By Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center
and co-author of Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography.
October 29, 2004
Yasser Arafat’s illness threatens to remove the man who has dominated the
Palestinian cause, shaped the Arab-Israeli conflict, and blocked the achievement
of its peaceful resolution for almost a half-century. His passing would have an
enormous effect on Middle Eastern and even global politics.
Since Arafat entered political life in 1948, his goal has been to destroy Israel
and create a Palestinian Arab state in its place. He has never fundamentally
wavered in this goal, although for a time in the 1990s he seemed ready to delay
His consistent use of terrorism arose out of a belief that violence would cause
Israel to collapse and mobilize support among his own people without
sabotaging his effort to win international backing. Arafat was successful at
creating and sustaining a revolutionary movement. Through his Palestinian
Liberation Organization and its various offshoots, he sustained the
longest-running terrorist campaign in modern history.
When he nominally renounced this campaign by signing the Oslo
agreement in 1993, he had brought his people to the cusp of statehood. A
former killer now feted as a politician, he became the Chairman of the
Palestinian Authority, a state in embryo.
Yet seen from another angle, Arafat was a miserable failure. Over the years, he
deepened and extended his people’s suffering, missing one opportunity after
another to resolve the status of Palestinian refugees.
And at Camp David in 2000, he rejected a deal that would have allowed
him to obtain a state and definitively end the Israeli occupation.
Instead, he returned to war. The result has been four years of bloodshed
and the entirely unnecessary deaths of thousands.
While many Westerners continued to be swayed by Arafat’s unique skill in
public relations and his revolutionary image, he hit bottom after 2000. Israel
and the United States refused to talk with him, both disillusioned by his refusal
to keep promises. Even in Europe, criticism of Arafat and his corrupt regime is
While public criticism in the Arab world is more muted, I have never
talked to a political or intellectual figure there who had a good word to say
about him in private. Among Palestinians, too, his popularity has reached a low
point, although there is also a consensus that there is no other choice for
His most serious illness has come at a time when the pending Israeli withdrawal
from the Gaza Strip offers him yet another opportunity to show a serious
commitment to peace and good government. But every sign has been that he
was well on the way to fumbling that chance as well.
What, then, would be Arafat’s legacy if he left the scene at this juncture?
Having refused to create viable institutions or to name a successor for so long,
the likely result will be chaos. The Palestinian movement remains a cluster of
disparate leaders and organizations.
Arafat holds every key office. As head of the PLO, he leads Palestinians
everywhere; as chief of the Palestinian Authority, he supposedly governs Gaza
and the West Bank; as leader of the largest militant group, Fatah, he runs a
The main question, then, is not who but what will replace Arafat. The
paradox is that while Arafat was its greatest barrier, peace will not be made
any easier to achieve by the vacuum left by his passing — at least not in the
short term. It will be a long time before anyone exercises real power as the
With no one clearly in charge, and rivals trying to outbid each other by proving
their legitimacy through violence and militant poses, the quest for peace will be
postponed. And there will be no one whose authority or actions will convince
Israelis to make concessions or take risks.
Moreover, the various warlords within his own militia are unlikely to take
orders from above, or even co-ordinate amongst themselves. This does not
mean there will be a full-blown civil war. But it will ensure there will be a
minimum of civil order.
Contrary to common fears, the Islamist terrorist group Hamas is unlikely to take
over. But since nationalist groups will ally with Hamas to gain more power, the
Islamists could gain a veto power that would make moderation hard to achieve.
To make matters worse, Iran and other states will have the chance to
back the leader of their choice in a bid to increase their own influence. Already,
the Lebanese-based Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, has been gaining
control over more and more Palestinian-based terror cells.
The greatest irony of Arafat’s career is that he brought his people to the verge
of achieving a state, then prevented them from getting one.
The question now is whether his long shadow will continue to curse
them after his death or incapacitation.