Ziad Asali
The Baltimore Sun (Opinion)
November 18, 2004 - 12:00am

You would have thought that now that he is gone, we would not have Arafat to kick around anymore, but you would be wrong. The sheer volume of words uttered and written to vilify him and define his legacy in the worst light surly seems excessive for a dead person who was considered irrelevant and “ not a partner.”

Having criticized him publicly and clearly in both Arabic and English, I feel that this persistent attention, may have more to do with hurting the image of the Palestinian people rather than that of their departed leader.

The Palestinians are in the unenviable position of being the only people in the Middle East who might end up without a state. Their sense of nationhood, and their yearning for an independent state, is a legacy of Arafat that no one can deny. It would be a tragedy, if we let the other part of his legacy define the Palestinians in a way that will kill their dream of a free state. His faults are human, not ethnic, racial, national or religious. Now that he is gone, how will the world deal with the new leaders?

Let us state the obvious: the creation of a viable contiguous and free state of Palestine alongside a secure Israel is the only prescription for peace. The security of Israel is just as dependent on this as that of the Palestinians. Any facts on the grounds, or ideas in the minds of powerful people, that preclude this compromise will offer neither peace nor security for all.

The Palestinian top leadership is secular, cosmopolitan, and experienced and it understands this full well. It lacks legitimacy, till it gets elected fairly, and it lacks control of the levers of the machinery of a state. It has no control over land or borders, has no security apparatus, lives on international subsidy and is subjected to internal strife and external vilification. The only superpower left standing makes demands on them that they know they could hardly fulfill but they must. A legacy of resistance to occupation has defined their own struggle as sacrifice, and its excesses as martyrdom. The leadership which understands the world and its demands has to deal with internal challenges from the left and the right in order to survive and govern.

No combination of wisdom, commitment and skills will be enough to make the Palestinian leaders alone succeed in creating their state and making it survive. Understanding, and concrete assistance by the Unites States and its friends as well as Arab States, is necessary but insufficient to help empower a reasonable pragmatic leadership. Assistance, both financial, political and even in terms of security is needed. The United States can help by facilitating negotiations with the Israelis, both to legitimate the leadership, as well as to tackle serious issues. Mobilizing the international community, as well as utilizing international institutions, to offer concrete assistance will strengthen the hand, and enhance the electability, of such a leadership. Israel has a long list of carrots to offer, and sticks to withhold, to improve the quality of life of the Palestinian people, and in so doing, to influence the outcome of elections.

All foreign assistance and support will be for naught if the Palestinians do not do what they alone must do. They must decide their goal with clarity. A Palestinian State, alongside Israel, with minor modifications that are mutually acceptable to both parties, will entail a set of obligations and commitments that have to be articulated and honored.
They include acceptance not just the state of Israel, but its safety and security. The world post September 11 will not accept nuisances of interpretations, it will accept nothing short of abandoning militant means in favor of negotiations and compromise. The political leadership has to assert its control of a unified security apparatus and be accountable for the use of force.

Elections must be held. No source of legitimacy can exceed that of the will of the people.
The United States needs to assure Israeli cooperation in removing all impediments to conducting elections and to negotiate the logistics with the Palestinians. Beyond that the Palestinians have to conduct a fair and transparent election like the one they did in 1996. Real campaigns, with issues and personalities discussed openly, need to take place. The world has a stake in this election and it can gauge its integrity by providing monitors of honorable people above reproach.

The present leadership of the PLO will have to subject itself to the rigors of the campaign against people who may not win but will raise uncomfortable issues. The conventional wisdom is that the PLO will field one candidate, which would give him quite an edge over other competitors. It is quite unlikely that a challenger will emerge from within the PLO, although various currents of opposition might trade their support for an ideological or political price. The Young Turks, in particular, are agitating for a more significant share of the power. Their leader, Marwan Barghouti, is serving time in prison for five consecutive life sentences. Convincing him not to run out of his prison cell will help achieve political gains for his cohorts. Independent candidates are sure to run, more to raise their own profile, and the issues they care about, than to win. Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, the two militant Islamic movements will have a difficult time deciding whether to field a candidate for the Presidency or not. If they do, it might be a tacit acceptance of the Oslo agreement and its two-state offshoot, which they have never done. But if they don’t they will diminish their political role after elections.

For all those who heap calumny on Arafat and his legacy, here is a fair question: Now that he is gone, what are you doing, or saying, to help the new Palestinian leaders build their state and the foundations of peace?



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