Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

The Arafat Enigma

My final meeting with Yasser Arafat took place barely a few weeks ago, in the rubble of his headquarters, over a frugal and flavorless dinner of soup and vegetables. He was outfitted in his trademark military garb, a pile of documents awaiting his signature, aides and colleagues standing by for his attention. The scene was vintage Arafat: the image of armed resistance (when Israel could effortlessly have struck him at moment's notice); the illusion of orderly decision-making (when chaos had long replaced governance); and above all, the reality of personal power. Among his visitors that evening were several of his associates, some of whom had only recently challenged the Palestinian leader. That night, they were doing the talking, Arafat feigning to listen. It was clear who was subordinate and who was boss.

For American policymakers, Arafat's ability to exercise this kind of power over several decades and despite serial defeats was a cause of constant bafflement and a source of repeated misjudgments. They thought he would be assessed based on how well he governed and what he achieved. On both counts they found him wanting and expected Palestinians to follow suit. Palestinians did not -- not out of blindness to his failings, which they experienced more acutely than most, but rather out of a sense that Arafat literally embodied the nation. In the eyes of countless Palestinians, he had taken a dispersed, stateless people, given them dignity and a name, put them on the map, evaded recurring attempts at Arab subjugation and both built and preserved a national movement. For that, they were prepared to forgive in abundance and in perpetuity. As one Palestinian told me, "his people will always flock to him because he did not sell out -- which compensates for the fact that he did not deliver."

Even as Arafat lay dying in France last week, his portrait hung over an empty chair in a meeting of the Fatah movement leadership -- just as his absence will hang over those seeking to fill his place.

Arafat performed not so much through leadership as through representation, yet another object of U.S. puzzlement. He did not seek to impose decisions, govern through force or subdue rivals via bloodshed. He was the creation more than the creator of Palestinian politics, the expression of an ethereal national consensus, the most fluent reader of Palestinian possibilities and limitations. His personification of the Palestinian political center of gravity was his political currency, which is why he resisted calls to crack down on the violent acts of Hamas or Islamic Jihad or compel order, and it's why, even as he drew close to his last day, he feared Israel's withdrawal from Gaza might give rise to a competing power basis. The flip side was that chaotic pluralism and managed turmoil were his instruments of choice. They gave him maximum maneuvering space, which he considered vital to either maintaining his personal position or achieving Palestinian objectives -- two goals that, alas, he barely and rarely distinguished.

The Palestinian leader never had a grand strategy. His life was the stuff of intuition and short-term political expediency. Hence his tortured relationship to peace and violence. Before most of his colleagues, Arafat believed in a peaceful, two-state solution; unlike some of them, he also believed that violence was needed to reach that end. In his universe, regardless of formal pledges, there was no contradiction. Diplomacy and force formed part of a single, coherent continuum. Assessing long-term costs was foreign to his repertoire; if violence suited current needs, he would do little or nothing to oppose it.

Together, these traits shaped his infuriating negotiating schemes and maddening inability to make decisions. But these were ingredients that early on allowed him and the national movement to endure. Once learned, they were hard to forget. These traits followed him to his last hide-out, the battered Muqata to which he was confined for three years. There, he remained faithful to his guiding motto: Stand firm and sit still. In every Israeli or U.S. move, he discerned attempts to weaken him and divide the Palestinian nation. Again, in his mind national and personal interest blurred. If he found himself holed up in Ramallah with events accelerating in Gaza, things would happen without him, which meant against him, which meant to the detriment of the cause. If he could do nothing more than obstruct, that is what he would do. And he would, as he proved to me that last evening together, relish every moment of it.

How will the movement built by Arafat for Arafat survive without Arafat? Even before the Palestinian leader left his compound, the glue that held all together had begun to dissolve. Managed chaos was becoming anarchic havoc, with a profusion of new centers of power -- families, clans, armed militias -- nominally loyal to Arafat, actually beholden to no one. His death will leave a gaping hole that he spent a lifetime making sure would not -- could not -- be filled. There are potential heirs, but for the most part their legitimacy, unlike his, is derivative, incomplete and dependent on him. Arafat retained personal, organizational, historic and democratic credentials; others did not. Without him, they are all weakened, and the pluralism Arafat encouraged to bolster his own power will undercut the power of any who dares succeed him.

It won't be easy for Palestinians to shift from one mode of political organization and loyalty to another, amidst a sense of unprecedented loss, continued conflict and worsening economic plight. Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qureia are emerging as successors -- perhaps the only heirs with institutional status within the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the historical pedigree of having spent decades at Arafat's side. But with time, different groups likely will assert themselves: Hamas to challenge the secular leadership, one offshoot of Fatah to confront the other, and the younger generation to challenge the older. Much will depend on the Palestinians' ability to forge a collective leadership that incorporates Hamas. And much will depend on whether the United States can muster the political wisdom to shy away from Palestinian succession battles and the political courage to put forward a fair and viable Israeli-Palestinian deal.

In the end, Arafat had the symbolic value and governing skills of a political icon -- which meant a lot and very little simultaneously. Arafat liked to think of himself as the father of the nation. The new leaders need to establish credibility and maintain a degree of unity lest that nation end up little more than a hapless orphan.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.