Death Watch Over an Icon

The great wars of the last century produced countries like grass after rain. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I and the dissolution of the British Raj three decades later replaced sultans with presidents and viceroys with prime ministers. Peoples became nations; nations formed states; history marched erratically onward. Men as diverse as Sheik Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh, Mohammed Ali Jinnah of Pakistan and Kemal Ataturk of Turkey were hailed as fathers of their countries. Now the Palestinians, who constitute a nation though as yet without the geography that constitutes a state, mount a death watch over their iconic leader, Yasser Arafat.

Palestinians regard Arafat as the man who made the world, especially Israel, treat seriously their claims to being a nation as he campaigned from home or from exile in Lebanon and Tunisia. Much of the rest of the world remembers him as a terrorist leader whose followers tried to overthrow the government of Jordan in 1970, massacred Olympic athletes in Munich two years later and continue to murder Israelis by bombing pizza parlors, hotels and buses.

It is unclear whether there will be a separate Palestine existing in peace next to Israel, surely the best solution. The alternative is perhaps decades more of Israeli occupation of the territories seized in the 1967 war. If the territories eventually became part of Israel proper, Palestinians would be the majority and eventually would take over the government. A worse choice for Israel, and a long and dismal wait for Palestinians.

Arafat’s preference between those options has been opaque. He negotiated in the 1990s for a separate country, but rejected Israel’s U.S.-influenced offer of statehood, refusing to lead his people through the compromises required to achieve their dream. He was unable to make the transition from revolutionary to statesman, and thus his legacy will never rise to the level of those, like Nelson Mandela, who succeeded.


Arafat’s wiles kept him in charge for decades as he picked up Arab endorsements for his Fatah group, then for the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization and, ultimately, the Palestinian Authority, which was created to govern the West Bank and Gaza. He refused to name a successor and pushed aside potential rivals as their popularity increased.

But whether declaring from the U.N. podium in 1974 that he carried an olive branch and a gun, or shaking hands with U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Arafat moved the idea of a Palestinian nation-state from the fringe to the mainstream. His role in the Palestinians’ history will vary from writer to writer and decade to decade, but he has stamped the search for a state in his image, to the praise of his supporters and the condemnation of his foes.