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The two Yasser Arafats

By Leanne Piggott - posted Tuesday, 16 November 2004

To Palestinians, Yasser Arafat was "Mr Palestine", a historical figure who embodied the Palestinian nationalist movement. It was only under his leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation that the plight of the Palestinians and their quest for statehood first made an impact on Western public opinion. Their enduring memory will be of a benign, grandfatherly figure blowing kisses to his people.

Yet for all those who admire Arafat, there are many who revile him. Israelis, Christian Maronites and others who were his victims will remember above all the furtive mendacity of the man who preached peace while his hands dripped with blood.

There have been two main phases in Arafat's career as the Palestinians' recognised leader. The first phase began in 1968, when Arafat assumed the leadership of the PLO.


He tirelessly promoted the Palestinian cause and became a perennial focus of media interest.

Through spectacular acts of terrorism - including the hijacking of aircraft, the massacre of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes at Munich in 1972 and the targeted killing of Israeli schoolchildren and other civilians at Ma'alot and Kiryat Shmona in the mid-1970s - Arafat ensured that the Palestinian cause regularly made the headlines.

Under his leadership, the PLO was granted observer status at the UN. It is a mark of Arafat's success that the General Assembly has passed more resolutions against Israel than any other member state. Other stateless nations, such as the Kurds and Tibetans, greatly outnumber the Palestinians. But they have resorted to terrorist tactics less frequently and spectacularly than the Palestinians, and have been far less successful in attracting international financial and political support and media coverage.

The second significant phase of Arafat's career began in 1993 when he signed the Oslo Declaration of Principles with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, for which they were both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Israelis recognised the PLO and agreed to negotiate a gradual transition to Palestinian independence. The PLO recognised Israel and renounced violence as a political tool.

After Arafat made a triumphant return to the Gaza Strip in 1994, he assumed the leadership of the newly established Palestinian Authority. Arafat's responsibility was to prepare the way for Palestinian statehood by creating authentic state institutions and encouraging the development of a viable economy and civil society.

Instead, he gave priority to maintaining his political pre-eminence among Palestinians. Although the Palestinians had many of the forms of democratic governance - elections in 1996, a parliament, a cabinet and a judiciary - the substance was conspicuously lacking. Arafat remained a virtual dictator, as he had always been as head of the PLO.


Despite his peace prize, Arafat also kept the violence simmering against his enemies, internal and external, and in 2000 he unleashed the al-Aqsa intifada.

Palestinians saw his duplicity as a necessary strategy and admired Arafat's steadfast refusal to compromise on key issues such as the status of East Jerusalem and the demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to what is now Israel. Arafat's supporters believed that his unbending stance on these issues would eventually result in a better deal for the Palestinians. It didn't.

Arafat's opponents likened him to a compulsive gambler who kept raising the stakes, and losing. His rigid adherence to a hard line on basic issues might have been popular with his people but achieved nothing. By pandering to extremists instead of bringing them into line, Arafat forfeited several opportunities to achieve statehood for his people and most, if not all, of their demands.

In truth, Arafat never quite made the transition from independence fighter-terrorist to nation-builder. After 10 years, the Palestinian Authority has no proper system for controlling and managing its financial accounts. Hundreds of millions of dollars entrusted personally to Arafat have never been accounted for. Maintaining a monopoly over the money and the coercive apparatus of the PA was part of Arafat's survival strategy, as was his refusal to appoint a clear successor.

These deficiencies are as much a part of Arafat's legacy as his successes in placing the Palestinian cause on the world stage. Perhaps Arafat's funeral will provide an opportunity for the gathered representatives of the world to salvage the lost hopes of peace. To quote US Secretary of State Colin Powell, "We stand ready to move forward". History's assessment of Arafat will depend on how effective his successors will be in achieving the goals that ultimately eluded him.

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About the Author

Dr Leanne Piggott lectures in Middle East Politics at the University of Sydney and is director of Academic Programs of the Centre for International Security Studies. She is the author of A Timeless Struggle: Conflict in Land of Israel/Palestine (forthcoming, Science Press).

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