. . and Lost Chances
By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, November 12, 2004
"No one can control
or change this revolution. No one can control or change me."
-- Yasser Arafat, September 1983
Yasser Arafat spoke
those words before a boisterous crowd in a dusty refugee camp called Nahr
Bared in northern Lebanon more than two decades ago.
You had to be in
one of those camps back then to understand how much of a hero Arafat was
to his people. I saw mothers, fathers and small children cheering Arafat
wildly as he walked in a parade through their misery. They pushed, shoved
and punched for a chance to kiss, touch or just see their leader.
The Palestine Liberation
Organization had organized the whole thing, yet it didn't feel forced.
He was their man, "the chairman." They knew that however many things he
had failed at -- you sensed they knew the failures -- Arafat had put their
cause, if not their country, on the map.
Yet Arafat was a
failure. He could not make the leap from terrorist to national leader.
He could not accept the cost of acknowledging the existence of the state
of Israel. He put factional politics, the rhetoric of revolution and his
control of the money coming into the Palestinian Authority over the less-glamorous
goal of a normal Palestinian state with workaday politics.
The tragedy for the
Middle East, for Palestinians and for Israel is that Arafat could never
decide who he really was. His beginnings as a revolutionary and a terrorist
were understandable, if despicable in so many ways. He had a cause and
a people whose interests were not being attended to -- not by his fellow
Arabs any more than by the rest of the world. He would bomb and kill and
assassinate -- even young Israeli athletes -- so that attention would
He won recognition
and a place at the table. He won visits to the White House and Camp David
and a Nobel Peace Prize. He was on the verge of achieving the Palestinians'
dream, a state of their own with passports of their own and a government
of their own. A place to call home, an entity that would allow them to
be referred to not as refugees but as citizens.
But he walked away.
Yes, there were many complications. There were issues involving Jerusalem,
the right of Palestinians to return to lands they thought had been taken
from them, the issue of Israeli settlements. But Arafat was not a fool.
He understood that no peaceful settlement was possible unless Palestinians
accepted the fact that Israelis would not evacuate their land and allow
the death of their state.
Yet he also knew
that many Palestinians could never accept the idea of Haifa and Jerusalem
being part of a Jewish state. He knew that if he made a deal, he would
face dissent and violence. Perhaps he would be displaced. That he could
not accept. So he never prepared Palestinians for the necessity of compromise.
Having failed to prepare himself, he failed to prepare his people. He
came to the very edge of a settlement -- and backed off. He set back peace.
And he set back his people.
The great tragedy
of Arafat's strategy, such as it was, is that it undercut both Israelis
and Palestinians committed to peace. Arafat's choices weakened and discouraged
those peace-minded Israelis who had spent many years engaging actively
with Palestinians in the hope that two states might prosper together.
Arafat gave a great gift to the Israeli hard-liners who never believed
Palestinians would make peace.
He also undercut
Palestinians on the other side of those dialogues. I spoke recently to
a young Palestinian whose family had left their homeland but returned
several years ago in anticipation that they would soon have a state to
build. She said, sadly, that they were leaving again. Hope, once very
much alive, was gone.
In that Palestinian
camp I visited all those years ago, Arafat played his crowd brilliantly,
insisting of his enemies that "they all went to disaster."
"And where is the
Palestinian revolution?" Arafat asked.
"We are here!" many
of them shouted back.
They are there still
-- and with what? One can pray that Arafat's death opens opportunities
that his successors will seize and thereby force a new approach on the
Israeli side. But that is deeply, perhaps unrealistically, optimistic.
Arafat could have
been remembered as the man who got the world to pay attention to his people
through violence and then won them recognition by embracing peace. He
made other choices, and his people, and the rest of us, are the worse
© 2004 The Washington