As he approached death lying in a Paris hospital he did what he had frustrated so many Middle East negotiators by doing in life: he procrastinated, clinging to life support, leaving his people in a state of limbo paralyzed by his lingering presence, unable to move on. He demanded world attention, capturing world headlines just as for 40 years he placed the Palestinian problem, but not a state, on the map.
In his life he would make grand gestures. Like when he appeared to change the course of Mideast history in 1988, convincing the Palestinian National Council — the PLO's parliament in exile — at a meeting in Algiers that destroying Israel was no longer a realistic goal and instead the PLO should press for a state side-by-side with Israel within the pre-1967 borders in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem as its capital. The only problem is that the PLO never changed its charter calling for the destruction of Israel, the Jewish state. This caused many Israelis to question whether his return to Gaza in 1994, after the Oslo Peace Accords were signed at the White House, was simply a Trojan horse aimed at their eventual destruction.
He never crossed the Rubicon, from the Israeli point of view.
Arafat was a terribly frustrating peace partner. When the Reagan administration promised to recognize the PLO in 1988, which until that point had been viewed as a terrorist organization associated with plane hijackings, the Munich Olympic massacre of 11 Israeli athletes, and the Achille Lauro, in return Arafat simply had to renounce terrorism in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly. The speech was carefully crafted by Secretary of State George Schultz. Instead, speaking in front of the world body, it sounded as if he renounced "tourism." The Americans demanded he call a press conference to clarify his statement. That paved the way for a U.S. president to recognize the PLO for the first time. Eighteen months later they severed ties after a terror attack on an Israeli beach.
Arafat started his career as a gunrunner in the 1948 Israeli-Arab war. He formed Fatah, the Palestinian revolutionary movement, in 1958 to lead the armed struggle. Their stated goal was to fight. He transformed his people from poor refugees to people the world has been unable to ignore for the last 40 years.
He surrounded himself in mystery and untruths. Even the place of his birth is confusing. He says he was born in Jerusalem, but records show he was born in Cairo. Even his name isn't exactly as it seems. He was born Mohammad Abdul-Raouf Qudwa Arafat al Husseini. Yasser is a name he took from a Palestinian killed by the British in the Mandate period. It means easygoing. Arafat is the name of a holy mountain near Mecca.
He was a nuisance to Arab leaders. In the 1950's he wrote in his own blood to the President of Egypt, "Don't Forget Palestine." He rose to prominence and took over the PLO after Israel resoundingly defeated all the surrounding Arab nations in the 1967 Middle East War (the Six Day War that changed the Middle East). It became clear then that the Arabs could not take on the Israeli military in an army-to-army fight.
He and his Fatah movement set up states within states wherever he based their operations, launching guerrilla attacks against Israel that eventually would get him expelled from Arab capital after Arab capital. In Jordan, Black September was the name of King Hussein's war to expel the PLO from his territory after Arafat threatened his rule and Israel retaliated for his group's raids. He moved to Lebanon where the Palestinians contributed to the outbreak of civil war there. Israel invaded in 1982, going all the way to Beirut to stop the PLO attacks on its northern communities. They eventually expelled Arafat and his supporters to Tunis.
He was persona non grata in Damascus for years because he went head-to-head with the Syrians in Lebanon. In 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, he backed the wrong horse — embracing Saddam and alienating the rest of the Arab leaders, who for the most part joined the U.S.-led coalition in the first Gulf War — and saw much of his donations from Arab capitals dry up. At the second signing of Oslo II he had second thoughts, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reportedly turned to him on the signing dais and said in Arabic, "Sign, you dog."
His own people liked him mostly because the Israelis hated him. At the end of his life, after 10 years of self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza after Oslo, his popularity was at an all-time low. He polled at about 33 percent. Nearly everyone viewed him and his Palestinian Authority as corrupt. He was sending his wife Suha, 34 years his junior and living in Paris, $100,000 a month from Palestinian public monies. But they still saw him as a symbol of their fight for statehood and elevated him to iconic status.
As he lay dying, Yasser Arafat's aides did everything they could to insure that his death coincided with great symbolism. At first his aides wanted him buried in Jerusalem in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound next to the Dome of the Rock, which is also the site of the Second Jewish Temple — the holiest site in Judaism. Israel said no, unwilling to give him and the Palestinians a foothold in Jerusalem. For the time being they are settling for a temporary burial at his bombed out headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, a symbol they say of Palestinian steadfast resistance. Perhaps they want him remembered as the Moses of his people, bringing them to the edge of the Holy Land but not being allowed in. Moses was buried in Jordan on Mt. Nebo, a mountain overlooking Jerusalem. Arafat was no Moses, but his people will honor him as the father of their eventual nation.
Jennifer Griffin joined FOX News Channel in October 1999 as a correspondent for the Jerusalem bureau and also reported for the network from Moscow. Prior to joining FNC, Griffin covered the Middle East region for several American media organization including the Associated Press, National Public Radio and U.S. News and World Report.
Jennifer Griffin currently serves as a national security correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) and is based out of the Washington D.C. bureau. She joined the network in October 1999 as a Jerusalem-based correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter at @JenGriffinFNC.