Yasser Arafat's last days on earth, a subject of intense interest throughout much of the world, have evoked mixed emotions in the country that was his life's obsession: Israel. There is concern that demonstrations by Palestinian mourners could turn violent, that fights over Palestinian succession might spill over and claim Israeli casualties, or that Palestinians might accuse Israel of murdering Arafat. Apart from that, however, Israelis' reaction to Arafat's demise has been singularly subdued, if not indifferent.
This response -- or rather the absence of one -- is curious. For nearly 40 years, Arafat has been a major focal point for Israelis, alternately as the embodiment of our worst fears and the object of our fervent hopes. It was Arafat whose terrorist strikes against Israel in the mid-1960s helped trigger the Six Day War; Arafat who turned first Jordan and then Lebanon into bases for launching murderous strikes into Israel; Arafat who masterminded the Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972 and then, two years later, appeared before the United Nations General Assembly with a pistol on his hip, galvanizing that body and initiating a process that culminated with the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism. Yet it was also Arafat who, starting in the late 1980s, recognized U.N. Resolution 242 (which called for an end of hostilities and recognition of secure borders for Israel as well as other states) and who in 1993 shook the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House ceremony that many Israelis believed would herald an end to our century-long conflict with the Palestinians.
At the height of what was known as the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, Arafat's image in Israel underwent a profound transformation. From the arch terrorist with the sinister five o'clock shadow -- Israel's darkest nightmare -- he was now depicted in much of the Israeli media as a shrewd and avuncular statesman, admired as much for his bonhomie as for his uncanny ability to outwit successive Israeli prime ministers. Following her husband's assassination in 1995, Leah Rabin made a point of inviting "Uncle Yasser," as she called him, to her home while refusing to receive Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Arafat's seeming rehabilitation served to divert Israel's attention from his increasingly calamitous policies in the territories. In addition to pocketing the hundreds of millions of dollars contributed by Israel and the world community for the social and economic development of his people, Arafat openly encouraged Palestinians to reject a Jewish state within any borders and to actively seek its destruction. While Israeli textbooks were being rewritten to educate future generations for peace, stressing the plight of the Palestinian refugees, Palestinian schoolbooks were extolling the glories of martyrdom and the valor of suicide bombers.
It wasn't until the summer of 2000 that most Israelis were forced to admit that Arafat was not the peacemaker they thought and that their original impression of him was correct. At the Camp David summit, he rejected an Israeli-American proposal for creating a Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank, with its capital in Jerusalem -- precisely the two-state solution for which the Palestinians had avowedly been struggling. The stumbling block was not settlements, which Israel had offered to concentrate along the 1967 border, but rather Arafat's demand for the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their pre-1948 homes -- a right that, if implemented, would have transformed Israel into a Palestinian state in all but name. Arafat's only response to the unprecedented offer was to permit, and at times abet, a terrorist war against Israel that has claimed thousands of casualties on both sides and left his own Palestinian Authority in ruins.
With that, the arc of Arafat's image -- from terrorist to Nobel Prize-winning peacemaker and back to terrorist -- had been inscribed in the Israeli public's consciousness. Much of that public is now convinced that Arafat never intended to make peace, but merely used Oslo as a means of implementing the Palestinian Liberation Organization's 1974 "Phased Plan," which called for Israel's gradual destruction through combined violence and diplomacy. Indeed, a solid majority of Israelis have come to believe that Arafat so poisoned his own people that, with or without him, there is little chance to renew negotiations, and that Israel's only option was to hunker down behind a fence separating Israelis from Palestinians until such time as the Palestinians produce a legitimate leadership capable of making peace.
This is why news of Arafat's death has stirred up so few emotions in Israel. The hopes for peace he once kindled died long before him. At most, there has been a muted sadness here, reminiscent of the Israeli reaction to the passing of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970. Then, as now, rather than celebrate the demise of a man who had repeatedly threatened Israel's existence, we Israelis regretted the loss of the only Arab leader who seemed strong enough to end the conflict. Arafat also, like Nasser, had the political power and moral authority to conclude an agreement with Israel. But, unlike Nasser, he had once posed as a serious partner for peace.
This is not to say that Israeli Jews in any way mourn Arafat's departure. The fact that he died in Paris and not in his homeland, or that his heirs have been battling over control of his ill-gotten bank accounts, seems to many of us Israelis a fitting end to a life that might have achieved lasting esteem for its contributions to peace but will likely be remembered for its fostering of corruption and war. Had he chosen a different path, Arafat could well have been buried in Jerusalem in an august ceremony respectfully viewed by many thousands of Israelis and attended by the country's leaders. Instead, he was buried in his half-demolished Ramallah headquarters, the symbol of his failure as a statesman, and the funeral service, held in Cairo, was boycotted by even the most left-wing Israelis.
Ironically, the only Israelis who regret Arafat's passing are those from the radical right who believe that Arafat was Israel's greatest asset -- the man whose intransigence relieved the Jewish state of the necessity of making any painful sacrifices. Yet the far right need not worry. It seems highly unlikely that any Palestinian figure will be capable in the foreseeable future of marshaling the legitimacy needed to make peace with Israel or the military power to impose that peace on the Palestinian terrorist groups that will certainly oppose it. No Palestinian leader is capable today of reversing the war-like brainwashing of children and of reeducating them for coexistence. Fatah leaders such as Mahmoud Abbas and current Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia -- known as Abu Mazen and Abu Ala -- may be perfectly acceptable to both Israel and the United States, but it is far from certain that they will ever be acceptable to the Palestinians.
There is much talk now among European leaders and in the Western media about the so-called window of opportunity opened by Arafat's death. Certainly, Arafat's exit might open doors to new and more moderate leaders. But it might also usher in an era of even more radical Islamic extremists. At this stage, it would be premature, if not counterproductive, for the United States and the other members of the Quartet (the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, which are seeking to restart peace talks) to designate some Palestinian as Arafat's successor and railroad him into signing a treaty that he might be either powerless or unwilling to fulfill. Furthermore, any Israeli attempt to embrace one of the Palestinian contenders will immediately delegitimize him in Palestinian eyes.
While steps could be taken to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian civilians and to increase pressure on the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terrorism, the international community would be wise to follow Israel's example and simply wait and see. They, like Israelis, should neither rejoice nor lament at Arafat's passing, but only reflect sadly on the peace that he should have achieved and look hopefully to the peace that, with his passing, may yet be possible.
Author's e-mail: email@example.com
Michael Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East" (Oxford).