After Arafat: Accountability

As Yasser Arafat's health deteriorates in a suburban Paris hospital and he fades away from the political scene, his legacy for Palestine and the Arab world offers important lessons that can be summarized in two critical realms: ideology and biology. Arafat's long political life, spanning four decades from when he started the Fateh Palestinian resistance movement in the early 1960s, is also a chilling microcosm of Arab modern history, with its heroism and mediocrity, its captivating achievements and ignominious failures, its young nations striving for dignity and freedom and old leaders refusing to retire gracefully.

He excelled in ideology, saving his people from eternal exile, occupation and historical oblivion, and bringing them to the threshold of real independence after 1993. But biology was his Achilles heel – like many other Arab leaders, he simply remained in power too long (some 40 years), and suffered the shattering consequences of unaccountable and autocratic rule, including corruption and misguided decisions. He did not allow his people to rule themselves through a participatory and accountable governance system, and failed to make the transition from resistance fighter and wily diplomatic negotiator to statesman and nation-builder. He reminds us again, as other Arab leaders do, that no human being, however valiant in determination or vigorous in youth, should enjoy unaccountable power for decades and decades – because the consequence inevitably is atrophy, disintegration and failure.

The particularities of the Palestinian movement – for global recognition, liberation from Israeli occupation, and national self-determination and independence – provided Arafat with the impetus and the stage on which he produced one of the most compelling performances of political leadership in modern history. Almost single-handedly, since he took over the leadership of the unified Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the late 1960s, he has kept the Palestine issue and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict that it spawned on the front pages of the world's press, and on the minds and agendas of world leaders. His great achievement is that after the Arabs' defeat in the 1967 war, he galvanized a dozen Palestinian political and guerrilla groups into a unified national movement – the PLO – at a time when the world hardly acknowledged the existence, let alone the national rights, of Palestinians.

He then led the PLO for more than three decades, during which he moderated and maneuvered its ideology to the point where Palestinian statehood and self-determination became an issue of global concern in the 1980s and early 1990s. In September 1993, he signed the Oslo Accords with the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He returned to the West Bank and Gaza with an opportunity to build a quasi-independent Palestinian state, and to negotiate with Israel for permanent independence and sovereignty. His success as a historical figure who saved his people from political oblivion was perhaps best captured by the image of the current American president, George W. Bush, who traveled to the Middle East in 2003 and personally pledged to work for an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

Palestinians love and honor him because of his dogged ability to carry the banner of Palestinian rights throughout the world, and gain universal support for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. His greatness – and the reason his people always backed him in the face of Israeli, American and occasional Arab attacks – was his symbolism of the powerful Palestinian will to struggle against enormous odds.

Palestinians struggled initially for basic political recognition by Israel, the United States, Arabs and the world, and ultimately for the ability to live in freedom and independence. The movement Arafat led was one of resistance and liberation from occupation, national reconstitution of a scattered and exiled people, and, finally, nation-building under conditions of quasi-independence. As the occasion required, he resisted, fought militarily, negotiated politically, lay low when necessary, and made diplomatic concessions and demands as the times required. He also quarreled and fought with numerous Arab regimes when Palestinian political activism scared or threatened those regimes, or when Palestinian military resistance against Israel brought fierce Israeli retaliation against such Arab countries as Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

In the end, though, his considerable diplomatic achievements as a leader in exile would be offset in large part by his weaknesses and failures after he returned to Palestine. In the decade after 1993, when the Oslo Accords occasioned his return to the West Bank and Gaza to manage national affairs, he was unable to lead his people on their final march to credible statehood and independence. He allowed a corrupt and unaccountable governance system to develop in the West Bank and Gaza, and it slowly gnawed away at his credibility and efficacy, even some of his considerable legitimacy. Power began to slip away from him and his longtime colleagues with the first intifada in 1988, as local leaders emerged throughout the West Bank and Gaza, including Islamists from Hamas. When the second, more violent, intifada against Israeli occupation erupted in September 2000, Arafat was no longer solely or fully in control of Palestinian affairs.

The last two years of his life have been ignominious and humiliating. He has been held prisoner in his battered headquarters in Ramallah, surrounded by Israeli tanks and prevented from leaving the compound. Israel and the United States have refused to deal with him, and so diplomatic movement towards permanent statehood has stopped completely. Isolated, imprisoned and politically quarantined by those who should be his two most important negotiating partners, Arafat's political life ended a few years ago when he proved unable to make either war or peace.

In the end, he tragically brought about his own marginalization through his inability to translate his considerable historical and political legitimacy into a force for nation-building based on good governance, the rule of law and sustainable development. He was ultimately unable to offer tangible political gains to the four principal constituencies that had defined his entire political life for over four decades: his own Palestinian refugee community, the people of Israel, the people and leaders of the Arab countries, the United States and the rest of the West.

As he departs the political scene, his entire generation will also leave the stage soon, and younger leaders will emerge, preferably through democratic elections. The hope is that they will study, digest and act upon the ample lessons of ideology and biology that Arafat leaves as his legacy: an epic, historic leader who moved with the times brilliantly during his first three decades in political life, but stalled during his fourth and last decade – because he remained in power one full decade too long.

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