Yasser Arafat’s life symbolized a nation struggling in pain to be born on the world stage. He was the living charismatic symbol of a would-be nation. An imperfect symbol, yet the only real Palestinian voice over the past 50 years.
His enemies portrayed him as a bloodthirsty killer, a terrorist and the embodiment of evil. But any attempts to dehumanize Arafat – and thus, weaken him – only lifted his popularity and swelled his influence.
Surely, in some parts of the world may wince at the thought of glorifying Arafat, but to the Palestinian people, he was a larger-than-life hero who helped legitimize and internationalize the Palestinian cause.
His 40-year dominance over Palestinian politics was unrivaled; his leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization resulted in his people gaining a diplomatic voice on the world stage.
For that, this man should be revered, not reviled.
For tens of millions around the world, he was a romantic figure, no different than any other guerrilla leader fighting for a national liberation movement. In their eyes, Arafat’s armed resistance was used to advance political ends and nothing more.
Arafat was no more a terrorist than Nelson Mandela, who because of his armed resistance also was labeled as a dangerous terrorist and a thug by the former racist South African regime. Even Charles de Gaulle was a terrorist in the eyes of Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Much speculation in the days leading up to Arafat’s death focused on his supposed vast wealth,Yet his actions reflected a frugal life, one in which is personal suffering was the cost of the Palestinian cause.
Arafat’s image often suffered because one is judged by the company he keeps. For him, that meant cronies and corrupt officials, many who were loathed by the Palestinian people. Despite his authoritarian rule, the opportunistic leeches that attached themselves to the cause ultimately began to chip away at the man and his power base.
The internal problems were compounded by the fact that he not only faced a ruthless enemy in Israel, but also Arab rulers who plotted his death and often attempting to control his fledging PLO through their proxy.
So Arafat had to operate in this difficult Middle East environment, and perhaps, because of it, he adapted in a way unpalatable to much of the world. An old Arab proverb sums up his world: "If you did not become a wolf, you will be eaten by wolves." Arafat, by necessity, became a wolf for the Palestinian cause.
He was a lonely wolf, too. His predicament with the Arab rulers drew these words from former President Jimmy Carter: "I never met an Arab leader who in private professed a desire for an independent Palestinian state."
Knowing the difficulties of his cause, Arafat, by necessity, became a realist. His pragmatism took him to work on establishing contacts with Israeli leftists to advance peaceful relations based on U.N. resolutions and international law.
Yet he knew that the key to working with Israel meant going through the United States. So he enlisted numerous Arab emissaries to carry messages of willingness to talk peace and willingness to negotiate a settlement. He was repeatedly rebuffed.
Arafat was relentless, though. Official U.S. rebukes did not prevent him from coordinating with the CIA on intelligence and security matters. His PLO went as far as providing security to the U.S. Embassy and for the U.S. ambassador in Beirut at the height of that country’s civil war. He made other overtures to the United States over the years, but he was kryptonite to U.S. politicians.
Successive American administrations shunned him; with Henry Kissinger declaring "no formal contacts with the PLO" would be allowed. President Clinton came along and changed that, though even the Oslo peace negotiations of the 1990s ultimately crumbled.
For his enemies,Yasser Arafat will die a reviled man .But for the long-suffering Palestinian people, he was a visionary, a martyr, a man of conviction. He may not have succeeded in changing their lives, but he without a doubt succeeded in changing their world.