For virtually his entire adult life, Yasser Arafat had one dream, and he pursued it with such energy and zeal -- some would say fanaticism -- that he came to personify the dream itself.
The dream was of self-determination and statehood for the Palestinian people, and in the end he did not live to see it.
In 1999, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat clasp hands after signing a land-for-security agreemen. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright offered applause.
(Ruth Fremson - AP)
Such was his devotion to the cause that Arafat, who died early today at age 75 in a military hospital outside Paris, was willing to tolerate and embrace bloody acts of terror that made him an international pariah, and also to sign a peace agreement with Israel that inspired the wrath of some of his closest advisers, who considered it a sellout.
By dint of ruthless violence often directed at civilians, artful manipulation and the sheer theatrical force of his personality, he managed almost single-handedly to elevate the grievances of a few million disenfranchised Palestinians to a prominent place on the world's political agenda.
He was reviled by many Israelis, who saw in him a modern-day Hitler, revered by many Arabs, who loved him for restoring their shattered sense of honor, and lionized by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awarded him the Peace Prize in 1994. To the Palestinians, for whom he forged an identity as a distinct people striving for national liberation, he was larger than life -- though hardly universally adored.
"Ironically, his major shortcoming has also been his strength -- the belief that he alone is capable of realizing Palestinian ambitions," wrote Said K. Aburish, one of his biographers.
Until Israeli troops confined him to the ruins of his compound for nearly the last three years of his life, no statesman or leader in the modern era traveled as much, year after year. He once touched down in 45 countries in the space of a month, and it was common for him to alight in 10 countries in a week.
As one of the world's most recognized personalities for more than three decades, Arafat was the subject of at least a half-dozen biographies in English, plus others in French, German, Russian, Arabic and Hebrew. Few public figures granted so many interviews or delivered so many speeches -- and few managed so consistently to be evasive in their public comments. His trademark black-and-white checkered kaffiyeh headdress, folded and draped meticulously to describe the shape of Palestine, became a sartorial symbol not only for the Palestinian cause but for Third World revolutions in the Cold War era. The fascination with his persona was so great that dozens of Western interlocutors felt compelled to ask him why he kept his scruffy salt-and-pepper beard (he liked it) and why he didn't marry (he finally did, at 61).
Yet for all Arafat's public exposure, a sense of mystery remained about his essential nature and some of the basic facts of his life, thanks partly to his own efforts at obscuring them.
He could be charming, courtly and good-humored in private, pouring tea for his visitors and regaling them with amusing (if inflated) accounts of his battlefield exploits, narrow escapes and political travails. Yet he was an unimposing character, 5 feet 4, bald, thick-waisted, bug-eyed, temperamental, ineloquent and modestly educated. People delved into his speeches in search of an ideology, only to come up empty-handed. To this day, there is confusion about his place of birth, controversy about his battlefield exploits and debate about any number of episodes in his spectacularly eventful life.
Still, few doubted his knack for survival, the product of astonishing talent, luck or intuition. Many or most of his closest aides and confidants were murdered in the course of their long guerrilla struggle. But Arafat emerged intact from 40 assassination attempts (by his own, probably exaggerated tally), plus wars and rebellions, car accidents, a plane crash that killed both the pilot and co-pilot, and a stroke. And he managed to keep himself and his Palestine Liberation Organization whole and relevant despite devastating political setbacks and military defeats.
In his late sixties, Arafat attempted to transform himself from an archetypal revolutionary figure into a statesman and chief executive of the first self-ruled Palestinian territories. His handshake on the White House South Lawn with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Sept. 13, 1993, was one of the indelible images of the late 20th century, and the peace agreement they signed -- and for which they won the Nobel Prize -- seemed to hold the promise of a new future for the Middle East.
But his transformation was ultimately incomplete, and in U.S.-brokered negotiations at Camp David and in the Middle East in 2000 he was unwilling or unable to close a deal with Israel to put an end to the two sides' century-long conflict. Many concluded that Arafat had never truly reconciled himself to Israel's existence or the permanent exile of Palestinian refugees expelled from their ancestral homes by Israel. Under his rule, the Palestinian Authority was said by many to be riddled with corruption. When a bloody new Palestinian insurrection erupted in September 2000 -- if not led by Arafat then with his acquiescence -- he became a pariah to Israel and the United States.
By the time of his death, his leadership and legacy were the subjects of harsh debate among his own people.