As expected, some in the rightwing Blogswamp eagerly await the old man’s demise, the only demurrer being that they hope he goes painfully.
The passing of old chiefs is supposed to be a time of renewal, redirection, rethinking. And, if we cast the best light on matters, this might come to pass when Arafat passes from the scene. But unlikely. His death will be no blessing for Palestinians - or whoever occupies the Oval Office come January. As Haaretz notes, a battle – or even a civil war – is not impossible, because Arafat has never appointed a successor or loosened the reins enough to establish a truly democratic process within the Palestinian Authority.
I've been told that nothing will start a fistfight at a leftwing sockhop quicker than mentioning Israel and Palestine. But the unwillingness of some people to engage in straight talk is how we wound up in Iraq. So, kindle the flamethrowers.
I am no fan of Arafat. Among the naïve, he has always been able to disguise his real behavior behind well-shaped public perception and public actions, all the while saying, as became almost a cliché, one thing in English and one thing in Arabic. Authoritarian, greedy, murderous, corrupt and incompetent, he has been a plague on his people. The tactics of terror that he condoned, supported, funded and at least sometimes planned have been corrosive of any sympathy engendered by the Palestinians' dispossession.
However, without justice for the Palestinians in their own contiguous, wholly independent, unoccupied state, Israel itself will never gain true legitimacy. For decades, both Likud and elements of the Labour Party have presided over despicable, internationally illegal policies, grabbing and fencing off land, diverting water, engaging in torture and assassination, practicing collective punishment, making Arab-Israelis second-class citizens and generally dehumanizing and politically strangling the Palestinians, both those within Israel’s borders and those living on lands its leaders until recently refused to call occupied.
Criticize and detest Arafat all you like, he is not the reason the Palestinians fled or were driven (depending on your point of view) from their land. He is not the reason for building settlements on the high ground or ethnically cleansing Jerusalem of Arabs years ago and more recently. And while he may or may not have approved, he is not the reason that Palestinian children have strapped on bombs to blow up themselves and Jewish children.
It seems hardly likely that there is a Palestinian now or even on the horizon with anything close to Arafat's political clout and charisma - define this any way you like. Again, casting the best light on matters, if Arafat departs, perhaps Palestinians will find a younger new voice, one that discards some of the old man's authoritarian trappings.
But it is doubtful that this new leader will be to the liking of the leadership of Israel or Washington. As much as some in these circles pretend that they'd like to have a Palestinian Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi as their foe, that's the last kind of leader they really desire. In spite of their commitment to non-violence, those two men weren’t walk-overs; indeed, they perfected confrontation.
What top Israelis and their tunnel-vision pals in Washington want from Palestinian leadership isn’t peaceful demands for justice, but rather acquiescence. Thus do Hamas and al-Aqsa and their political kin have far more chance of filling Arafat’s shoes than any Palestinian radical pacifist. Whoever survives the internal Palestinian struggle for leadership likely will be the next Israeli scapegoat or missile target.
As time goes by, the situation inexorably worsens. While Israeli demographers worry about the prospect of a future Palestinian majority because of population growth, it is today’s demography, as M Aurelius notes, which has become crucial. The typical Palestinian today is more likely to be younger, less educated, more impoverished than his counterpart a decade or two ago. The educated, professional Palestinians, once the pride of a nation without a country, have dwindled as a proportion of the population and become less influential. In their place have come more and more extremists and with them a Gordian Knot that - despite the fantasies of extremists on the other side - cannot be cut with a sword. George W. Bush thinks otherwise. We can only hope John F. Kerry does not.