Rest, But Not in Peace

Posted: Nov 09, 2004 12:00 AM

If Billy Joel is correct and only the good die young, then we may yet have a few more years of Yasser Arafat. He?s only 75 years old, after all.

But all signs point to a ?deathwatch,? as Fionnualla Sweeney put it on CNN. So whether Arafat lies in his French hospital bed for a few more hours, a few more days or a few more decades, I?ve come not to praise Arafat -- the mass media will surely have plenty of that after he passes -- but to bury him. And not in Jerusalem or Gaza or the West Bank or wherever. In the mind of the public.

The world?s intellectual elite have hailed Yasser Arafat as a man of peace. That goes to prove how out of touch with reality they can become. For example, the Nobel Committee gave Arafat its coveted Peace Prize in 1994 -- an award he shared with Israelis Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. But while Rabin and Peres really did want peace, Arafat was just pretending.

He proved that when, in 2000, he walked away from U.S.-brokered peace talks. Israel had offered Arafat more than 90 percent of the disputed territories and control over the Temple Mount in the heart of Jerusalem -- as an opening offer. Instead of taking that and negotiating more, Arafat left and launched an intifada. So far his war has killed more than 1,000 Israelis and -- ironically -- even more Palestinians.

Still, the Nobel committee has declined to withdraw its ?peace prize.? 

Arafat, the supposed statesman, was the most frequent international visitor to Bill Clinton?s White House. He led Clinton to believe he wanted a peace agreement, only to surprise the president by abandoning him at Camp David. Even Clinton, who wanted a peace deal to secure his legacy on the world stage, admitted that Arafat had torpedoed the talks.

Still, it came as no surprise to anyone who?d followed Arafat?s career as a terrorist. It was Arafat?s organization that carried out the attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

And he hasn?t always aimed his attacks at Jews. In 1970 Arafat led a coup against King Hussein in Jordan. When that was broken up, he fled to Lebanon and took part in the 1975-76 civil war. His involvement in Lebanon eventually drew Israel into that conflict. Arafat was again forced to run and took refuge in Tunisia in 1982.

Still, he?s a survivor. In 1992 he lived through a plane crash. Perhaps that glimpse of his own mortality is what drove him to begin peace talks with the Israelis. He was willing to sign the 1993 Oslo peace accords -- but never willing to live up to them.

Arafat vowed to crack down on terrorists, but instead set up revolving door prisons. He promised to prepare his people for peace. Instead he preached violence, praised suicide bombers, and, through the Palestinian school system, taught children to hate Israelis.

His greatest failure may come after his death. While making himself a virtual dictator, Arafat has failed to set up a line of succession, which is critical in any governmental structure.

Think about it this way: When President Bush choked on a pretzel in 2002, the world knew about it within hours. That incident eventually became fodder for journalists including Dana Milbank, who tucked it into a May 22 story about the president?s supposed athletic mishap.

But, had Bush died, we all know that Dick Cheney would have taken over as president. In our system, the lines of authority and power are clear. Not so in the Palestinian Authority.

After Arafat dies, members of his Fatah group are likely to square off with the terrorist group HAMAS. That violence would be another part of Arafat?s bloody legacy.

Dennis Ross, who was President Clinton?s main negotiator for the Middle East, says there will have to be elections to pick a successor. But Palestinians haven?t voted for a leader since 1996, when Arafat stage-managed his own election.

Sadly, despite the billions of dollars the world community has poured into the Palestinian territories since Oslo, democracy there has been ?one and done.? Once elected, Arafat essentially made himself president for life. Arafat, not wanting a rival, has failed to prepare for an orderly transition.

The world probably will never locate some tens of millions of dollars given to the Palestinian Authority. It has disappeared into Arafat?s personal accounts. Indeed, whenever he leaves the earth, Yasser Arafat?s legacy seems secure: Terrorist, murderer, swindler, dictator.

If you hear leaders of the ?international community? singing his praises in days or weeks to come, remember this: He?s fooled ?em one final time.