It is considered bad form to speak ill of the dead, but I will make an exception for Yasser Arafat, the pathetic embodiment of all that went wrong in the Third World after the demise of the European empires.
All too many rulers of “liberated” nations in the second half of the 20th century -- the likes of Mao Tse-tung (China), Sukarno (Indonesia), Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Moammar Kadafi (Libya) and Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt) -- proved to be devotees of the Louis XIV school of political philosophy: L’etat, c’est moi. Their rapaciousness knew no bounds. Neither did their cruelty.
Yet even as these rulers were torturing their own people, they were lionized in the salons of the West. European and American intellectuals, motivated by a combination of guilt for their countries’ past conduct, vicarious zest for revolutionary adventure and condescension toward Africans and Asians who were thought incapable of conforming to Western standards, were willing to excuse any crime committed in the name of “national liberation.”
Arafat benefited from this deference ever since taking over the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1969. He and his cronies pocketed billions of dollars and kept their grip on power through the cruel application of violence against various enemies and “collaborators.” In return, Arafat reaped worldwide adulation and a Nobel Peace Prize.
There has been no more successful terrorist in the modern age. Yet his biggest victims were not Israelis. It was his own people who suffered the most. If Arafat had displayed the wisdom of a Gandhi or Mandela, he would long ago have presided over the establishment of a fully independent Palestine comprising all of the Gaza Strip, part of Jerusalem and at least 95% of the West Bank. In fact, he seemed well on his way toward this goal when I met him in 1998 as part of a delegation of American scholars and journalists.
The place was his Ramallah compound, the time after midnight (Arafat was a night owl). He was wearing his trademark fatigues, and his hands and lips were shaking uncontrollably. Much of the session was conducted via translator, but Arafat broke into English when asked a question about Palestinian violations of the Oslo accords. It was the kind of query a democratic statesman would have batted away without a second thought.
Arafat, however, grew visibly agitated and stammered: “Be careful when you are speaking to me! Be careful, you are speaking to Arafat!” The threat of violence hung in the air as we left. Clearly Arafat had not quite mastered the art of being a politician or, rather, he was a politician in the mold of Mugabe or Mao.
His refusal to compromise, his unwillingness to give up the way of the gun consigned his people to economic and moral suicide. The current intifada, launched in September 2000 after Arafat turned down a generous peace offer from the Israelis at Camp David, has claimed three times as many Palestinian as Israeli victims. It has also led to a precipitous plunge in living standards in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- not something Arafat’s wife and daughter would notice from their cozy Paris residence.
As the uprising’s failure became evident, many of his own people grew increasingly disenchanted with their corrupt and feckless leader, though they could not quite shake off a Stalinist cult of personality nurtured over many decades.
Though Arafat, of course, bore ultimate responsibility for his many sins, he could not have been so destructive without so many outside enablers, ranging from the Soviet Union, which supported him from the 1960s to the 1980s, to the European Union and the United States, which stepped into the sugar daddy role in the 1990s. And let us not forget his fan club among the Western intelligentsia, many of whom even now weep for his passing as if he were a great man instead of a criminal with a cause.
George W. Bush, alone among Western leaders, had the courage to stop dealing with the Palestinian thug-in-chief. On June 24, 2002, the president gave an important speech in which he called on the Palestinian people “to elect new leaders ... not compromised by terror” and to “build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty.” Now that Arafat has gone to the great compound in the sky, there will be pressure on Bush to resume the pointless “peace process,” but it will be premature to do so as long as the terrorist kleptocracy spawned by Arafat continues to exist.
Only if his successors show a genuine commitment to peace and pluralism should they be rewarded by the West. In the meantime, the U.S. and its allies need to work behind the scenes to identify and support genuine Palestinian democrats -- not a new generation of gunmen in the Arafat mold.