The end of the Arafat era

November 7, 2004

The heart of Palestine has stopped beating. Yasser Arafat is dead. He was 75.

Yes, the pretence of him being in a coma is still being maintained but that's just because no successor has yet been chosen. Once they do decide on someone, the word will be broken. It's happened before - when Indira Gandhi was shot by her bodyguards, the nation was kept waiting till the evening to hear that she was dead. The BBC broke the news at 9.15am. shortly after the shooting.

Arafat became the leader of the Palestinian movement just after the six-day war of 1967 when Israel staged a pre-emptive strike and smashed the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies. Various Arab dictatorships, who uptil then had used the Palestinians more or less as their one symbol of legitimacy, were unable to maintain this hold in the wake of this defeat.

Arafat wrested control of the Palestinian groups and his faction, Fatah, sat atop the movement from then on. But he soon realised that the only way he could stay on top, was by being a dictator himself. He had his cronies, his bagmen, his assassins. He was not personally corrupt but tolerated it in many of his colleagues.

That he could not conclude a peace deal with Israel was due to the fact that he did not want to be killed. He had seen what happened to leaders in the region who thought ahead of their people - Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin are the two who come to mind.

Arafat represented what the people would tolerate. At a time when the people were inclined to allow him to sign a deal, he did so - in 1993. Probably if Rabin had lived, the deal would have gone through. But that was not to be. Once Rabin was killed, the deal was more or less over and what his successor, Ehud Barak, offered was a bantustan which Arafat could accept only if he wanted to invite an assassin's bullet.

The years from 1994 onwards, when Rabin was killed, served to boost the more radical elements among the Palestinians, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Nothing was happening on the ground to show that the Oslo accords would bring any benefits to ordinary Palestinians and thus these groups were able to gain support by helping those who were living in abject poverty.

Contrary to much of the Western reporting, Arafat had no control over these groups though he could occasionally cut a deal with them. His ability to exert some kind of control depended solely on what he could persuade Israel to offer to these groups in return. However, he lost the ability to ask and expect anything from Israel to hold once the human bulldozer, Ariel Sharon, had taken office.

At every stage, Arafat was asked to accept less and less and the myth that a man, who was not even the head of a state, could control all the people who would be the subjects of a future state has been spread far and wide. One does not expect the US president to be responsible for the acts of every fringe group in that country. Yet this was expected of Arafat.

And as his hold over his own people became more and more tenuous, he found he had to struggle more and more to hold his own position. He was undermined from abroad. Once Bush took office, the pressure increased and Israel could do what it liked to make him virtually a prisoner in his own backyard.

Yet he would not relinquish his grip and held on till the end. His colleagues, several of whom he had antagonised to the point where they left office, kept up appearances. And the Palestinian people, once they had realised that the US and Israel wanted Arafat out, were adamant that the choice of leader would not be decided by those who whom they hold responsible for the state they are in today.

But the myth that he was the obstacle to peace will now be shattered. No matter who succeeds him and has to drink from his poisoned chalice, the Arab-Israeli conflict will continue.