His Death Will Not Bequeath Life

Yasser Arafat fought for an eminently just cause - liberation from the yoke of a cruel occupation, even if the means he used were not always moral or just. But his death will not bequeath life to us.

A meeting with Yasser Arafat has always been an unusual experience, fraught with contradictions. A warm and congenial arch-terrorist; an enemy who fights a country whose flag he wears on his lapels; a corrupt leader whose work environment and life-style exude an air of asceticism; an historical leader who displays shocking ignorance on a variety of issues.

You enter into his modest office in the destroyed Muqata, take a seat on the visitors' sofa, and hardly notice the small man submerged behind his desk, hidden behind a pile of papers. It is hard to know whether these too are not merely cheap props on the set, alongside the ridiculous collection of pins he wears, which includes a flag of Israel intertwined with the Palestinian flag - the pin of the "Israel-Palestine" council.

Suddenly he turns to you, and you are in the embrace of a warm, effusive, caressing man. His joking and teasing are reminiscent of the private Ariel Sharon, who knows how to extend charming hospitality at Sycamore Ranch, and look after your every need. At mealtime, Arafat will not leave you alone. He himself eats sparingly, but heaps more and more food on your plate, like an over solicitous Jewish mother.

Is this the man whose appearance in uniform and keffiyeh has become one of the world's most renowned images - more familiar even than the face of George Bush? His legs are never at rest, moving nervously in his seat. His hands, which most Israelis can only see as bloodstained, are lily-white. Is this the master-terrorist? Why then has he never stopped speaking of peace?

At the end of the meeting, after lavishing splendid gifts on you, you tally up your impressions, and discover that he didn't say very much. He repeated over and over again a few odd, if not to say bizarre stories, such as the story of the Shin-Bet's involvement in the terror attack near Beit-Lid; or about his childhood among Jewish children in Jerusalem.

You received no direct and pertinent answers to your questions, apart from the usual hackneyed slogans. Try to ask him about his feelings, his overarching world view, or a book he has read. Arafat's demise at this time would not bode well for anyone. We may miss him yet, but Israel has certainly made a miss of him. During the past four years when Israel humiliated him into the dust by imprisoning him, during the years when he was proclaimed politically dead, and now physically, the country has come not even one step closer to peace and security. Is our situation better today than before he was ostracized?

However, even the humiliation is now deeper than ever. The carnival preceding his death is yet another step in the de-humanization of all Palestinians. Would we dare speak about the burial place of another leader before he had died? And by what right do we allow ourselves to decide not only where he will live, but also where he will die? Or to announce that he was worthy of a crueler death, as MK Aryeh Eldad said? A diabolical doctor who is entrusted with the sanctity of human life, but pronounces "good riddance" at the death of a person.

Why did Israel apparently not offer medical treatment, at least? A shame, considering that Israel is responsible for the welfare of residents under occupation, according to the Geneva convention.

Israel accuses Arafat of having blood on his hands, but is there any less blood on the hands of own its leaders, who have led a campaign these past years where hundreds of women and children were killed? Arafat chose the path of terror, when no other military option was open to him, and when the chances of reaching a just settlement with Israel, without bloodshed, were nil. The terror, it must be honestly said, put the fact of occupation on the agenda, exactly like the liberation struggles of other peoples.

We should have talked and talked with Arafat, and not given up at any point, especially when he crossed the Rubicon by recognizing the State of Israel, a step that we never properly appreciated. His humiliation was the humiliation of his entire people, which never accomplished any positive results.

As a founding father, he could permit himself to be more moderate than his successors will dare to. When Zakariya Zubeidi, the commander of the Al-Aqsa Brigades in Jenin, who despises most of the officials in the Palestinian authority, speaks of Arafat, his tone softens. He would never speak out against the founding father, come what may. Zubeidi and those like him will never let any other Palestinian official reach a compromise with Israel.

Despite all his mistakes, which were not few, Israel did not exhaust all chances of reaching an agreement with him. He did not orchestrate the intifada, that much is clear today, and Ehud Barak did not turn over every stone in order to reach a peace agreement.

Those who succeed him will be far worse from Israel's point of view. If Arafat had some respect, possibly even admiration, for Israel's power and achievements, and if the next generation, Marwan Barghouti, knew Israelis up close and developed an ambivalent attitude, trying to talk peace, then disillusioned, turning to violence, the next generation of young Palestinians is lost to peace.

The youngsters in the Palestinian refugee camps never met an unarmed Israeli, one who didn't harass and abuse them. No compromise will be found there. Yasser Arafat fought for an eminently just cause - liberation from the yoke of a cruel occupation, even if the means he used were not always moral or just. But his death will not bequeath life to us.