After Arafat

It’s considered impolite to speak ill of the dead, but Yasser Arafat’s rule was a disaster for Palestinians, for Israel and for U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Arafat’s leadership exploded the once-promising Arab-Israeli peace process and left the Palestinians mired in growing anarchy and misery.

For a short time, seemingly long ago, many people hoped that Arafat would abandon terrorism and become a statesman capable of building a lasting peace. Instead, Arafat stubbornly held fast to his slogan “revolution until victory.”

He played a double game right until the end, often extending the olive branch to Israel when speaking in English to Western audiences while calling for jihad and martyrdom when speaking in Arabic. Throughout more than a decade of protracted negotiations, he never halted his use of terrorism, despite making repeated commitments to do so.

Arafat violated numerous agreements with Israel, just as he violated numerous agreements with Arab states. Arafat’s betrayals led to Black September in 1970 (search), when he and his followers were driven out of Jordan after failing to overthrow King Hussein, and to the Lebanese civil war, which he helped trigger by violating his pledge not to intervene in Lebanese affairs after being expelled from Jordan. He was adept at bringing death and destruction to Arabs, not just Israelis.

Arafat was committed to a peace process, not genuine peace. He went along with negotiations when he gained more than he lost. The Oslo peace process (search), which began in 1993, anointed him as the sole leader of the Palestinians, rescued him from near-irrelevance in Tunisia and strengthened his stranglehold on Palestinian politics.

Arafat manipulated the peace process to pocket many Israeli concessions. But when it came to a final settlement, Arafat refused to compromise on his most ambitious demands. He balked at giving up the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel, despite the fact that, with a peace deal, they could have instead returned to a new Palestinian state.

When President Clinton convened the Camp David summit in July 2000, Arafat rejected Israeli and American proposals without offering a counterproposal and instead walked away. In September 2000, Arafat unleashed the second intifada (search), a violent uprising that drove the last nails into the coffin of the Oslo peace process.

Arafat leaves Palestinians much worse off than when he returned to Gaza in 1994. Under Arafat the Palestinian Authority became corrupt, unaccountable and dedicated to protecting Arafat’s interests, rather than those of the Palestinian people.

His refusal to end terrorism poisoned the peace negotiations, led Israel to re-occupy Palestinian areas and close its borders to Palestinian workers, and brought crippling economic conditions. Palestinian children have been brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers and cannon fodder for Arafat’s revolutionary pipe dreams.

Arafat never groomed a successor, but Mahmoud Abbas (search), the first Palestinian prime minister, is likely to emerge as the “first among equals” in a collective leadership. Yet the ultimate beneficiaries of Arafat’s failed policies are likely to be the Islamic radicals of Hamas (search), who hope to pick up the pieces after the discrediting of the Palestinian Authority.

What will Abbas do first? No Palestinian leader is likely to take political risks to revive the stalled negotiations with Israel. He’ll likely endure serious pressure to take the hardest possible line against Israel, though it’s hoped he’ll grow increasingly pragmatic in order to stay in power. At that point, the dynamics of Palestinian politics might encourage Abbas to take risks to renew negotiations with Israel to relieve the misery that Arafat’s ruinous policies have imposed on Palestinians.

The Bush administration should not rush to engage Arafat’s successor in a premature bid to jumpstart the peace negotiations. Instead, the Bush administration should continue its principled policy of urging Palestinians to halt terrorism and reform the Palestinian Authority to form a responsible, transparent and effective leadership capable of advancing Palestinian interests by reaching a genuine peace with Israel.

The United States cannot rescue the Palestinian people from bad leadership. It will be up to new leaders to reject Arafat’s legacy of terrorism and improve Palestinian living conditions by working for a genuine peace with Israel. Until Arafat’s successors have committed to making these long-overdue changes, there is little the Bush administration — or any other government — can do to build a lasting peace in the Middle East.

James Phillips is a research fellow in Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.