Yasser Arafat

Survivor: Palestine.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Over the years, Yasser Arafat was the subject of some pretty bad jokes. When he returned to the Gaza Strip in triumph in 1994 after the PLO signed the Oslo peace accords with Israel, Palestinians talked about an honor guard drilling to welcome the chairman back to Palestinian soil with a 21-gun salute. One eager cadet raised his hand. “What happens,” he asked, “if we hit him on the first shot?”

The Israeli jokes were even meaner. One had Arafat visiting a fortune teller, who carefully traced his lifeline. “I have strange news,” she says. “You will die on a major Jewish holiday.” Arafat, amazed, muses on the vagaries of fate that would, after the life he’d lived, have him dying on a Jewish festival. “Mr. Chairman,” the fortune teller replies, “any day you die is a major Jewish holiday.”

For a long time, it seemed that day would never come. Arafat was the quintessential survivor. He survived assassination attempts, the PLO’s expulsion from Jordan in September 1970, a plane crash in the Libyan desert, even Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon to drive Arafat from his Beirut redoubt. But now that the grand old man of Palestinian nationalism lies at death’s door far from Palestine in a French hospital bed, it is time to start thinking about his legacy.

The rawness of the jokes bespeaks the limits of the life he lived, and the choices he made. In fact, the worst and cruelest Arafat joke is the state he has left his people in—or, to be precise, the absence of a state.

That is not to minimize Arafat’s historical accomplishments: He saved the Palestinians, by means both foul and fair, from obscurity, and he sculpted their nationalism. He made Palestine a cause célèbre, and he definitively refuted the old canard that there was no such thing as a Palestinian. The Arab leaders who trusted him least had to trim their sails to accommodate him, and even Israel’s Likud proved willing—albeit passingly—to do business with him.

But historians will not minimize Arafat’s importance in the evolution of modern terrorism. Arafat was a terrorist pioneer, and he and his acolytes made brilliant and chill-blooded use of television to tell the world of the Palestinian cause and to tell the Palestinians of the determination of Fatah’s young gunmen. Before today’s age of sacred terror, nationalist terrorism was often designed to capture attention, rather than viewing the murder of civilians as an end in itself. So secular Palestinian nationalists hijacked airplanes and took Israel’s Olympians hostage in Munich. These televised spectacles leveraged media attention into political clout. As Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at RAND put it, terrorists of Arafat’s era wanted a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.

Arafat’s brand of armed struggle, as enshrined in the PLO Charter, vaulted him to the leadership of the Palestinians, and even his harshest Palestinian critics—of whom there were many, including some who were no less withering for being circumspect—never really dared to push him aside. Just after the PLO was founded in 1964, it was run by Ahmad al-Shuqairi, an erstwhile Saudi diplomat, as a tool of the Arab states. But regional conditions soon made it hard to leave the PLO as anyone’s pawn. After the Six Day War of 1967, in which the Arab states who’d promised to defeat Israel were humiliated, Arafat’s faction of the PLO, Fatah, seemed to be the only Arab force standing up to Israel. Arafat shoved Shuqairi aside, grabbed control of the PLO, and never loosened his grip. His largest concession to power-sharing was to create the post of a Palestinian prime minister under largely American pressure to crack down on terrorism and corruption. His first and more reform-minded nominee, Mahmoud Abbas, was quickly swept aside after being attacked by Arafat and abandoned by Sharon, and his replacement, the PLO veteran Ahmed Qurei, hewed closer to the old man’s line.

Arafat’s durability, even in a region with leaders as loath to relinquish power as the Middle East, made him a kind of relic from an earlier age. When Arafat took control of the PLO, Lyndon Johnson was president; he outlasted LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, the elder Bush, and Clinton, and but for about 100,000 votes in Ohio, he would have outlasted George W. too. For that matter, he also outlasted Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, and Jordan’s King Hussein.

But longevity does not always equal accomplishment. Arafat was innovative as a terrorist, virtuosic as a nationalist leader, and imposing as a symbol—but indifferent as an autocrat and disastrous as a diplomat. In 1990, after Saddam Hussein gobbled up Kuwait, Arafat backed the Iraqi dictator, even though he was menacing the PLO’s traditional financiers, the Gulf states. The U.S.-led coalition built by the first President Bush arrayed Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria on the winning side; Arafat was left isolated and broke. Meanwhile, the 1987 outbreak of the first intifada had shifted the center of gravity of Palestinian politics away from the exiled descendants of the refugees of 1948—Arafat’s core constituency—and toward the West Bankers and Gazans who’d been living under Israeli occupation since 1967. Fearing that he was running out of funds and relevance, Arafat was willing to throw the dice, recognize Israel, declare that he’d renounced terror, and let his deputies negotiate the Oslo accords.

With Oslo, Arafat seemed to have crossed the Rubicon. But the fatigues of the revolutionary fit Arafat better than the garb of the statesman. The underlying logic of Oslo suggested that the 1948 refugees’ core grievances would never be fully answered. There would be no return to abandoned homes in Jaffa, just a more limited return to a mini-state in the West Bank and Gaza. Jerusalem would at best be shared. But Arafat bucked at these concessions. At Camp David, when pressed by both Americans and Israelis to solve these so-called final status issues, Arafat had to be literally strong-armed inside the cabins by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

After the eruption of the second intifada, Arafat chose to ride the violence rather than quelling Palestinian terror. He sensed the mounting Palestinian discontent with Israeli settlement-building, the pace of Oslo, and the corruption of his outsider claque. As the Islamists of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad turned to increasingly frequent suicide bombings, radicalized but secular nationalists linked to Fatah—including the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades—followed suit. It’s hard to find evidence that Arafat did much to stop them. That onslaught eviscerated Israel’s Labor Party, Arafat’s erstwhile Oslo partner and best hope for a peace in the near term, and left Arafat alone with his old antagonist, Sharon. Arafat was a genius at playing to his own public opinion, but he was wretched at dealing with Israel’s, even at the height of the peace process. Unfortunately for him, the Israelis held the land he wanted.

A long life, then, but not a fulfilled one. No Palestinian leader of his era was more likely to be able to make lasting and historic accommodations with the harsh reality of Israel’s existence and power. Abbas or some other potential successors might be more interested in a deal, but these less-than-mythic figures would be much harder pressed to sell a wrenching deal to their people. But if Arafat was a Palestinian Nixon, capable of going to China, he was never entirely sure he wanted to make the trip. Yitzhak Rabin was willing to die facing down his own rejectionists; Arafat was not. He preferred to let natural causes take him. In a sense, Arafat’s legacy is simple: He lived for a Palestinian state. If he’d been a different type of leader, he could have died in one.