Yasser Arafat died ten years ago, on November 11, 2004.
I am posting this "appreciation" a bit early, and anticipating an outflow of mourning and praise for Arafat next week. In fact, he was a curse to Palestinians.
To measure the damage Arafat did as the Palestinian leader, let’s begin with a comparison. Just 9 days before Arafat’s death, on November 2, 2004, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan died. Sheik Zayed’s death was not greeted with the global mourning, nor with the ceremonies and speeches at the United Nations that Arafat got. This is grotesque, because he was the father of his country, the UAE, and a model of sober, responsible, constructive leadership. Born in 1918 in one of the Trucial States, he lived as a Bedouin for all his early years. Yet he was wise enough to understand the modern world that was growing up around him, and to see the need for the Trucial States to federate when the British left in 1971. So he negotiated and then led the federation. The enormous success of the UAE today, and its role as a key U.S. ally, owe an incalculable amount to this man.
That’s one kind of leadership. Arafat provides another model: charismatic to be sure, but also violent, corrupt, destructive leadership that created the political mess in which Palestinians live today. When he had a great chance for peace, a chance to create a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000, he said no. He had a historic opportunity then--remember, the foreign "leader" with the greatest number of visits to Bill Clinton’s White House was Arafat--but he kicked it away rather than seizing it. The defense of Arafat is that Palestinians were not really prepared for him to say yes, and not prepared for the concessions peace would require. I agree--but whose fault was that? Arafat’s.
The point is not that every problem facing Palestinians is his responsibility, any more than every benefit Emiratis have can be attributed to Sheik Zayed. But leadership matters enormously, and Arafat’s was a plague for Palestinians--and all their neighbors. Under him the PLO was an ingredient in widespread violence in both Jordan and Lebanon. After the Israeli victory in 1967, civic life began to grow in the West Bank and Gaza. Roughly 700 NGOs were formed, the economy grew, and a far better future seemed possible. But after Arafat returned to rule in 1994, he crushed that civic life, made a mockery of the new Palestinian legislature that had been formed, and substituted a corrupt dictatorship. Theft of aid funds was constant and totaled around a billion dollars. Arafat created 13 "security" forces that he manipulated to assure his total control, and most were also involved in acts of violence: Ariel Sharon used to call them "security-terror organizations." The rise of Hamas owes a great deal to the disgust many Palestinians felt toward the repressive and corrupt PLO and PA that Arafat built.
It’s impossible to prove that had Palestinians had a different leader--someone like Nelson Mandela or Sheik Zayed, who wanted to build states that would assure a decent life for their people--today there would be an independent and responsible Palestinian state. But it’s easy to see what Arafat wrought, and Palestinians sadly continue to suffer from his years in power. Ten years after Arafat’s death, his historic "contribution" seems even more awful than it did in 2004.