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On Point

Arafat's True Legacy


by Austin Bay
November 17, 2004

Even Yasser Arafat couldn't take it with him. Turn loose the sleuths: Somewhere on the planet, Yasser has left a filched billion dollars. Perhaps the trail of stolen cash, skimmed developmental aid, extorted funds and "protection" money winds through accounts in a travelogue of nations. Switzerland? Dubai? Riyadh? Paris?

Over the last week, few Arafat obits have bothered to mention his autocratic corruption and its consequences.

As Middle Eastern despots go, Arafat was a small-time thief, but most Middle Eastern thugs don't sport a Nobel Peace Prize. His theft directly contributed to the growth of Islamist influence among Palestinians. While Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership cadre built private Mediterranean villas in Gaza, Islamist organizations like Hamas built health clinics in the West Bank.

Skimming aid money targeted for impoverished Palestinians in refugee camps was an Arafat scam. That should outrage everyone genuinely committed to relieving their anguish. A PLO kleptocracy, however, is only part of the disappointing legacy Arafat leaves the world, and more importantly, the long-suffering Palestinians he ultimately served so poorly.

  • Arafat leaves the PLO itself in disarray. Arafat played PLO faction against faction, pitting "next generation" leaders against one another. No one in Palestine could ever appear to be the bigger man than Yasser. When Mahmoud Abbas became Palestinian prime minister, Arafat snubbed him and undermined him. The Arafat game remained l'etat c'est moi -- one-man control.
  • Arafat leaves a dangerous legacy of sensationalist terror. Arafat didn't invent modern terrorism (nor, for that matter, did former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin), but he did show a generation of political leaders how to run a global media campaign as part of a long-term guerrilla war. His criminal chic played well with media hungry for cheap charisma and attracted droves of leftish celebrities. He dosie-doed on television with British actress and upscale Trotskyite Vanessa Redgrave, as she hefted an AK-47.
  • He leaves a bitter legacy of missed opportunities. Arafat's biggest mistake was his rejection of the summer 2000 peace deal engineered by Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton. That deal would have given the Palestinians a Palestine, and Arafat the state that could have transformed him from state-less killer to statesman. Any deal would have ignited an internecine Palestinian war between PLO secularists and Islamist outfits like Hamas, but instead of waging that necessary civil war with the support of the United States and Israel, Arafat chose renewed intifada with Israel. Arafat gambled that "internationalizing" the issue of Palestinian statehood might result in a "better deal." It did not. Arafat's lack of decisiveness led to his irrelevance.

His death could lead to civil war among secular PLO factions. That would only benefit the Islamists. If the PLO secularists manage to work out their differences, a violent showdown with the Islamist organizations is a certainty, the only question is when and how large.

The new Palestinian leadership, such as it is, seems committed to turning Arafat's death into an opportunity for democratic change. Palestinian law mandates an election within 60 days of the death or resignation of the president of the Palestinian Authority.

October's successful Afghan presidential election was well-prepared and supported by the United Nations, the United States and the Afghan people. Palestine is small compared to Afghanistan -- that's a logistical plus. The Bush administration, even with Colin Powell handing off diplomacy to Condi Rice, can still move quickly to help the Palestinians pull off a credible election.


But a democratic election only begins a difficult process. The civil war with the Islamists will be fought, perhaps in alleys and off-camera. One hopes a stronger Palestinian government will eventually emerge, capable of genuinely fighting internal corruption and finally rejecting terrorism.

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