Yasser Arafat was one of the world’s most controversial political figures. After weeks of frail health…then days in a coma…the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization died this week in France at the age of 75. Yasser Arafat will be buried in the West Bank city of Ramallah where he lived for the last year under virtual Israeli house arrest.
Mr. Arafat was called a terrorist and a champion of an oppressed people. He was a Nobel Peace Prize winner and also a man who spurned chances to make peace with Israel.
Yasser Arafat had been the one constant in Middle East politics for decades, and seemed to embody all its contradictions. Almost alone, he created a unified movement for a Palestinian homeland:
"They are my people; they are suffering, daily, they are facing death, oppression, organized official terrorism from the Israeli military forces."
He himself used terrorism -- yet he always claimed to be a seeker of peace:
"Peace is very important, not only for the Palestinians, but for the Israelis - for the future of their children, and of our children."
Born in 1929, Yasser Arafat spent much of his childhood in Jerusalem, and had become a Palestinian nationalist by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. In the late 1950s, while working as an engineer in Kuwait, he created Al Fatah, an underground terrorist movement which became the militant core of the new Palestine Liberation Organization.
Mr. Arafat was named PLO leader in 1968, and led the organization as its factions carried out hijackings and terrorist attacks on civilians.
Even so, the plight of the Palestinians had captured world sympathy. Mr. Arafat was allowed to address the United Nations in 1974 -- and the U.N. then voted to grant the PLO observer status.
Expelled from Jordan and eventually Lebanon, Mr. Arafat's PLO moved from country to country. His popularity continued to increase among Palestinians, who saw Mr. Arafat as the father of their struggle for statehood. In Israel, the United States and some other countries, however, he was seen as a murderer -- for although he never claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks, he also did not condemn them.
By 1988, Yasser Arafat had begun to try to remake himself as a statesman. That was when he announced that the PLO had renounced terrorism and would recognize Israel as a sovereign state - and he proclaimed an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Secret peace talks led to the Oslo accords in 1993. Later that year, Mr. Arafat and then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met at the White House to sign an interim agreement providing for Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops. Mr. Arafat returned home to Gaza in triumph, amid high hopes for an end to decades of bloodshed - and the next year, he, Mr. Rabin and then Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres jointly shared the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1996, Mr. Arafat became the first elected president of the Palestinian Authority - and it seemed that he might be on the verge of fulfilling his dream of presiding over an independent Palestinian state. In recent years however, the promise of the mid-90s has collapsed into scores of murderous new suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. Attacks for which Israel has blamed Mr. Arafat, though some analysts said it was unlikely that he could have stopped the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Many western observers believe that Mr. Arafat threw away the Palestinians' best chance for a homeland in 2000, by spurning a proposal from then Israeli leader Ehud Baruk and former President Bill Clinton that would have given the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem. Geoffrey Aronson of the Foundation for Middle East Peace disagrees:
"We don't know if he had said yes, or what he would have said yes to. There was no offer as such to actually say yes to. There was a process under way, which continued after Camp David, and which ended, essentially, with the defeat of Ehud Barak in 2001."
Mr. Aronson says that following Mr. Barak's defeat, the new government of Ariel Sharon chose to end diplomacy and to ostracize Mr. Arafat. Yet even in his isolation Yasser Arafat remained a force.
"He leaves behind a very complicated and ambiguous legacy."
Henry Siegman, of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, met with Mr. Arafat many times.
"He did more than anyone else to engage Israel's leadership at some point in serious bilateral negotiations, which it was hoped would lead to the establishment of the Palestinian state. Beyond that he also, in a very personal way, came to incorporate in his very persona the
Palestinian national cause. And a people that doesn't really have a country needs a leader who plays that symbolic role and he has done so very successfully. That is the positive part of his legacy. There are also very negative parts to that legacy. Because in some respects, he has done more than anyone else to hurt, to damage the Palestinian national cause and to delay its realization."
Yasser Arafat outlasted both supporters and enemies. Even into his mid-70s and despite poor health, he remained the leader of the Palestinian cause - though his leadership was largely behind the scenes by then. Israel had confined Mr. Arafat to his compound in Ramallah and refused to trust him as a negotiating partner again. And so the quest of Yasser Arafat's life, Palestinian statehood, remained unrealized in his final years. That, and the prospect of a lasting peace, now awaits a new generation of Middle Eastern leaders.