Arafat’s paradoxical life and death
Arafat’s paradoxical life and death

Arafat’s paradoxical life and death

At the end of the day, Yassir Arafat's legacy will be measured by what others are able to do with it. It is an unfinished canvas; as complex, contradictory and colossal as was the man himself. He dominated Palestinian politics in a way that few have dominated politics elsewhere. He did more to influence the world stage than most international counterparts, with far fewer assets at his disposal. He did so by catering to many while confronting few, sounding decisive while seldom making decisions, demanding unquestioning loyalty to the cause while allowing uncertainty over the precise nature of that cause. Leaving business incomplete was the business he was in; it allowed him and the Palestinian national movement to survive against great odds, and this is what he passes on with his death.

It is easy to speak of the vacuum after Arafat. But what he has bequeathed is less scarcity than surfeit. Although he always favoured the secular Fatah, he never ruled out its Islamist or secular rivals, ensuring each saw him as the ultimate defender against others' predatory instincts. Arafat made and unmade institutions, at times acting as head of state; at others, relying on more traditional levers of power. Under his rule the Palestinian movement was populated by various political and armed groups, old elite and new militants, members of the diaspora and insiders. He ensured that no one, himself aside, was in charge, and that no one was left out.

Much the same applies to the Palestinians' political programme. The words Arafat uttered over the years could apply to a policy of armed resistance or peaceful negotiations; inflexibility or compromise. Because his priority was to be in tune with the national mood, negotiations with him were maddening for they also involved negotiating with the fluctuating interests he embodied. We will never know if he actually read the Oslo accord, the Wye River agreement, or even the Clinton ideas. His was a world of instincts; accepting one day what he rejected another; simultaneously ready for historic compromise and Homeric conflict depending on his intuition.

What will happen to the confusion Arafat encouraged without Arafat to manage it? His determination to keep so much of his work incomplete helps explain the inconsistent assessments of his rule. Castigated for his authoritarianism, he also was criticised for failing to crack down on dissent; decried as incapable of controlling the Palestinians' behaviour, he also was held responsible for their every step. All this accounts for the most relevant confusion today: that his passing will bring either chaos or its end, and will either promote peace by empowering pragmatic leaders, or obstruct peace by removing the one leader with the legitimacy to sell it. Because Arafat rarely precluded any option, many remain open. There is ample justification to fear what we will now get. Without Arafat's restraining mantle, the temptation for a power struggle will be great. At some point, rivalries - political and ideological, geographic and generational - will come to the fore. Without Arafat's potential approval, prospects for a durable political agreement risk being remote. But for him, no credible Palestinian leader would have dared accept the compromise that was Oslo and embrace the two-state solution. Others no doubt will now make pronouncements for him, in his name and memory, with the decisiveness he avoided and possibly to discredit future concessions.

With mourning for Arafat serving to unite Palestinian ranks and his Oslo legacy potentially encouraging a peace deal, there are tentative reasons for hope: Palestinian leaders, so accustomed to back-stabbing, standing together; Hamas urging participation in collective leadership after years of watching from afar; Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's deputy, being recognised as the natural heir after being sidelined for opposing the intifada. But these can be misleading: divisions - between Hamas and Fatah, as within Fatah itself - are likely to resurface once the leadership must decide on its response to Israel's Gaza withdrawal and a political programme. The current moment will be fleeting if there is nothing, besides shared grief and uncertainty, to give the new leadership legitimacy. The course of events does not depend on Palestinians alone but on Israel and George W. Bush who, freed of both pretext (Arafat's presence) and constraint (Mr Bush's re-election), will be judged by whether the US can lessen the burdens of occupation and push for a final peace deal.

In September, the last of several visits I made to Arafat in recent years, the muqata,his headquarters, was a shadow of what it once was, but his extraordinary sway was as it had always been. Even isolated, he was surrounded; even ailing, he seemed strong. Exits mattered deeply to the old man. He insisted on a dignified departure from Beirut in the early 1980s. In 2000, he made sure to leave Camp David with national honour intact, celebrated as the defender of Arab and Muslim Jerusalem. He was unable to control his final exit and - in its unpleasantness and Parisian intrigue - it showed. But for the Palestinian people who mourn him, what matters now is the unfinished canvas that his successors must now complete. It is up to them to define his true legacy.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen is welcomed by Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank June 14, 2022. Mohamad Torokman / REUTERS

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Events in 2021 – particularly the Gaza war – put in sharp relief how much Europe’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs a refresh. The European Union and its member states should use the levers they have to push for their stated goal of a peaceful resolution. 

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