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Thursday, November 11, 2004

The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial: The Man Who Refused to Say Yes

The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial: The Man Who Refused to Say YesNovember 6, 2004
EDITORIAL
The Man Who Refused to Say Yes

It's tempting to wonder what sort of tributes world leaders would be preparing for the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat if during the negotiations that grew out of the Camp David meeting in 2000, he had somehow found the courage to say yes to Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton. Would we be documenting the life of the father of a nation, the man who, through a singular act of statesmanship, signed off on a final agreement that established an independent Palestinian state on almost all the land occupied by Israel in 1967? It is not often in history that someone's legacy can come down to one single defining moment, to one single critical choice. But such is the story of Mr. Arafat's life, and it is almost unbearably disappointing that four years ago, faced with the admittedly difficult choice of saying yes to Israel, Mr. Arafat said no.

Mr. Arafat embodied the Palestinian national movement, from the campaigns of terror through exile and the promising rise, and dismal demise, of the peace process. His unique stature made him the only Palestinian who could have signed the Oslo accords, with the recognition of the Jewish state they entailed, and for this he was awarded a shared Nobel Peace Prize.

He has had as many faces as his movement: to the Palestinians, Mr. Arafat will always be Abu Amar, the leader who stares down from every wall in his checkered keffiyeh and military tunic; to Israelis and to many Americans, a terrorist, pure and simple; to the Europeans, a national leader; to ordinary Arabs, the hero of a national liberation struggle; to most Arab leaders, a nagging, unavoidable problem. Still, he became the only leader unequivocally recognized by all Palestinians, in the West Bank, in Gaza and in the diaspora.

Mr. Arafat was also the only Palestinian who could have prepared his people to accept the glass as half full at Camp David, but there, he failed. He may have accurately gauged the grass-roots reaction to an agreement that would have offered the Palestinians far less than they had been taught to expect. But it was Mr. Arafat more than anyone else who was responsible for their distorted vision of reality. The hardest and most important responsibility of a leader is to prepare his or her followers for the pragmatic direction in which they must move; the worst failing is to abandon reality for oratory.

As with so many other revolutionary leaders, Mr. Arafat mastered only one style of leadership: when he entered Gaza as the head of the Palestinian National Authority, he added only the pomp and ceremony of bagpipes and honor guards to his authoritarian, secretive, patronage-ridden rule. He worked at night; he controlled the purse, down to the cents; he wore only his military tunic. Worse, he made no serious attempt to build a competent government below him or to prepare his people for the required compromises of a peace deal or the responsibilities of statehood. To him, disagreement was disloyalty, and aides who gained too independent a posture were abruptly pushed into the background.

As president, Mr. Arafat ruled without fully trusting anyone. When he was once asked why he had eight security forces, he looked surprised and answered, "Why, Hosni Mubarak has 12." From the same conspiratorial impulse, Mr. Arafat never chose a designated deputy or a political heir.

That is what makes this moment so difficult and fateful for the Palestinians. Their organizations, from the Palestine Liberation Organization to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, have been either under Mr. Arafat or against Mr. Arafat. Now they must face existence without him.

If they hope to achieve the hopeful future that Mr. Arafat failed to give them, that means agreeing on a leader or a team acceptable to the West Bank and Gaza, as well as to Palestinians in exile. It also means firmly resisting the inevitable efforts by Hamas to expand its influence. Such potential leaders are available, especially in the Palestinian Legislative Council, whose members were democratically elected and have shown considerable political courage over the past decade.

For the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, it must have been a moment of some satisfaction when his lifelong Palestinian nemesis departed for what many suspected would be a final flight to seek medical treatment in Paris. But for so long now, Mr. Sharon has dodged responsibility for creating a climate for potential peace by saying that there was no Palestinian negotiating partner so long as Mr. Arafat was in charge. Mr. Sharon may be running out of excuses.

Debates will rage forever about who lost Camp David, and it is certainly true that had Mr. Arafat made a different choice, he might have shared the fate of Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin, leaders who paid for their courage with their lives. But it is also possible to imagine that had Mr. Arafat made a different choice, he would not have lived these last years in a darkened rubble of an old British military compound, and he would have been lauded with all the pomp and ceremony of the father of a nation.




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