Arafat Was a Man of His People

WASHINGTON -- This is a requiem for Nobel Peace Prize winner Yasser Arafat, the fallen leader of the benighted but unbowed Palestinian people.

He never achieved an independent state for his people or the return of thousands of exiled Palestinians to their homeland, but there was no question he was their unchallenged spiritual and political leader.

To the masses who live under Israeli occupation, Arafat was revered as a Palestinian patriot who represented their national aspirations.

He also was demonized as a "Hitler" by the Israelis who reviled him and in the end isolated him in the rubble of his compound surrounded by Israeli troops.

Of course, there was growing dissatisfaction with his monopoly of power and restiveness among the younger Palestinians who joined the cause.

There also were reports of corruption and nepotism.

Last year, an International Monetary Fund audit of the Palestinian Authority found that between 1995 and 2002, Arafat had funneled $900 million in public funds to a bank account under his control.

Arafat drifted between being a world-traveling statesman -- picking up support and sympathy from the Middle East and Europe -- and a revolutionary. It took masterful manipulation to reconcile the various factions among his supporters, including the strong activists in the intifada.

Arafat's cause was to establish the nation of Palestine and to recover some of the land that has been absorbed by Israel for expansion of its settlements on the West Bank.

The Palestinian leader also had mastered the art of survival after a reported 40 assassination attempts, a plane accident and a stroke.

He kept intact the Palestinian Authority, despite the political setbacks and tightening Israeli cordon.

Throughout his first term, President Bush shunned Arafat while overtly courting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Bush met Sharon some dozen times, mostly at the White House.

Bush also dubbed Sharon "a man of peace," ignoring his militant personal history. That stunned much of the world, and probably some Israelis, too.

The president strongly denounced the Palestinian suicide bombers who took the lives of so many innocent Israelis but he gave the Israelis a pass when they went into Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza with U.S.-supplied tanks, helicopters and planes to put down the revolt against occupation.

The PLO leader virtually had been under house arrest in his besieged compound for two years before he died.

The U.S. government ignored his plight and Bush never criticized the recent Israeli assault on the Gaza refugee camps. Hardly a day goes by without Palestinians being killed.

Once in a while after an outbreak of new violence in what the Israelis sometimes call "the territories," a U.S. spokesman would read a banal statement urging restraint on both sides.

But there was no doubt whose side Washington was on, particularly after the government vetoed seven resolutions in the United Nations condemning Israel.

Past presidents have understood the complexity of the Middle East and tried to play the role of honest broker in Arab-Israeli negotiations, albeit tilting toward Israel.

After Arafat turned down a peace plan pushed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton in 2000, the Palestinian leader was ostracized and Clinton blamed him for the collapse of the peace talks.

Clinton and other leaders had characterized the peace offer as the last, best opportunity to end the conflict.

But the plan presented major obstacles that would have challenged any Palestinian leader: Abandoning Palestinian claims on land and property in Israel dating back to Israel's founding in 1948, and a bifurcated Palestine.

Bush ignored the volatile Middle East dispute when he first came into the presidency. After 9/11, he called for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

But it was half-hearted at best, and appeared to be a sop to halt the al-Qaida recruitment of Palestinians who were losing hope of independence.

Every once in a while Bush proudly mentions that he is the only president who has endorsed a two-state solution -- Palestine and Israel -- but on his watch the United States has done nothing. It is too busy trying to occupy Iraq.

Sharon plans to pull out of the hell hole of Gaza but one of his top advisers said the Israeli goal is keeping a firm grip on the West Bank and fending off any move toward a Palestinian state.

Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres after they signed a peace pact that formally recognized Israel's right to exist and gave the Palestinians limited self-rule on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

With Arafat now gone, U.S. officials believe the main obstacle to peace has been removed. But nothing will be accomplished if they continue to play on only one side of the street.

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