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Palestinian President Yasser Arafat Dies in Paris Hospital

November 11, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: For more on Yasser Arafat, his significance and his legacy we’re joined by Martin Indyk, U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration — he’s now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington; Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland — he’s written widely on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Center for Middle East policy at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

We hope to be joined momentarily by, that is, by Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University and author of “Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness.”

Welcome to you all. Shibley Telhami, what kind of a leader was Yasser Arafat?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, he was the man who propelled the Palestinian cause on a world stage, and he made it an international conventional wisdom that a Palestinian state is a necessity for international security.

He’s also the man, oddly enough, who legitimized Israel in the Arab world more than any other leader.

He’s a man who was married to the cause and the good part of that is he sacrificed himself for the cause, but the bad part of that was he found it very hard in the end to separate what’s good for him from what’s good for the cause.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s your assessment, Meyrav Wurmser, of his life and his contribution?

MEYRAV WURMSER: I think as far as his contribution goes, he certainly was the most important player as far as putting the Palestinian national identity on the international map goes.

However, I find him to be one of the more destructive forces all at the same time, a man that really amounted to a great paradox. There is no question that he was very much a symbol for his people of their liberation.

He also became a great tool of their oppression, corruption. I mean, he had turned their semi-state into rather than being an example of the best that it can become, a part of the Arab world with its corruption, with its dictatorship, with its very bad governance.

MARGARET WARNER: Martin Indyk, do you also see him as a paradox?

MARTIN INDYK: Yes, in a slightly different way. He’s — no doubt he will go down in history for what he did to put the Palestinian cause on the international agenda.

But he in effect seared the cause into the consciousness of the world through the innovation of terrorism. And, in the process, he certainly achieved something for the Palestinians.

But then the other side of it is the kind of tragic side is that he was unable to make the transition from this revolutionary struggle for the cause of Palestine to the statesman that would lead his people to peace with Israel and an independent Palestinian state.

And the ultimate tragedy is that when he had the opportunity to become the president of the independent state of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital, he missed that opportunity.

And now instead of being buried in Jerusalem that would be under Palestinian sovereignty, he finds himself laid to rest in that Mukata compound in Ramallah, which became the symbol of his decline into isolation and in effect the kind of irrelevance in terms of the way in which the rest of the world treated him through the last three years.

MARGARET WARNER: Rashid Khalidi, I understand you’re there in New York. I see you now. Thanks for joining us.

We’re just going around for the first time just basically giving — everyone’s giving their assessment of what kind of a leader he was.

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I think it’s unfortunate that the assessments that we tend to hear of Arafat are so colored by one version of the last few years. He’s a man who’s had a career that spans the better part of half a century.

And the two major achievements that I think are to his credit should probably not be entirely dimmed by whatever may be said about his last five or 10 years.

He was a person who more than any single other individual rebuilt the Palestinian national movement after Palestinians society it was completely shattered by the catastrophe of 1948. More than half the Palestinian people were driven from their homes and lost everything they had.

And they had no political center. Arafat and his colleagues gave them that. He then took a movement which was committed to extremist, maximalist, unrealistic program and moved it to political compromise, moved it to a position where it was advocating a two-state solution, a Palestinian state and a small fraction, 22, 23 percent of the land that the Palestinians consider their homeland, side by side with Israel.

Whatever has happened in the last 10 or 15 years, I think has to be set against those indubitable achievements.

MARGARET WARNER: Shibley Telhami, do you — and we heard an interview, and Professor Khalidi you didn’t hear this, but in which Jim Lehrer interviewed him in Tunis in 1989, and he said he accepted the two-state solution. He accepted Israel’s right to exist.

Yet, many of his critics felt he never really did and that that was behind his inability to make the deal and make the compromise as necessary. What’s your view of that?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I believe he actually accepted them. I really do. I think problem even if you look back at the period that led to the collapse of the Camp David negotiations, history is going to pass judgment on what happened.

And I think it’s far more complicated that we’re allowing ourselves to analyze in the short period after that. I think clearly he mismanaged it. But there were a lot of people who were responsible for the failure, as well, and I think including on our side the American side also, the Israelis; I think, in the end, the biggest problem that emerged was not so much how he negotiated and whether he didn’t accept or accepted what was offered at Camp David.

I think the biggest problem was that he at least believed, after the Intifada started, I think spontaneously…

MARGARET WARNER: The second one?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: The second one in the fall of 2000, he did believe, because of the Palestinian weakness, there was a judgment that violence is an instrument that could help because he did believe that the Israelis were trying — they thought the Palestinians were helpless.

By virtue of doing that, he sent a signal that was received differently by the Israelis. And that in a way shattered the entire package of Oslo.

So in that sense that was a strategic mistake that contributed to an emerging assessment of him, both by the Israelis and everyone else, not, I think — I believe he was capable, I still believe he was capable of concluding a deal.

MARGARET WARNER: And that’s how the Israelis saw him, is that right, Ms. Wurmser, that he had decided to use violence as a lever, even though he was publicly saying that he was committed to ending it?

