by Afif Safieh
Yasser Arafat was not infallible, yet he was a great man — undeniably one of the greatest of the second half of the 20th century. Throughout his political career, he was the object of relentless campaigns of character assassination, not because of who he was, but because of what he represented. He was the embodiment of the Palestinian people whose mere existence was a monumental nuisance to those who coveted Palestine — a people threatened with historical oblivion, geographically occupied and demographically dispersed.
Arafat was the architect of the resurrection of the Palestinian national movement in the mid-1960s and was its prime mover for almost 40 years. He was our own Palestinian De Gaulle; like De Gaulle, he had to struggle against foes and friends alike to maintain the status of Palestine and of the Palestinians undiminished. Throughout those decades, the tragedy was the absence of an Arab Churchill and an Arab Roosevelt. But that is another story.
A ‘Generous’ Offer?
Making history is extremely important. So is interpreting history and disseminating one’s own version of it. We Palestinians are still suffering an uphill struggle because of the travesty history made of Ehud Barak’s pseudo-generous offer. We should never again lose the battle of the diversity of versions.
Today we are being told that, because Arafat is out of the way, there is a window of opportunity to revitalize the peace process and that, because Arafat is out of the picture, the Palestinian people will finally familiarize themselves with democracy and elections. History will record that it was Arafat who led, and preserved, the multiparty system that is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). History will also record that, de spite the tremendous pressures both regional and international, Arafat always stood firm against the elimination of the pluralistic nature of the national movement. And in 1996, in addition to his revolutionary and historical credentials, Arafat also acquired democratic legitimacy in an internationally monitored and competitive presidential election in which he ran against Mrs. Samiha Khalil, the director of the biggest NGO in Palestine.
A Convergence of Factors
As for the reactivation of the peace process, here in London we still remember Tony Blair’s speech at the end of September  to the annual conference of the British Labor Party: “Come November,” he said, “I will make it my personal priority...” Arafat was not even sick then. There was then in the air, in the offing, the idea of a joint visit to Ramallah by the three major foreign ministers of the European Union: Jack Straw, Joschka Fischer and Jacques Barnier, in order to help restore President Arafat’s freedom of movement, out of his captivity in the Muqata’a.
The reactivation of the peace process today is not due to the death of Arafat, but is the result of the convergence of three factors:
* Now that President George W. Bush has secured his place in the White House for a second mandate, he might also want to secure his place in history;
* There is immense European and international exasperation with the self-inflicted impotence of the American administration for the past four years, which has resulted in the irresponsible deterioration of the situation in Palestine and Israel;
* There is a growing awareness around the world that what is poisoning international relations and creating a rift with the Arab and Muslim worlds is the unresolved Palestinian tragedy, and the perceived American complacency and complicity with the Israeli territorial appetite.
Reforms, Leadership and Maturity
Palestinians are told they will have to reform. Indeed, reforms are a Palestinian expectation, a Palestinian aspiration, a Palestinian right, and even a Palestinian duty. But reforms are not going to be a precondition imposed on us by the outside world. The American political system, for example, far from being an enticing democracy, is increasingly turning into a “mediocracy” where lobbies can hijack American foreign policy, and where interest groups have totally domesticated and tamed an undignified political establishment.
These past weeks, most commentators [on Arafat’s passing], knowingly or unknowingly, repeatedly referred to or quoted Max Weber who wrote more than a century ago about the three phases of leadership and legitimacy:
* The traditional leadership;
* The charismatic leadership;
* The institutional leadership.
We have had a traditional leadership — prior to 1948. We have just witnessed the end of the charismatic era. Now begins the institutional phase. With the world as our witness, we have had a very smooth transition and the Palestinian people have demonstrated enormous maturity and a great sense of responsibility.
I once asked Arafat (Abu Ammar), “What was your happiest day?” to which he answered, almost poetically, “My happiest day? I haven’t lived it yet.” Abu Ammar was an individual, an idea and an institution, all at the same time. The individual is perishable. The idea will prove to be immortal, and through the institutions he helped create, his people will soon live that happiest day, which eluded him but to which he dedicated his whole life.