When Yasser Arafat became a founder of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the mid 1960s, only a small percentage of the world's population even recognized the existence of a Palestinian people. Traumatized by the loss of their homes, the more than 800,000 Arabs who had fled the war and Israeli underground movements (identified by some as terrorist groups) led by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir were encouraged by the leaders of surrounding states to see themselves as part of the "Great Arab nation" and to imagine that Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser would provide them with redemption. Arafat's group, the PLO, argued that the liberation of these refugees would be the work of the people themselves, and that they could not depend upon surrounding Arab states, who had already betrayed their Arab brothers and sisters in Palestine by failing to send significant military support during what the Israelis called the War of Independence and the Arabs called Al Naqba, the Great Disaster of 1948.
When Israel decisively defeated Nasser in 1967 and took possession of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and then, ignoring the pleas of many Israeli leaders and visionaries, continued to occupy these areas and encouraged Jewish settlers to create outposts in the midst of Arab land, Arafat's PLO raised the cry of the occupied and became the articulator of a growing new national consciousness of the Palestinian people.
Like most liberation struggles against colonial occupiers, Arafat's PLO adopted the path of violent struggle, using terrorism which had traditionally been the weapon of the weak and those who have no army of their own. But for several decades Arafat was unable to recognize that his opponent was not a traditional colonial power, but a state filled with Jewish refugees, a majority of them refugees from Islamic countries where they had perceived themselves to be endangered and oppressed. Israel itself had been a first attempt at affirmative action on a global scale, created through the vote of the United Nations in the wake of a monumental genocide that had killed one third of the Jewish people and left the other two thirds so traumatized and fearful of non-Jews that they demanded the right to build in their ancient homeland a specifically Jewish state and were given international sanction to do so.
Arafat's blindness to the nature of his enemy and oppressor accounts for the particular failure of his mission. On the one hand, he was a charismatic leader who was able to unify the Palestinian people enough to allow them to emerge into world history as a genuine independent entity, and then to convince the world of their right to a state of their own. Contrast that with the Kurds or Tibetan Buddhists or many others and you get a sense of the monumental political accomplishments of the PLO under the leadership of Arafat.
Nor was this suspicion without foundation. There is evidence that Arafat himself ordered specific acts of murder and terror, acts for which he would have earned life in prison had he been captured and tried (Israel had long ago abolished the death penalty). Even after signing the Oslo Accords, Arafat did little to use the power he had been given by Israel to govern the Occupied Territories to eliminate terrorist groups within Palestinian society who intended to continue the armed struggle against Israel. The dichotomy between his public pronouncements in English in which he affirmed peace and his pronouncements in Arabic in which he reaffirmed the need for struggle and Jihad (which he claimed had no necessary violent intent, but knew that it would be heard as inciting violence by many in the Palestinian world), his unwillingness to confront the Palestinian fantasy of a "right of return" and say clearly to his own people that they would have to recognize that the Israeli people were never going to give Palestinians the ability to reclaim their lost homes or land, his inability to embrace non-violence in principle (not just as a momentary tactic but as a principled way to challenge occupation), his failure to use the Camp David negotiations with Barak in 2000 in a constructive way to articulate clearly what would be the terms that Palestinians would accept as "enough," his failure to whole-heartedly embrace the Geneva Accord even when it was negotiated by his lieutenant Yassir Abed Rabbo with former Israeli Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin--all of these were ways in which Arafat was a monumental mis-leader of his people, pulling them into dead-ends that perpetuated their suffering and gave solace to the most Right-wing elements in Israel.
And then there was Arafat's ruthless treatment of dissenters among his own people, creating a climate of fear which made it necessary for those who wished to disagree publicly with his policies to have their own counterveiling instruments of violence to defend themselves against PLO thugs. Defacto this meant that the most peace-oriented elements of the Palesitnian world have either had to find a way to articulate their ideas within the context of an Arafat-controlled PLO or to keep their silence and wait for his death, on the one hand, while allowing dissent only from Islamic fundamentalist groups whose militias could defend themselves and thus create autonomous power.
In the last decade of his life, Arafat may have softened and come to a deeper realization that he would have to live with Israel in peace. The authoritarian power he had amassed, partly with the help of Israel which armed the PLO in the hopes that it would become a domestic police force in the West Bank and Gaza, gave him the unique position of being the only leader who could actually deliver a peace settlement that could successfully be imposed on warring Palestinian factions. For that reason it was always fantasy to claim that he had become irrelevant. Yet he never used his persuasive powers, charisma, and the respect he had won from many Palestinians to prepare his people psychologically, politically or spiritually for a warm peace with the Israeli people.
It would be unfair to not acknowledge the overwhelming difficulty that faced Arafat throughout his life: dealing with an Israel that was increasingly under the sway of right-wingers and fanatics, who killed the Prime Minister (Rabin) after he negotiated the Oslo Accord, and who managed to block implementation of Israeli agreements with Arafat.As a result, Arafat was forced to deal with an Israel which repeatedly broke its agreements, promising to leave the West Bank and grant Palestinians autonomy or even self-determination while simultaneously actually intensifying its occupation, bringing more and more settlers to the territories, escalating torture and human rights violations, using daily violence to enforce its control, and building checkpoints that increased the misery of daily life for most Palestinians.
Yet in the final analysis Yasser Arafat was not up to the challenge of meeting Israeli intransigence with the kind of leadership that a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Mahatma Gandhi, or a Nelson Mandela was able to bring to their peoples facing their own forms of oppression. It is this failure of imagination that will temper history's praise for a man who will be lauded as the father of his people. It is my fervent prayer that the Palestinian people will be allowed to choose democratically a leader who can honestly make and follow though on a commitment to non-violence and to a generosity of spirit that will melt the icy walls of Israeli fear and provide a path to reconciliation and peace. Meanwhile, let Arafat rest in peace.