Arafat's Legacy

GENERIC Yasser Yasir Arafat dies dead
This column was written by the editors of The New Republic.
Yasser Arafat could not even die straightforwardly. His final days were like all his days, cloaked in concealment and conspiracy, hostile to truth, pitting factions against one another for the sake of his own cult. The intrigue at the Paris hospital (did he believe that the European Union could save him even from this?) was perfectly grotesque, and perfectly typical. In death, as in life, Arafat remained utterly devoid of grandeur.

A natural death, unlike the first King Abdullah of Jordan, unlike Anwar Sadat, was what Arafat most ardently wanted, the objective to which he again and again subordinated the interests of his people. He lived in fear of the gangster culture that he created. He was the very model of unheroic leadership. His admirers praised him as a survivor, but it was his own survival for which he will finally be known. Rarely has a figure so much littler than history loomed so large in it. Even the Palestinians came to revere the Rais for merely symbolic reasons; they, too, recognized that he gained them nothing. To be sure, he aroused their collective consciousness and imbued them with a national identity; but it would be imprecise, in considering the legacy of this small but catastrophically significant man, to remember him only as the father of the Palestinian nation. For he was responsible not only for the creation of Palestinian nationalism, he was responsible also for the frustration of Palestinian nationalism. He led his people out of the wilderness and into the wilderness. He left them more proud and more wretched.

It is often said that Palestinian nationalism was the mirror image of Jewish nationalism. Both peoples certainly clamored for the same land; but the analogy stops harshly there. For Arafat proved momentously unwilling to take the leap into self-reliance, into the morality and the politics of it, that his Zionist counterparts took. They, too, were once presented with the choice between statehood on much less of the land than their ideology demanded, with the concomitant rescue of their people from refugee camps and the splintering of the national movement, or the preservation of the refugee camps and the national movement by holding out for everything in the name of ideological righteousness. The state of Israel was born because the Zionist leadership resisted, at the excruciating cost of internecine warfare, the maximalist temptation. The state of Palestine has not yet been born because Yasir Arafat succumbed to the maximalist temptation every time. Arafat sometimes accepted Israel in his words, but he never accepted Israel in his deeds. And that is why he never saw Palestine.

Arafat will also be remembered as the most prominent (and the most richly rewarded) face of terrorism in the latter decades of the last century. In this regard, you might say that he was a true pioneer of this century. It is a dubious distinction, and not only because it describes the murder of many innocent people. After all, there were many leaders of national liberation movements who resorted to political violence (Jewish ones, too). But many of them eventually renounced political violence for the responsibilities of sovereignty. Not Arafat. From the founding of the PLO in 1964 to the instigation of the second intifada in 2000, he never gave up the gun. Abu Ammar never stopped being Abu Ammar: He retained the nom de guerre because he retained the guerre.

And now? On the Palestine side, a ferocious struggle for power and maybe civil war. In fact, the conflict between the modernists and the jihadists has been going on for some time now, but Israeli military actions and the veneer of Palestinian comity provided by Arafat somewhat obscured it. Now the Palestinians will finally have to decide if they will allow Hamas to wreck their prospects for a normal life. Israeli policy will depend significantly on the outcome of this nasty process of Palestinian self-definition. But time is not altogether on Israel's side: The demographic clock is ticking coldly toward midnight, as even Ariel Sharon understands. And so Israel will have to do whatever it can to assist the modernists, the diplomatists, among the Palestinians. This time Sharon must not leave Abu Mazen to his own devices, as he did the last time. The Israelis always said that Arafat was an insurmountable obstacle to peace. Well, the obstacle has been surmounted. We shall not look on his like again -- or shall we?