Arafat’s Legacy

For better or for worse.

Yasser Arafat died this morning in Paris. Slate has compiled what some of our authors have said about the Palestinian leader over the years.

On April 18, 2002, Robert Wright defended Arafat’s decision to reject Ehud Barak’s land-for-peace deal offered to him at Camp David. Though Barak’s offer seemed generous to the outside world, it did not return all of the territory lost in the Six-Day War to the Palestinians. Even if Arafat had wanted to accept the deal, he would have been putting his own life on the line, as the Palestinians “are divided into two camps: the ‘return to 1967 borders’ crowd and the ‘destroy the state of Israel’ crowd.”

Arafat’s tendency to protect himself and accommodate the Palestinian majority gave him legitimacy but at the same time made him a less transformational leader. In this Oct. 20, 2002, “Assessment,” David Plotz says that “Arafat doesn’t know how to change the Palestine popular will: He only knows how to reflect it.” The last three decades of his rule have been marked primarily by a concern for his own popularity.

Some argue whether Arafat’s support of terrorism disqualify him as a peace partner. In this May 7, 2002, piece, Robert Wright says it does not. Although Arafat probably has supported violence against Israelis, at least implicitly—if only “as a way of maintaining street cred”—the goal of the international community should be to “create a context in which terrorism and Arafat’s political interests no longer align.”

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades exemplify Arafat’s shady relationship with terrorist groups. This March 29, 2002, “Explainer” examined the contradictory statements about whether the terrorist group took orders directly from Arafat. At the very least, Arafat never went out of his way to stop the Martyrs Brigades from carrying out attacks within Israel.

Disillusionment with Arafat grew as the glow of the Oslo Accords faded in the mid- to late 1990s and as criticisms of his complicity with the intifada heightened. This Explainer, written by Julie Bosman on April 19, 2002, ponders the possibility of stripping Arafat of his Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee does not allow for any revocation of its prizes, but an online petition calling for a retraction of the Peace Prize garnered over 340,000 signatures.

Lately, distrust in Arafat as a peace partner led many to hope that his death would clear the path to a more transformative Palestinian leader. On Dec. 7, 2001, David Plotz surveyed the field of possible successors to Arafat—and found them wanting. Arafat, fearing a threat to his own control, never groomed a successor. As Plotz wrote, Palestine’s future leader will have such a tenuous hold on power that he will not be able to risk making a deal with Israel: “We’re stuck with a current leader who won’t make a deal, future leaders who can’t make a deal, and no way to change them.”

Last week, Lee Smith described the role of an American administration in post-Arafat Palestine, saying that Bush should take an aggressive role in the Middle East peace process in the next four years. “Since there is no one on the Palestinian side who can seriously negotiate, there is no peace process and, for the foreseeable future, almost no chance of peace. … He’s going to have to learn how to listen to what [Palestinians] want and how to shape their hopes and desires for a Palestinian state.”