Arafat's Ambiguous Legacy

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JAMAL ARURI / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

LEADER: Arafat in June of last year

Palestinians will quickly establish a consensus over which leaders will fill the formal positions of Yasser Arafat, who died early Thursday in Paris. But consensus over the way forward will remain as elusive as it has been for the past decade. It is a measure of Arafat?s unique status as a national symbol that despite that absence of consensus, Palestinian leaders ranging from moderate liberals such as Hanan Ashrawi to the hard-eyed bombers of Hamas have concurred on the role of the aging revolutionary, who spent his last three years living under virtual house arrest at the Ramallah compound where his organization now plans to inter his remains, as the symbolic personification of their national aspirations. Responding to efforts last week by Arafat's wife, Suha, to restrict access to her husband during his last days alive, Ashrawi, who had often publicly differed with Arafat on matters of policy and strategy, explained: "He is not just a husband or a father, he is father of a nation." Hamas spokesmen were equally sanguine in hailing him as the symbol of Palestinian nationhood. That legacy as the champion of the Palestinian national idea, built in the course a storied life at the head of an insurgent movement more than once left for dead, only to bounce back will play an indispensable role in keeping the Palestinian national movement intact in the immediate wake of his passing. But it may also serve as a political straitjacket on his heirs.

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The "father of the nation" appellation is not simply a product of Arafat's 35 years at the helm of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), or his half-century in charge of the secular-nationalist Fatah movement he founded in 1956, and which remains the single largest party in Palestinian politics. It derives from the fact that Arafat's ascent in the national movement epitomized a Palestinian declaration of independence. Before Arafat and his comrades took charge of the PLO in 1968, the very term "Palestinian" hardly existed in the international lexicon. The fate of the Arab residents of what had once been British-mandate Palestine was viewed by the West, Israel and the Arab world as properly the responsibility of the Arab regimes. But with their failed military campaigns to destroy the Jewish State in 1948, 1967 and 1973 leaving the vast majority of Palestinians living either as refugees in the Arab world or under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, Arafat personified a determination among Palestinians to take charge of their own fate.

A declaration of independence

Until the early 1970s, there was no "Israeli-Palestinian" conflict as far as the world's media was concerned; there was simply an "Arab-Israeli" conflict. And the Israelis had prevailed. When peace and political solutions were discussed, they were imagined as compacts between Israel and its Arab neighbors shifting responsibility for the occupied territories back to Egypt and Jordan. Not that the Arab regimes were particularly enthusiastic about taking responsibility for the Palestinians, a people whose "orphaned" status shamed and mocked the pretensions of a pan-Arab nationalism that had failed to redeem them.

Arafat's PLO broke the mould, demanding an independent voice and control over Palestinian destiny — a course that ultimately set it on a collision course not only with Israel, but also at various points with many of the Arab regimes. It was a combination of guerrilla resistance, hijackings and other high-profile terrorist operations and skillful diplomacy — all undertaken on Arafat's watch although often with layers of plausible deniability between the PLO chairman and specific actions — that introduced the world to the Palestinians in the early 1970s.

In 1974, only one year after Pan-Arab nationalism's final defeat at Israel's hands, Arafat became the first non-head of government to address the UN General Assembly, and the Arab League anointed the PLO "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," formally transferring responsibility for Palestinian fate into Palestinian hands. And if Arafat's personage became the symbol of this new nationalist voice suddenly recognized in the Arab world as the revolutionary head of state of a stateless people, his mystique was burnished by his uncanny ability to beat the odds.

From the jaws of defeat

In Jordan in 1970, he cheated one political "death" after the disastrous "Black September" insurrection against King Hussein saw his organization driven out of the Hashemite kingdom and into Lebanon. There, too, he once again escaped the noose, fleeing into a new exile in far-off Tunis in 1982 after Ariel Sharon's army had vanquished his fighters. Arafat seemed irretrievably doomed in 1991 when his disastrous miscalculation of supporting Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait saw the PLO reduced to pariah status in almost every Arab capital. But within two years, he popped up on the White House lawn shaking hands with Yitzhak Rabin under the matrimonial smile of President Bill Clinton. It's not hard to see how his improbable political recoveries have made Arafat a talisman of resilience for a people perennially on the brink of national extinction.

Strategic necessity and shifting political reality created a survivor's flexibility in Arafat's politics. Out in the wasteland of his exile in Tunisia, he saw the limits of military and diplomatic efforts based in the Palestinian refugee Diaspora — they could claim headlines, but ultimately do little to displace Israeli power in pursuit of the goal of Palestinian sovereignty. In 1988, for the first time, Arafat led his organization to advocate a two-state solution to the conflict, based on creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza rather than insisting on the implausible goal of ?liberating? all of historic Palestine. This apparent trimming of PLO strategic ambitions was merely an acknowledgment of a new reality on the ground — the "intifada" uprising, that had begun a year earlier, had firmly shifted the epicenter of Palestinian hopes back to the Occupied Territories. In the global political arena, young boys armed with stones and molotov cocktails that highlighted the untenability of the occupation, even to Israelis themselves, could do far more to advance the Palestinian cause than either sporadic terror attacks or huffy resolutions at the UN.

It was the resilience of the intifada generation that brought Arafat back from the political dead after the Gulf War, and ultimately brought him home, recognized by the U.S. and Israel as the head of the newly minted Palestinian Authority in 1994. The U.S. and Israel were willing to overlook corruption, cronyism, autocracy and repression in Arafat's administration as long as he kept a tight rein on Hamas and other militants. And Arafat himself maintained the ambiguity, never quite facing up to the limits on the deal he'd signed with Israel, preferring to hold his movement together by saying different things among his own followers to the things he was saying in the White House and to the Israelis. All the while, he was reading the winds, ready to change tack if they shifted. And as the chasm of expectations between his own people and his negotiating partners widened, Arafat became more elusive to both sides.

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