Yasir Arafat died just as he lived most of his life, giving mixed signals to the world, provoking rivalries among intimates and arousing wild speculation from allies and enemies alike.
It’s not easy to take the measure of a man whose career has been obscured by so much propaganda and mythmaking. Especially in America, Arafat has been demonized as an arch-terrorist and derided as a bumbling rejectionist. Even as he lay on his deathbed, the New York Times repeated the accusation, branding him as “the man who refused to say yes” to Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak’s inadequate and insulting Camp David 2000 settlement offer.
We in the West too often ignore what no Palestinian will ever forget: After the Palestinians’ catastrophic defeat of 1948, when some 750,000 were expelled from their homeland and began living in destitution in refugee camps scattered across half a dozen countries, forgotten by the world, abused and cynically exploited by Arab despots and demagogues, it was Arafat who, along with a few comrades, gave birth to the Palestinian liberation movement. It was the PLO, under Arafat’s leadership, that restored Palestinian pride and helped to forge a nation out of a population that was geographically dispersed and politically divided. And it was Arafat who led the PLO, in the face of fierce internal resistance, into adopting the two-state solution in the mid-1970s. But his conciliatory peace offering at the UN General Assembly in 1974, and numerous subsequent peace feelers, were met with persistent rebuffs from Israel and the United States.
The caricature of Arafat as a rejectionist obscures his real failures. In a bid to regain the leadership role that he saw slipping away during the first intifada, when he was exiled in Tunisia, he signed the deeply flawed Oslo Accords. That may have won him a Nobel Peace Prize and grudging acceptance from the Israelis and Americans, but his people got very little in return: no end to the occupation, massive expansion of Israeli settlements, accelerated expropriation of Palestinian land, and economic strangulation.
Arafat compounded the damage by imposing a corrupt and incompetent regime on his own people after his return from exile. The great Palestinian critic and activist Edward Said, once an Arafat ally, came to revile him, denouncing him in these pages as “a Pétain figure who has taken advantage of his people’s exhaustion and kept himself in power by conceding virtually everything significant about our political and human rights…buying people off and torturing, imprisoning or killing dissidents at will.” Arafat also impeded the transition to a new generation of leaders, which the Palestinians desperately need now, in the thirty-seventh year of an increasingly brutal occupation.
Yasir Arafat has often been called the father of Palestinian nationalism. Yet if the national liberation movement survives his death, it will be because of the steadfastness and resilience of the Palestinian people, and in spite of Arafat’s leadership rather than because of it. They deserve better than they have been given, by the world and by their first leader.