World Leaders Offer Eulogies of Praise and Restraint
Yasser Arafat was recognized Thursday as a historic figure in death as in life. But many world leaders were measured in their eulogies for the Palestinian leader, who never completely shook his image as a terrorist despite signing the Oslo accords with Israel and sharing in the Nobel Peace Prize as a result.
President Bush was among those who could find little positive to say about the man who had led the Palestinian cause for nearly four decades and brought his people to the brink of statehood. Muslim and Third World leaders, among others, saw it differently. They were often lavish in their praise, viewing Arafat as a tireless fighter for liberation for a people who had been dispersed and forgotten.
The different assessments reflected Arafat’s complicated and contradictory life, and the fact that he died at a time when the Middle East was again wracked by violence, when terrorism was rampant and when his goal of an independent Palestinian homeland remained unfulfilled.
Bush, who refused to meet with Arafat and urged Palestinians to shun him as their leader, called his death “a significant moment in Palestinians’ history.”
“We express our condolences for the Palestinian people. We hope that the future will bring peace and the fulfillment of the aspirations for an independent democratic Palestine that is at peace with its neighbors,” Bush said.
In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair also offered faint praise, dwelling more on Arafat’s historical importance than on his achievements or personal qualities. “He was a huge icon for the Palestinian people. There is no doubt about that at all, and whatever differences we had with him, I think it’s right to recognize that,” Blair said.
By contrast, in Brazil, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim was unabashed in his admiration: “He was a great leader, a leader who brought the Palestinian people very close to sovereignty and would have succeeded if it weren’t for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin” -- a reference to the 1995 slaying of the Israeli prime minister with whom Arafat had signed the Oslo pact.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said that Arafat “tirelessly struggled throughout his life for the attainment of the rights of the Palestinian nation” and the achievement of an independent state.
Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader and former president in Nicaragua whose Marxist revolutionary period coincided with Arafat’s, said he had lost a “personal friend.” “We have a pleasant memory of him, and we hope that those who succeed him give continuity to his struggle,” Ortega said.
The Arab world was suffused with a nostalgia and quiet grief that seemed to be as much for the long-suffering, stateless Palestinian people as for the passing of the wily, wizened Arafat.
“Yasser Arafat was the heart and soul of the Palestinian cause,” said Hossam Zaki, spokesman for the Arab League. “He transformed the cause of Palestine from a simple question of Arab refugees to an internationally recognized national independence movement.”
But among many Arabs, there was a sense that Arafat’s death had at last freed the region from an anachronistic, stubborn and often obstructionist leader.
Hisham Kassem, chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, said that turning on the television Thursday to news of Arafat’s death was liberating. “He became like a bad omen in the end, just blocking any possibility for movement on the conflict,” Kassem said. “Finally, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the Palestinian people.”
In Tunisia, where an exiled Arafat made his home in the 1980s after being driven out of Lebanon, law professor Hicham Moussa called Arafat’s death “a service to the Palestinian cause.”
“No matter what I personally feel, the way forward is negotiation,” Moussa said. “The Israelis and the Americans have been refusing to talk to him. Maybe with his disappearance things will start to move.”
French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder were laudatory. “With him disappears a man of courage and conviction who for 40 years incarnated the Palestinians’ fight for recognition of their national rights,” said Chirac, who extended personal condolences to Arafat’s widow, Suha, after the Palestinian leader’s death near Paris.
“Yasser Arafat strove during his lifetime to lead the Palestinians to independence and establish a sovereign, viable Palestinian state. It was not granted Yasser Arafat to complete his life’s work,” Schroeder said.
But in the Italian Parliament, lawmakers from the ruling center-right party insulted Arafat, and lawmakers from the left rose in his defense -- with the two sides almost coming to blows.
In 1993, President Clinton stood with Arafat and Rabin as the longtime rivals shook hands over the Oslo accords on the White House lawn, but seven years later he grew disillusioned with Arafat when the Palestinian refused a settlement offer from then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “I regret that in 2000 he missed the opportunity to bring that nation into being,” Clinton said.
“There is no doubt that with the death of Yasser Arafat, an era has ended ... for good or bad,” concluded Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Arafat and Rabin in 1994. “The biggest mistake of Arafat was when he turned to terror. His greatest achievements were when he tried to build peace.”
Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Henry Chu in Rio de Janeiro; Petra Falkenberg and Christian Retzlaff in Berlin; Maggie Farley at the United Nations; Mark Magnier in Beijing; Kim Murphy in Moscow; Megan K. Stack in Cairo; Janet Stobart in London; Sari Sudarsono of The Times’ Jakarta Bureau; Tracy Wilkinson in Gaza City, and special correspondents Ula Kasprzacka in Warsaw, Karine Rebibo in Paris, Alex Renderos in El Salvador; Hossam Hamalawy in The Times’ Cairo Bureau. Times wire services were used in compiling it.