The outpouring of tributes to Yasser Arafat is marked by two themes: (1) his greatness as creator, sustainer and leader of the Palestinian cause, and (2) the abrupt opening of an opportunity for its success now that he is gone.
The fawning world leaders saying this seem oblivious to the obvious paradox. If he was such a great leader, how is it that he left his people so destitute, desperate, wounded and bereft that only his passing gives them a hope for a fulfillment of their deepest aspirations?
(1999 Photo/Kieran Doherty -- Reuters)
Arafat's apologists explain this by saying that is because he had one weakness: indecisiveness. In the end, he just could not pull the trigger. When offered the deal of the century by Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000, he was somehow too conflicted, too ambivalent to say yes.
Ambivalent? Nonsense. Yasser Arafat was supremely decisive and single-minded. He was not complex and, regarding Israel's fate, never conflicted. Indeed the reason for his success, such as it was -- creating the Palestinian movement from which he derived fortune, fame and reverence -- was precisely his single-mindedness. Not about Palestinian statehood -- if that was his objective, he could have had his state years ago -- but about the elimination of Jewish statehood.
That was the theme of his entire life. Yes, he signed interim deals to get a foothold in Palestine. But that was always with the objective of continuing the fight from a better strategic position. It was never to conclude a lasting compromise or real peace with Israel.
That is why he died so far from his promised land. This promised land was never the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat founded Fatah in 1959 -- eight years before Israel even acquired these territories. His objective then, and until the day he died, was a Palestinian state built on the ruins of an eradicated Israel.
Bill Clinton was astonished when Arafat rejected the offer of a West Bank and Gaza state, turning down the opportunity to be its George Washington. Americans never understood that Arafat saw himself completely differently: as an anti-imperialist revolutionary in the mold of Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro. Like them, his motto was "revolution unto victory." Total victory. No half loaf. And given Israel's stubborn refusal to die, Arafat's cause became sustaining the struggle -- the revolution -- indefinitely, almost as an end in itself.
It is for this reason that, while Arafat's death does open a first chance for peace since he took over the Palestinian movement four decades ago, that chance remains remote. Why? Because the revolution continues. Arafat made sure it would survive him. He created Palestinian nationalism and shaped it in a revolutionary mold that will take years, perhaps decades, to undo.
It is a legacy in two parts: means and ends. The means? Violence. Arafat invented modern terrorism: airplane hijackings, kidnappings and the spectacular mass murder, like the Olympic massacre of 1972. Others had tried it. Arafat perfected it. He turned terrorism into a brilliantly successful political instrument, a vehicle to international recognition and respect. The man who murdered more innocent Jews than anyone since Hitler died an international hero. The president of France bowed to his casket. The secretary general ordered U.N. flags to fly at half-staff.
Arafat also bequeathed a legacy of ends: uncompromising, irredentist ends. He didn't just reject any settlement that would leave Israel intact, thereby setting a precedent that any successor dare not violate. He also raised a new generation to ensure that rejection. Deploying every instrument of propaganda -- television, radio, newspapers and, most importantly, schools and summer camps for children -- his Palestinian Authority fed his people a diet of such virulent anti-Semitism and denial of the Jewish connection with the land that no successor will even be in position to contemplate breaking Arafat's rejectionist precedent.
Arafat's most cherished achievement was to so poison the well that the revolution -- until total victory -- continues long after he is gone. As soon as he died, the most murderous terrorist wing of his Fatah movement, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, changed its name to the Yasser Arafat Martyrs Brigades.
They understood their master. Which is why the prospects for peace upon his death are far more distant than the naifs (who got him wrong all through his life) now insist. Arafat's legacy -- the romanticization of violence, the rejection of Israel, the indoctrination of a new generation in intolerance and hatred -- will require a long time to undo. It will require years, perhaps even generations. It will require brave new Palestinian leaders who are the very antithesis of Yasser Arafat.