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One Year After: Arafat's Legacy
By: Barry Rubin
Wednesday, November 16, 2005


The Godfather of terror left his own creation in shambles.


Yasir Arafat died one year ago, on November 11, 2004, but his legacy lives on as a very powerful force in Palestinian politics. Indeed, the collapse of the Palestinian national movement is due directly to the way that Arafat built and ran it during his almost four decades of leadership.

By any standard, Arafat had a remarkable career. In all of modern history, no terrorist has had such good press or been so internationally honored at his funeral. Beyond this, Arafat's legacy affects the entire world. In a very real sense, he was the godfather of the radical movements born in the Middle East that have ushered in a new era of global terrorism.

As early as the 1970s, American officials called him the "teflon terrorist." Arafat exploited others' wishful thinking that peace could be obtained easily if only they gave him concessions or their vanity that they might be the one to solve the great Middle East problem if only they were nice to him. He showed how easy it was to fool the well-intentioned West and how quickly they forgot what he did last time. Arafat was able to give himself the image of being politically progressive which allowed him to intimidate his own people, ignore their poverty, perpetuate outrageous conspiracy theories, and foster corruption without any of it being counted against him by the Western Left. Indeed, public opinion polls showed that at the time of his death, Arafat was more popular in France than he was among Palestinians.

Until the end, the many who praised Arafat--far more numerous in the West than in the Arab world--in itself a point of great significance--found him admirable mainly on the basis of three qualities. He was said to be a nationalist who was leading and representing his own people; to be beloved by them; the symbol of their struggle who was personally a courageous individual; and a champion of the underdog.

Indeed, Arafat was never a true nationalist--if we define a nationalist as one whose priority was obtaining an independent state and improving the situation of his people. Intoxication with revolution and the myth of total victory, not the welfare of the Palestinians, were what motivated him. By the end of the 1970s, he had already created a movement that could have obtained a state in the context of the Egypt-Israel peace deal at Camp David and on several occasions thereafter if he had moderated his goals and tactics.

In 1993, by signing the Oslo agreement, he persuaded many that he was ready for a compromise peace. And he returned to his homeland to become the head of a Palestinian Authority (pa) that seemed poised to achieve a state. Yet as ruler over two million Palestinians, he did nothing to benefit them materially. Economics, education, health, or other such issues were of no interest to him. And in 2000 he rejected, at Camp David and in the Clinton plan, two chances to obtain a state and end the Israeli occupation. Instead, Arafat returned to war, still believing that violence would achieve his goals. The result has been four years of bloodshed and the pointless deaths of several thousand people. Toward the end of that era, and steadfastly refusing to end it, Arafat died.

But the story of Arafat is far from over. He has left the Palestinian movement a poisonous inheritance. The lack of effective Palestinian leaders to succeed him or institutions to govern is directly attributable to Arafat's refusal to name a successor or allow any alternative to his own personal power. By refusing to subordinate the multiple movements, factions, and militias that compete for power and loot Arafat guaranteed the current anarchy. The rise of Hamas is due not only to Arafat's refusal to battle it but also his using Hamas as a terrorist force against Israel. The current anarchy in the Gaza Strip stands on the quicksand foundations laid down by Arafat.

The same points can be made regarding the movement's ongoing extremism. It was Arafat who continued the glorification of violence, the demonization of Israel, and the portrayal of moderation as treason into the twenty-first century. When the gunmen of Fatah's al-Aqsa Brigades or even those of Hamas say they are carrying on Arafat's political line they are correct. His nominal acceptance of peace at Camp David was not implemented, while his closest colleagues in the movement carried on the strategy of glorifying terrorism and insisting that the only satisfactory solution would be Israel's destruction.

When you dig beyond all the details and daily events, what is clear is that the Palestinian national movement is split into quarreling leaders, factions, and groups. Gunmen do what they want, warlords split up power over different bits of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There is no reason to believe Abu Mazin is ever going to take control. The Palestinian leadership is paralyzed--some are afraid to try, others don't want to--from any possibility of a compromise peace with Israel. Even international support is in decline. While the Islamists of Hamas probably won't take over, there are heading toward a situation of almost equal power with the nationalists of Fatah.

In short, the Palestinian situation is in a terrible mess with no hint of how it can be fixed. This collapse and catastrophe is in large part due to Arafat's methods and policies. Here is the irony of his life and after-life: Arafat created and built up the movement yet also sowed the seeds of its failure and perhaps even destruction.

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Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2007. Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online here.