"No one can control or change this revolution. No one can control or change me."
-- Yasser Arafat,
Yasser Arafat spoke those words before a boisterous crowd in a dusty refugee camp called Nahr Bared in northern Lebanon more than two decades ago.
You had to be in one of those camps back then to understand how much of a hero Arafat was to his people. I saw mothers, fathers and small children cheering Arafat wildly as he walked in a parade through their misery. They pushed, shoved and punched for a chance to kiss, touch or just see their leader.
The Palestine Liberation Organization had organized the whole thing, yet it didn't feel forced. He was their man, "the chairman." They knew that however many things he had failed at -- you sensed they knew the failures -- Arafat had put their cause, if not their country, on the map.
Yet Arafat was a failure. He could not make the leap from terrorist to national leader. He could not accept the cost of acknowledging the existence of the state of Israel. He put factional politics, the rhetoric of revolution and his control of the money coming into the Palestinian Authority over the less-glamorous goal of a normal Palestinian state with workaday politics.
The tragedy for the Middle East, for Palestinians and for Israel is that Arafat could never decide who he really was. His beginnings as a revolutionary and a terrorist were understandable, if despicable in so many ways. He had a cause and a people whose interests were not being attended to -- not by his fellow Arabs any more than by the rest of the world. He would bomb and kill and assassinate -- even young Israeli athletes -- so that attention would be paid.
He won recognition and a place at the table. He won visits to the White House and Camp David and a Nobel Peace Prize. He was on the verge of achieving the Palestinians' dream, a state of their own with passports of their own and a government of their own. A place to call home, an entity that would allow them to be referred to not as refugees but as citizens.
But he walked away. Yes, there were many complications. There were issues involving Jerusalem, the right of Palestinians to return to lands they thought had been taken from them, the issue of Israeli settlements. But Arafat was not a fool. He understood that no peaceful settlement was possible unless Palestinians accepted the fact that Israelis would not evacuate their land and allow the death of their state.
Yet he also knew that many Palestinians could never accept the idea of Haifa and Jerusalem being part of a Jewish state. He knew that if he made a deal, he would face dissent and violence. Perhaps he would be displaced. That he could not accept. So he never prepared Palestinians for the necessity of compromise. Having failed to prepare himself, he failed to prepare his people. He came to the very edge of a settlement -- and backed off. He set back peace. And he set back his people.
The great tragedy of Arafat's strategy, such as it was, is that it undercut both Israelis and Palestinians committed to peace. Arafat's choices weakened and discouraged those peace-minded Israelis who had spent many years engaging actively with Palestinians in the hope that two states might prosper together. Arafat gave a great gift to the Israeli hard-liners who never believed Palestinians would make peace.
He also undercut Palestinians on the other side of those dialogues. I spoke recently to a young Palestinian whose family had left their homeland but returned several years ago in anticipation that they would soon have a state to build. She said, sadly, that they were leaving again. Hope, once very much alive, was gone.
In that Palestinian camp I visited all those years ago, Arafat played his crowd brilliantly, insisting of his enemies that "they all went to disaster."
"And where is the Palestinian revolution?" Arafat asked.
"We are here!" many of them shouted back.
They are there still -- and with what? One can pray that Arafat's death opens opportunities that his successors will seize and thereby force a new approach on the Israeli side. But that is deeply, perhaps unrealistically, optimistic.
Arafat could have been remembered as the man who got the world to pay attention to his people through violence and then won them recognition by embracing peace. He made other choices, and his people, and the rest of us, are the worse for them.