After Arafat

Tuesday, November 9, 2004

The Wall Street Journal

Yasser Arafat's serious, perhaps terminal, illness is being called the end of an era, and we'd have to agree. It is the symbolic end of the pre-September 11 age of the celebrity terrorist. Maybe now the Palestinian people can build a better future.

In a political sense, the Arafat era died on June 24, 2002, when President Bush delivered his speech calling for a Palestinian state built on democratic principles. In refusing to meet with the PLO leader or even to utter his name, Mr. Bush recognized that no peace was possible working with a man whose goal in life wasn't to build a state but to destroy one - Israel. That decision brought enormous criticism from the "peace process" elites. But it was essential if the Palestinian people are ever going to have a chance to disavow terror as a tactic.

We lack the space to record all of the blood on Arafat's hands, but the highlights include the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the 1973 murder of two American diplomats in Sudan, the 1974 killing of two dozen Israeli schoolchildren in Maalot, and the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro in which Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly American in a wheelchair, was thrown overboard.

His more recent legacy is the suicide bomber, turning young Palestinians into weapons targeting civilians. Over the years, Arafat has been responsible for killing far more Palestinians than Israelis, especially any "moderates" who dared to promote a non-terrorist strategy.

It's hard to believe now, three years after 9-11, but these murders once gave Arafat a global cachet. Especially on the Western left, terrorism was seen as a justifiable strategy of groups seeking national liberation, and so Arafat became the Arab Che Guevara, the kaffiyeh substituting for the beret.

In 1974, he turned up at the United Nations with an empty holster at his hip, announcing, "I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun."

He was showered with honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize, and was feted around the world, especially in Paris.

It speaks volumes about France's Arab predicament that Jacques Chirac paid a visit to Arafat's hospital bed Thursday. The French President felt obliged either by domestic politics or his own world view to honor one of the 20th-century's great killers.

This kind of terrorist chic became less respectable after 9-11, and in Arafat's case especially because he had walked away, at Camp David in 2000, from the most generous Israeli peace offer that any Palestinian could ever have hoped for. Instead, Arafat re-launched the intifada, now in its fourth year.

It is difficult to assess what comes next for the Palestinians. The scenarios range from civil war - Hamas against PLO, various PLO factions against each other, local clans against the "Tunisians" (the Fatah members who came with Arafat from Tunisia) - to a relatively smooth transition to a new leader. But for any transition to succeed it will have to shed the system of corruption and perpetual terror that Arafat created.

Nonetheless, after years of blood and hopeless talk, the prospects for Mideast peace are better than at any time since Oslo in the early 1990s. Having watched Israel's democracy flourish next door and seeing events in Iraq and Afghanistan, some brave Palestinians may see this as the time to come forward. Arafat's death will at least make that possible.

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