Yasser Arafat's Disastrous Legacy


Yasser Arafat's Disastrous Legacy

Nov 9, 2004 4 min read

Former Visiting Fellow, Allison Center

James Phillips was a Visiting Fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's rule has been a disaster for Palestinians, for Israel, and for U.S. policy in the Middle East.  The wily terrorist leader, now believed to be on his deathbed in a French hospital, has played a major role in making the Middle East a more brutal, nasty, and desperate place. Arafat's disastrous leadership has exploded the once promising Arab-Israeli peace process and left the Palestinians mired in growing anarchy and misery. 


Although many people once hoped that revolutionary Palestinian leader would abandon terrorism and make the transition into a statesman capable of building a lasting peace, 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 to his own people.  Throughout more than a decade of protracted negotiations, he never halted his use of terrorism, despite making repeated commitments to do so. 


Arafat violated his numerous agreements with Israel, just as he violated his numerous agreements with Arab states.  Arafat's betrayals also led to the Black September of 1970, in which 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.  Arafat was adept at bringing death and destruction to Arabs, not just Israelis.


Arafat was committed to the peace process, but not to a genuine peace.  He went along with negotiations as long as he gained more than he lost.  The Oslo peace process, which began in 1993, anointed him as the sole leader of the Palestinians, rescued him from near-irrelevance in Tunisia (where he had perched after being expelled from Lebanon by the 1982 Israeli intervention), allowed him to return to Gaza in July 1994, and strengthened his stranglehold on Palestinian politics. 


Arafat supported the peace process as long as he was able to pocket a long list of Israeli concessions, including recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization; the acceptance of Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which would become an embryonic Palestinian state; the withdrawal of Israeli military forces from Palestinian areas; and the negotiation of a two state solution that would involve extensive Israeli territorial concessions, including control over the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.


But when it came time to negotiate a final settlement, Arafat refused to compromise on his most ambitiousdemands.  Agreeing to a genuine peace would have required him to make hard concessions that would have cost him personal popularity with Palestinian refugees outside of Israel and the territories, which formed his strongest base of support.  He balked at giving up the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to Israel, despite the fact that they could return to a new Palestinian state.  This made a mockery of the two state formula, because it would have given Palestinians immediate control over one state and eventual control over the other, due to long term demographic trends. 


When President Clinton convened the Camp David summit in July 2000, Arafat squandered an historic opportunity to build a just and lasting peace.  He rejected Israeli and American proposals without offering a counterproposal and walked away from the negotiating table.  In September 2000, Arafat unleashed the intifada, the 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 July 1994.  Under Arafat's leadership 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 has poisoned the peace negotiations, led Israel to re-occupy Palestinian areas and close its borders to Palestinian workers, and crippled the Palestinian economy.  Palestinian parents have been horrified to find their children brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers and cannon fodder for Arafat's revolutionary pipedreams.


The ultimate beneficiaries of Arafat's failed policies are likely to be the Islamic radicals of Hamas, who hope to pick up the pieces after the discrediting of the Palestinian Authority.  Although Arafat often escaped criticism because he had managed to turn himself into the human flag of the Palestinian movement, Arafat's successors inside the Palestinian Authority have little popular support or personal charisma. 


Arafat's demise is likely to leave a power vacuum that will trigger a lengthy power struggle.  Arafat never groomed a successor, because doing so could pose a threat to his own personal power.  Initially he will probably be succeeded by a collective leadership, with several of his protégés filling his three roles as President of the Palestinian Authority, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and leader of Fatah, the largest Palestinian resistance group.  


Until the succession struggle is settled, no Palestinian leader is likely to take political risks to revive the stalled negotiations with Israel.  In fact, political rivals are likely to compete with each other to see who can take the hardest line against Israel.  Once a new leader has consolidated power he is likely to grow increasingly pragmatic in order to stay in power.  At that point, the dynamics of Palestinian politics might encourage a successor to take risks to renew negotiations with Israel to relieve the misery that Arafat's ruinous policies have imposed on Palestinians.


Therefore, the Bush Administration should not rush to engage Arafat's successors in a premature bid to jumpstart the peace negotiations.  Such a push could backfire by energizing Palestinian hard-liners and discrediting pragmatic leaders before they have had a chance to consolidate power.  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.  Nor can it impose a lasting peace on reluctant Palestinians.  Until a new Palestinian leadership has emerged that rejects Arafat's legacy of terrorism, there is little hope of achieving a just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

James Phillips is a research fellow in Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).