Commemorating Yasser Arafat brings up the same range of emotions that one might have in commemorating Mao Zedong or Vladimir Lenin, great historical figures who were heroes to their own people, symbols of some of the deepest aspirations toward liberation, yet simultaneously were responsible for unforgivable murders and other atrocities. History will acknowledge their greatness but also recognize the important ways they set back causes they championed.
When Arafat became a founder of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the mid-1960s, only a small percentage of the world's population even recognized the existence of a Palestinian people. Traumatized by the loss of their homes, the more than 800,000 Arabs who had fled the war and Israeli underground movements (identified by some as terrorists) were encouraged by leaders of surrounding states to see themselves as part of the "great Arab nation."
Arafat's group, the PLO, argued that the liberation of these refugees would be the work of the people themselves and that they could not depend upon surrounding Arab states, which had already betrayed their Arab brothers and sisters in Palestine by failing to send significant military support during what the Israelis called the War of Independence and the Arabs called Al Naqba, the Great Disaster of 1948.
When Israel decisively defeated Nasser in 1967 and took possession of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, encouraging Jewish settlers to create outposts in the midst of Arab land, Arafat's PLO raised the cry of the occupied and became the articulator of a growing new national consciousness.
But for several decades Arafat was unable to recognize that his opponent was not a traditional colonial power but a state filled with Jewish refugees, a majority of them refugees from Islamic countries. Israel itself had been a first attempt at affirmative action on a global scale, created through the vote of the United Nations in the wake of a monumental genocide that had killed one-third of the Jewish people.
Because Arafat was blind to the humanity and suffering of the Jewish people, he could not move beyond the tactics of terrorist violence until the mid-1990s. By that point, the legacy of murder and blood made it very difficult for the Israeli people to fully trust Arafat when he finally agreed to renounce violence. Even after signing the Oslo Accords, Arafat did little to eliminate terrorist groups within Palestinian society.
The dichotomy between his public pronouncements in English, in which he affirmed peace, and in Arabic, in which he reaffirmed the need for struggle and Jihad; his unwillingness to confront the Palestinian fantasy of a "right of return"; his failure to use the Camp David negotiations with Barak in 2000 to articulate clearly what would be the terms that Palestinians would accept - all of these were ways in which Arafat was a monumental misleader of his people, pulling them into dead ends that perpetuated their suffering and gave solace to the most right-wing elements in Israel.
He created a climate of fear in which those who wished to disagree publicly with his policies needed their own instruments of violence to defend themselves against PLO thugs.
This meant that the most peace-oriented elements of the Palestinian world had to find a way to articulate their ideas within the context of an Arafat-controlled PLO or keep silent. On the other hand, the PLO allowed dissent from Islamic fundamentalist groups.
Arafat was in a unique position as the only leader who could actually deliver a peace settlement that could successfully be imposed on warring Palestinian factions. For that reason it was always fantasy to claim that he had become irrelevant. Yet he never used his persuasive powers to prepare his people psychologically, politically or spiritually for peace with Israel.
It would be unfair not to acknowledge the overwhelming difficulty that faced Arafat: dealing with an Israel that was increasingly under the sway of right-wingers and fanatics who killed Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and who managed to block implementation of Arafat's agreements with Israel. Arafat was forced to deal with an Israel that repeatedly broke its agreements, promising to leave the West Bank and grant Palestinians autonomy while simultaneously intensifying its occupation, escalating torture and human rights violations, and building checkpoints that increased the misery of daily life for most Palestinians.
In the final analysis, Arafat was not up to the challenge of meeting Israeli intransigence with the kind of leadership that a Martin Luther King Jr., a Mahatma Gandhi or a Nelson Mandela was able to bring to his people. It is this failure of imagination that will temper history's praise for a man who will be lauded as the father of his people. Meanwhile, let Arafat rest in peace.