his former Arab allies, besieged by the Israelis whose trust he betrayed, and even derided by Palestinians questioning his commitment to their well-being, Arafat died a lonely and unsuccessful old man far away from his people and the land he sought for them. If it sounds like I am trying to rouse sympathy for him, this is far from the case; it is only that I am attempting to underscore the presence of historical justice; whether its source is divine or otherwise. Arafat's burial in a "portable" tomb in Ramallah, with the hope among Palestinians that he may someday be reburied in Jerusalem, is ironically reminiscent of the burial of Theodor Herzl in Vienna in 1904. Herzl, the father of the modern Zionist movement, was exhumed in 1949 after Israel regained independence, and his body was reburied in Jerusalem atop the newly renamed Mount Herzl.

The nature of Arafat's legacy in the years ahead is a difficult one to assess, and I doubt that any part of Ramallah will be so enthusiastically renamed for him. It seems very likely that as the next few years pass the Palestinians will go through a process similar to the "de-Stalinization" of Russia in the mid-1950s. Those who had no political voice before—those who could only peek out from under the crushing weight of Arafat's boot—will hopefully find the freedom of political expression that those who are released from the talons of an oppressive dictator normally enjoy. Liberals, non-Muslims, and those living alternative lifestyles have a unique opportunity in the coming months to emerge from the hidden nooks of shattered cities and dilapidated "refugee camps" in order to reach for greater liberty and a fulfillment of the broken promise of democracy. Though history and Middle Eastern politics have taught me that I will probably eat my words, I have faith that the new Palestinian leaders possess the abilities that Arafat lacked. These include the willingness to make sacrifices for peace, a capacity for rational thought on matters of political strategy, and the fortitude necessary to stand firm in the face of radical dissenters bent on sabotaging peace efforts. The new generation of leaders, the young and charismatic figures like Muhammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, who command respect among the Palestinian people, and have demonstrated a readiness to approach the peace table seriously must take their place in history. What the Palestinians need now is a Sadat who can make promises and deliver on them. Arafat, in the last 12 years, has shown the world that he was no Sadat.