MEYRAV WURMSER: No. It depends first of all what Israelis you’re talking to.

MARGARET WARNER: I guess I should say the government in power at the time.

MEYRAV WURMSER: But I think that the opinion at the time was indeed this. With time it had changed. People in Israel started realizing that Arafat was not using violence as a tactic.

He was about violence. It wasn’t something that he used as the last resort or as, you know, a change of course. He was about that.

When we started reading Palestinian textbooks, when we started watching his speeches to the Palestinian people, when we look at the legacy that this man had left for his people, when we see these people well after Oslo yelling Jihad, we only know that one word, Jihad, Jihad, Jihad, Jihad, like we did…

MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you.

So, in other words, going back to Rashid Khalidi’s point or assertion that he had made this major step, recognizing the need for two states, you think that was not really true, that he was still connected to the destruction of Israel?

MEYRAV WURMSER: That’s exactly it. I think that he had made a tactical step in recognizing the state of Israel.

He realized it will get him what he needed. I don’t think he actually had ever changed.

MARGARET WARNER: Martin Indyk, let me get your view on this. I mean, you dealt with him for a long time. You’re a great student of that part of the world.

You were certainly involved at the time of the Camp David Accords. I don’t want to get into an argument about whether the deal was good or not, but what is your view about why he was unable to step up to the challenge and opportunity that that six-month period at the end of 2000 with both President Clinton and Ehud Barak so eager or ready to make a compromise?

Why he couldn’t step up to that and do what had to be done?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, you know, we were told throughout this period that the reason we needed to do the deal with Arafat, and the Arab leaders were particularly strong on this, was that he was the only one who would be able to make the compromises necessary to bring off a deal.

And we operated on that assumption, but when it came to the crunch, it turned out that he wasn’t prepared to do that.

And there are some specific reasons at the time, I think, which is a little hard to go into at this time, but the more strategic reasons, I think, lie in the fact in something that Rashid said: He was a man who unified all of the factions of the Palestinians.

That was his great claim to leadership. He was a consensus builder. He was never prepared to confront those, even those who bitterly opposed his way forward. It was against his very nature and against his politics.

And at the same time, he was — he still saw value in using violence to achieve his objectives, even though I do think that his objective was a two-state solution by that stage.

So when it came to the critical moment when essentially he had to make a choice, he had to decide whether he was going to stand up in front of his people and tell them that in particular the refugees were not going to be going home back to their homes in Palestine before Israel was created, but that instead they were going to get sovereignty over Arab East Jerusalem and the Haram al-Sharif, that instead of standing up in front of them and saying, this is a good deal, and you should accept it, he preferred to punt, to listen to those people who whispered in his ear that President Bush would get him a better deal.

And that in a sense is part of the tragic nature of this man; that he was in many ways all tactics, and he would make tactical calculations: Get up in the morning, check which way the wind was blowing and set his sail accordingly.

And so at that critical moment when he had to make a decision, Shimon Peres used to say that history is like a horse galloping past your window and you have to decide whether to jump on or not; he had to make that historic decision at that moment — not so simple to jump on a galloping horse out of a window.

But that was the challenge that he had to face. And instead of facing up to it, being encouraged to do that, he decided to go with the consensus, not to break consensus, not to compromise on a critical issue for the Palestinians.

And as a result, he missed the moment and his people are wallowing in misery as a consequence.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Khalidi, I know you’re trying to get in here. Go right ahead.

What’s your view of this, really again not about the ins and outs of the Camp David deal, but about him as a man and leader and why he couldn’t make this leap?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I think this couldn’t make the leap — brings us to the kind of micro history which ends up with blaming the victim, the weakest party is being accused of all kinds of sins here.

I think looking too obsessively at Camp David, looking too obsessively at that juncture begs the question of why we were in the last few months of a 96-month Clinton presidency for the first time in the history of the conflict opening up the hardest issues in the entire range of international diplomacy, Palestinian refugees, water, Jerusalem, borders, sovereignty.

None of these things were touched in the first 90 months that President Clinton was in office.

And during that period, when Arafat did exactly what Martin claims he did not do, when Arafat took a leap of faith, went along with Prime Minister Rabin, went along with first President Bush and Secretary Baker and then with President Clinton, assumed on faith the Palestinians would get a better deal, even though nothing was specified in Oslo, even though nothing was clear during the period when the Palestinians were getting much, much worse off over a period of several years from 1991 to 2000 — the population doubles from two hundred thousand to four hundred thousands; tons of concrete are poured, roads, walls, new settlements; during that period, he was putting people in prison, and to my mind doing things that were unacceptable to…

MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying — because we’re almost out of time. We are almost out of time.

Are you saying, in other words, that it wasn’t a failure of leadership at all on his part?

RASHID KHALIDI: There were many failures of leadership on his part. The failures were not in the summer of 2000. There were failures all around in the summer of 2000.

There was a failure of the entire peace process. And I lay that more at the door of our government and of Israel than I do at Yasser Arafat’s.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, I’m afraid we have to leave it there. Thank you.