Different people will remember President Yasser Arafat in different ways, but there are three major achievements Palestinians at least agree are an undeniable part of his legacy.
The first is the transformation in the eyes of the world of the Palestinian cause in the early 1960s. Some 800,000 Palestinians had become homeless and stateless refugees after 1948 and were scattered all across the Arab world. Their case then was seen as a problem to be solved through humanitarian assistance. It was through Arafat’s efforts, and through the efforts of the Fateh movement that he founded, that the Palestinian issue was transformed into that of a people struggling for their political and national rights. For Palestinians, this also involved unifying people behind one political line and within one organizational framework, which was the PLO.
Arafat’s second and most important achievement came during the 1970s and 1980s when he oversaw the change in the collective political thinking of the Palestinian people from struggling to achieve their absolute and historical rights to historic Palestine into a struggle for a solution based on international legality. This involved the historical compromise of a two-state solution as defined by the borders of 1967. That transformation came about as a result of the reality that Israel itself was recognized internationally as defined by those borders while international law considered the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem as being under a belligerent, military occupation.
This transformation, furthermore, led to the Palestinian national movement achieving international recognition and forced Israel to sit at negotiating tables with Palestinian delegations designated by the PLO, first at the Madrid conference in 1991 and later in Oslo. This process, in turn, enabled Arafat to sign several accords with Israel.
The third major achievement Palestinians credit President Arafat with is his resistance, while under considerable pressure at the final status negotiations at Camp David in 2000, to sign any solution that involved compromising the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people as guaranteed by international law. In other words, he refused to compromise the compromise. His refusal to do so led to the war Israel launched against him and his people four years ago as punishment for his integrity, and which in the end he paid for personally by being confined in his headquarters for three years.
The absence of Arafat is not good news for Palestinians or Israelis interested in a peace between the two sides based on the historic two-state compromise. Arafat may turn out to have been the only Palestinian leader with the strength and credibility to deliver. Arafat carried huge political weight that he used internally to bolster the peace camp. His absence will contribute to the ongoing shift in the balance of power between that peace camp and the opposition. His absence represents a missed and historic opportunity for all concerned. Indeed, the enormous international interest in Arafat in the past few weeks and the wall-to-wall coverage of his funeral proves conclusively that all the efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to marginalize and demonize Arafat have been in vain.
But amid all this coverage was the suggestion, repeatedly raised by diplomats and analysts, that the absence of Arafat will be an opportunity for peace. It’s useful here to note two things. First, the successors to Arafat have more or less the same politics as he did. In any negotiations they will hold the same positions, though they may do so in a different style, with a different approach and employing different tactics. I think Sharon knows this very well, and it explains why he should already be so busy making excuses for the post-Arafat era in which his primary justification for not meeting his obligations under the US-sponsored roadmap plan for peace can no longer be used.
Secondly, the huge popular turnout for Arafat’s burial, and the emotive response in general by Palestinians to his passing, is also a message to the new leadership that the people were behind not only Arafat the man, but also his politics. It is a message the leadership cannot ignore.
Most analysts seem to be focusing on internal Palestinian politics and dynamics when peering into the post-Arafat era. But it is not all about the Palestinians. If Israel continues its gradual and systematic attempt to cause the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, the new leadership will fail and Sharon will again be released from his obligations. This was already happening under Arafat. November marks the first month the PA has been unable to pay its employees on time. Only the illness and death of the president prevented employees of all local authorities from going on strike.
In this context there is a vital role to be played by the international community in ensuring the success of the new leadership. For a start, the international community, including the Arab world, must increase the economic and technical support extended to the Palestinian people, half of whom now live in poverty as a result of the almost daily Israeli military incursions and destruction of Palestinian infrastructure. The Authority will not be successful in stabilizing the security or the political situation with an unemployment rate that hovers between one-third and one-fourth of the labor force.
Nor can the new leadership consolidate its power if Israel continues its attacks on Palestinians and its settlement expansions, Israeli policies that only serve to justify violent reactions from Palestinian opposition groups. In this regard, the international community needs to seriously renew a peace process to provide political prospects to the Palestinian people and empower the new leadership to justify itself and its role.
The new Palestinian leadership is certainly going to exploit the renewed international interest and invite Israel to direct and immediate negotiations on the basis of the roadmap. The time is ripe for a major international initiative into which the re-elected American administration is ready to invest major political capital of the kind that will convince or pressure Israel to abide by the obligations of the roadmap. Those obligations include an "immediate end to violence against Palestinians everywhere" and a "freeze on all kinds settlement activity," while entering into serious political negotiations for a final settlement. Such compliance is the only way to enable the new Palestinian leadership to fulfill its obligations under the roadmap including stopping "all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere," in addition to proceeding with the ongoing reform program and finalizing preparations for elections.