Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader who brought his people to the brink of statehood only to throw it away on a senseless, four-year reign of terror that claimed the lives of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis, was near death Wednesday in a Paris hospital.
Since his hospitalization Oct. 29 for an undisclosed ailment, there were conflicting reports about his health and several false reports about his death. Arafat, 75, did not designate a successor and Palestinian leaders took pains to assure the international community of an orderly transition of power, saying that the Palestinian parliamentary speaker is to serve as interim president until presidential elections are held within 60 days.
It was also announced that power would be shared by the acting head of the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, with Palestinian Legislative Committee Chairman Raweh Fattuh acting in the largely ceremonial role of interim president.
A funeral for Arafat is to be held in Egypt and he is to be buried in a special shrine at the shell-ravaged Muqata compound in Ramallah, where Israeli troops kept him largely confined for the last two and a half years. The Israeli government approved the burial site after at first expressing security fears. But in arrangements worked out with Palestinian leaders, Palestinian authorities are to provide security in Ramallah and Israeli security forces are to remain on the sidelines unless there is unrest, such as an attempt to march on nearby Jerusalem.
Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz told Israel Radio that Israel would permit a “respectful” burial and take steps not to “upset” Palestinian feelings.
“We have no desire to provoke the Palestinian street or the Arab world, or the rest of the world,” Poraz said. “We have to allow them to mourn him. In their eyes he’s a hero.”
As Palestinians paid tribute to the only leader they ever knew, Israelis expressed relief that the reign of the man who inspired terrorist hijackings and killings was over. Few if any Israelis were prepared to eulogize the reviled Palestinian leader.
The Peace Index, a telephone poll of Israelis conducted Nov. 1-3 for the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University, found that fully 79 percent of Israelis viewed Arafat as a terrorist; only 5 percent saw him as a statesman. And 75 percent said they believed Arafat was in full control of the terrorist attacks.
Arafat received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for signing the Oslo Accords with Israel a year earlier, sharing it with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. But his legacy will not be one of a man of peace but rather a terrorist who convinced his people that violence was the only way to statehood.
Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told The Jewish Week that Arafat “used his immense influence and power to thwart peace in the Middle East by consistently missing opportunities to build bridges. Arafat’s removal from the scene is an enormously historical event. He dominated for 40 years and prevented peace with Israel.”
In an interview and later during remarks at a State of Israel Bonds luncheon in Manhattan last week, Holbrooke said that Arafat “was incapable or unwilling to make a deal. … There is no doubt that there are more militants in the world than Arafat … but as a political leader he didn’t seem willing to make a deal.”
He predicted that Arafat’s death would be followed by a period of political chaos — not violence — “followed by opportunity.” He said he could not predict how long the chaos would last but that the opportunity that followed would be for the Palestinians to settle on “a leadership that understands it must recognize Israel and work with it for peace and stability.”
Stephen P. Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said he spoke with Palestinian leaders in the days before Arafat’s death and learned that the institutions Arafat created would be relied on during the coming months, including the PLO and the Palestine National Council.
“The focus will not be on the individuals who will take over but on the institutions that will ratify decisions,” he said. “It is hoped that the Palestinian people will move from an era where Palestinian political leadership” rested with one man to a time when the focus would be on the institutions.
“There is no person on the Palestinian scene who can assume the mantle of personal charisma and authority that Arafat can bequeath,” Cohen said. “What the Palestinians will do is build calm and focus on institutional building and legitimization of a new leadership structure. It will be a combination of the Palestinian Authority, the prime minister, the legislative council and the higher authority, which is the PLO. The PLO will retain its higher authority until statehood.”
Although the Peace Index found that two-thirds of Israelis believe most Palestinians would still like to destroy Israel, the possibility of a new Palestinian leadership has raised cautious optimism in some Israelis.
Bush administration officials have already started planning for a new Israeli-Palestinian peace effort. They met last week in Washington with representatives of France, Germany, Britain and the European Union. President George W. Bush is said to be anxious to revive the international road map for peace and is expected to discuss it at length during White House talks late this week with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Cohen pointed out that the Palestinians have been planning for months to conduct local and national elections and that Arafat’s death may delay them for about 18 months. For the elections to occur, however, he said Israeli troops would have to be moved back to where they were before Palestinian violence erupted in September 2000.
“There is not likely to be a more opportune moment for the Palestinians to move towards a democratic process,” Cohen noted.
Asked about Hamas, the terrorist group that is still committed to destroying the State of Israel, Cohen said he foresees “a race between a democratic Palestinian system with a newly assertive secular authority and the attempt of Hamas to rehabilitate itself after the loss of its leaders due to Israeli assassinations.
“The bloom is off the rose of the armed intifada,” he said, adding that the death of Arafat, Bush’s re-election, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, and Egypt’s assistance to the Palestinians provides the opportunity for a new era of peace.
Sharon said Wednesday that a new era could start immediately, but that it is up to the Palestinians to first end terrorism and incitement, a condition he has made consistently.
A year ago, Tel Aviv’s Dvir art gallery presented an exhibition on the mystique of Arafat entitled, “Guess Who Died.’’ It was a post-modern deconstruction of Arafat, with one photo montage portraying the Palestinian leader as a gangster rapper.
Ory Dessau, who curated the exhibition, argued that Arafat was just as much a fixture in the imagination of Israelis as for Palestinians.
“He is part of Israeli culture,’’ he said. “We own him too, not just the Palestinian people.”