Who can put right Arafat's failures?

The obsequies for Yasser Arafat were remarkable, both in their scale and in their extremes. One would have thought that he was a respected head of state rather than a leader who started well but who ultimately failed. A week of reflection provides the possibility of a more balanced assessment. Essentially Arafat is another in the long line of liberation movement leaders who are temperamentally incapable of becoming politicians, let alone statesmen. It includes Mohammed Jinnah in Pakistan, Ben Bella in Algeria, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Lech Walesa in Poland and, still exhibiting the syndrome, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Perhaps one ought not to be surprised, given the very different temperament required for the different roles.

The problem is that, along with the territory, comes a messianic complex, fed continually by those who depend on the leader retaining power. Consequently it is exceptionally difficult to get rid of a leader whose time has passed but who is held in affection by the masses kept in ignorance of his defects. By any objective standard the Palestinian' situation today is significantly worse than it was when Arafat became the acknowledged leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1969. It is not easy to determine a precise point at which he became a liability, but it perhaps came as the first intifada gained momentum in 1988 and the opportunity for political advance opened up. Certainly by January 1996 and the time of the first democratic elections for the Rais, or president, and of the 84 members of the Palestinian Authority, any one of a number of intelligent, capable Palestinian men and women would have been more able to grasp the chance of a constitutional settlement beneficial to both sides.

The present Prime Minister, Ahmed Qureia, the former PM, Mahmoud Abbas, the Foreign Minister, Nabil Sha'ath, the late Faisal Husseini, Hannan Ashrawi, Saeb Erekat and Marwan Barghouti ? the last currently in prison in Israel having been convicted of terrorist killings - would all have been a shrewder tactician in the tense but positive political circumstances of ten years ago, but no single individual was allowed to acquire a public status which might challenge Arafat. If it is true that one key attribute of a leader is that he, or she, ensures that there are those encouraged to show the qualities to succeed him, or her, then Arafat dismally failed the test.

Arafat's forte was guerilla tactics and it is arguable that some of the targets were legitimate though others were clearly not. What is more apparent is that Arafat was increasingly unable to distinguish between the two. Also it takes a rather perverse skill to have one's liberation movement expelled from both Jordan and Lebanon. The fiery charismatic leader of the sixties and seventies transmuted into the follower of the militants, balancing the apparent efforts to seek peace and to condemn attacks on civilians, whilst using the activities of the Al Aqsa brigade as an increasingly militant arm of his own Fatah movement, and as an internal counter to the support won by Hamas outside Arafat's influence.

Tactically the Palestinians under Arafat were outmanoeuvred by the Israelis. It was not only a question of the massively superior fire power of the Israelis but their willingness to advance incrementally - the "facts on the ground" argument - so that piecemeal gains of land were settled and consolidated, leading to the next advance. In contrast the Palestinian sought to achieve complete victory in a single operation, believing forlornly that the Arab nations would rise in their support. In this context the rejection of Ehud Barak's proposals at Camp David was difficult to understand. It is not for non-Palestinians to decide what compromises are acceptable,  and there were certainly defects in the Camp David plan - continuing Israeli control of all airspace, all the coastline and the border with Egypt, for instance - but it would have represented significant gains on which to build. The outcome, with the second intifada following Sharon?s provocative activities at the Muslim's holy site of Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and the subsequent Israeli re-occupation of the West Bank, has been ever more painful. In addition, Arafat's support of Saddam Hussain in the first gulf war was a huge tactical error which lost him significant support amongst erstwhile allies.

Arafat was no democrat and was always ready to undertake repressive action to maintain his control. In recent months, for the first time, there were rumblings of opposition to Arafat amongst younger activists, but, as the massive demonstrations showed during his final illness and after his death, he retained the affection and support of the vast majority of his people.

The future is now an open book. Already Ahmed Qureia has spoken of new opportunities. Certainly Israel will miss its Palestinian hate figure who has been a valuable scapegoat for intransigence and for reprisals. An election will be held on 9 January for a new President and the Israelis and the Americans have spoken of their willingness to work with whomever is democratically elected. Whether that would extend to Marwan Barghouti were he to run for election from his prison cell remains to be seen.

A voters' register exists but the demolitions and the increase in the number of checkpoints will make the electoral logistics difficult. I was in charge of the international observation of the 1996 election in Jerusalem and the Israeli military there behaved atrociously to inhibit the Palestinians in the eastern part of the city from voting. Already an Israeli spokesman has asserted that the Palestinians of East Jerusalem will not be able to vote. Any such attempt to thwart the open exercise of the democratic process would be unacceptable and counter productive. The Palestinians need and deserve a leader freely elected with authority to halt violence and to negotiate a way out of the present desperate impasse.

14 November 2004