Yasir Arafat, 1929-2004

Yasir Arafat’s death has predictably fueled a plethora of discussions all over the Internet.  Evaluations of his life, mine included below, have commenced. 

Mathew Yglesias’s take, for example:

“It’s rare that an individual achieves truly world-historical significance, but Yasser Arafat, dead today at the ripe old age of 75 was such a man. He didn’t single-handedly transform the cause of Palestinian nationalism from a minor element of a regional struggle between Israel and its neighbors into a movement of massive global significance, but he came a lot closer to doing it single-handedly than one would think possible.”

I’m not sure about that.  It seems to me anyway that Palestinian hopes of a defeat of Israel by Arab states united by a pan-Arab nationalism had begun to decline by the time of the Six-Day War.  Moreover, I think that the zeitgeist of the moment (post-Algeria, Vietnam, Guevara) inspired the model (or properly, fetish) of guerrilla war for the Palestinians.

What Arafat did was shape the course of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and not always in the best of directions.  Even in guerrilla war, Arafat’s failures were evident from the get-go.  Who can remember the head of the South Vietnamese NLF, arguably the most successful guerrilla movement in history?  Secrecy and the sense that the war is waged against a people was probably integral to the success of the NLF.  By contrast, Arafat was on the face of every news magazine from the inception of the PLO.  I could be wrong, but I think that there is as much a chance that the cult-of-personality of Arafat has done as much ill for the Palestinians as it got them on the map.  Don’t get me wrong; I think that the desire of a people who rightly felt themselves ignored to have a face attached to their cause was intense and understandable, though a Gandhi-King strategy would’ve served them better. 

Certainly, what Arafat began opened a Pandora’s Box (though, if truth be told, I’m sure that many felt that the tactics had served Irgun and the Stern Gang well).  By the late 1970s and early 1980s, PFLP and DFLP attacks could only force Israel’s hand, and not in the direction that they hoped. 

But he did give the Palestinians a face, and now is their chance for something different.