Newsweek gave Yasser Arafat their cover this week. The Washington Post wistfully wrote that he "died having never realized his lifelong dream of achieving an independent Palestinian state." And CNN pointed out that he "was seen by many Israelis as a ruthless terrorist and a roadblock to peace." Really? Just by Israelis? The New York Times later ran a correction to his obituary, saying "it is not known whether Mr. Arafat personally ordered" the attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics, even if "[a] group under his authority has long been blamed for the killings." And rest assured, the terrorists who seized the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and executed wheelchair-bound American Leon Klinghoffer were only "loosely linked to Mr. Arafat's organization." How did a thug and terrorist become so respectable in death?
Years before Israel took control of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, a young Yasser Arafat, studying to become an engineer in Cairo, resolved to become the heroic liberator of Palestine. He was strongly influenced by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Islamic mufti of Jerusalem who was tightly aligned with Hitler and planned to import his genocidal program to Palestine. With Algerian independence as a model, he formed an ersatz armed militia called Fatah (an Arab acronym for "conquest") that began border raids against Israel in 1965. It wasn't an entirely successful affair: the first Fatah "martyr" was actually killed by Jordanian border guards, while Egypt denounced the group as a Western-Zionist plot to provide Israel with a pretext to attack Arab states.
Failure could have been Yasser Arafat's middle name. Before his triumphant return from Tunis, the Palestinian economy actually flourished. According the World Bank, in 1999 the Palestinian per capita income was amongst the very highest of Arab states, double that of Syria and four times that of Yemen…but only because it was integrated with the region's richest economy, Israel.
Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the U.S. has given nearly $1.3 billion in economic assistance to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Arab states transfer now about $55 million monthly, and the E.U. sends $9 million. If the Palestinian Authority has received $5.5 billion, and it rules over 3 million Palestinians, a quick calculation leaves us with $1,833 per person. By comparison, the Marshall Plan provided $272 per European in today's dollars. Where has all this money gone? Well, remember the Karine A, the fifty-ton shipment of weapons purchased from Iran in January 2002? That's part of the problem. And next time you see a picture of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) headquarters in Ramallah, take a careful look at the types of cars parked out in front. Land Rovers? Mercedes-Benzes? Generous gifts from leading European automakers, perhaps? Arafat made Forbes's list of world billionaires, under the heading of "Kings, Queens and Despots."
If absconding with money seemed Arafat's first career goal, the other was advocating for the destruction of the state of Israel. Leading Middle East expert Efaim Karsh explained Arafat's mindset: "To military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, war was the continuation of politics by other means. To Yasser Arafat, peace has been the continuation of war by other means." Though the former Palestinian Liberation Organization leader wanted the world to believe that he had undergone a reform, his dealings with Israel always proved otherwise. He was a master at manipulating the meaning of Arabic language to present "sincere peaceful intentions." On May 10, 1994, a year after signing the Oslo peace agreement on the White House lawn, he stood in a Johannesburg mosque and called for a jihad on Jerusalem: "Jihad [Islamic holy war] will continue, and Jerusalem is not [only] for the Palestinian people, it is for all the Muslim nation."
Arafat fabricated elements of his life to strengthen his ties to the Palestinian cause. He has claimed to have been born in Jerusalem, yet told Playboy in a 1988 interview, "I was born in Gaza. My mother died when I was four, and I was sent to live with my uncle in Jerusalem. I grew up there, in the old city. The house was beside the Wailing Wall." Biographers have shown he was born in Cairo in 1929, and this is what his birth certificate says, but still he denied it.
Even the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said characterized Arafat by saying, "[Arafat] has appealed not to his people's best instincts, but to their worst." Arafat embodied the Palestinian cause in every aspect of his persona—his brash speech, his uniform and holstered pistol, his kafiya and his half-beard—by now so familiar as to become self parody. In 1974, the only armed individual to address the U.N. armed. Bin Laden can only dream of becoming, like Arafat, a terrorist Nobel laureate. One of Arafat's famous quotes is that, "there is no resignation as a revolutionary. You have either the choice to win, or be killed as a martyr."
Unable to produce soldiers that could fight and win, the Arab states allowed Yasser Arafat to sink the region into the nihilistic worship of death. Arafat understood that the only way the world would pay attention to him was through terrorism, and he has masterminded some of history's most appalling acts of terrorism as he pioneered suicide bombings, plane hijackings, and seizures of schools. Yet, he was always carefully maintained a distance of plausible deniability. As biographer Barry Rubin writes, "[Arafat] was so adept at concealing his links with terrorism and avoiding any penalty for such behavior that Western intelligence officials were beginning to call him the 'Teflon terrorist.'"
The most horrific of all might have been the infamous Black September unit which shocked the world by entering the Israeli delegation's compound at the 1972 Munich Olympics to take hostages. They murdered two in their rooms, while others died during the botched rescue attempt. American intelligence was sure that Arafat was behind the group but they could never link him directly.
Yasser Arafat never opted to change his ways and allow for reform—he was a tyrant, and like all tyrants, too consumed with himself rather than his people. Maybe now, some suggest, the Palestinian Authority will be able to re-evaluate their priorities. They forget that while Arafat may have embodied the cause, there were many in his service. The regime remains.
Unfortunately, Arafat was allowed to die from natural causes after a long career. The message sent to terrorists everywhere is that they can manipulate Western fecklessness and someday they too may become honored statesman on the international stage. But if the United States remains firm in the defense of our principles, some of us may live to see the day when terrorists and tyrants will be as scarce on earth as they are in heaven.