As the pictures of the human waves have shown, not only his supporters grieved over his death. The more than 100,000 who converged in the Ramallah funeral included many who opposed his political line to various degrees. Even those who categorically opposed his idiosyncratic policy of “la-am,” or yes-no, found themselves sharing in this communal sense of loss and sorrow. Arafat was more than just a leader. He was beyond doubt an emblematic Palestinian phenomenon that will not be replaced anytime soon.
Beyond the typical veneration of symbols, Arafat had another attribute that gave him his revered status in the minds and hearts of a majority of Palestinians: his assumption of the role of the political frame of reference. What Arafat did was, more often than not, perceived as somehow linked to a plan to achieve liberation and justice. People joked about, even derided his tactics at times, but he was the lowest common denominator among the diverse Palestinian political parties. He was the closest to the average person’s analysis of the situation: emotive, not always rational, indulging in an exaggerated, but widely popular sense of autonomy. One Palestinian refugee once put it as such: “He speaks like us, without those big words that meant absolutely nothing to us. He is truly one of us.”
And when you are the reference point, you can afford to shift your position at will. More or less. That’s why only Arafat was able to shake hands and sign less-than-just interim deals with Israeli leaders of all convictions — including accused war criminals — without being seriously accused of treason. He always commanded the popular benefit of the doubt. This is precisely why only Yasser Arafat could deliver the two-state solution mentioned in numerous peace initiatives. Such a solution, by its very nature, falls far short of the minimal requirements of justice for Palestinians. Besides having passed its expiry date, it was never a moral solution to start with. In the best-case scenario, if UN resolution 242 were meticulously implemented, it would have addressed most of the legitimate rights of less than a third of the Palestinian people over less than a fifth of their ancestral land. More than two thirds of the Palestinians, refugees plus the Palestinian citizens of Israel, have been dubiously and shortsightedly expunged out of the definition of the Palestinians to make this happen. Such exclusion can only guarantee the perpetuation of conflict.
Even that was not on offer from anyone. Israel, with full and unflinching backing from the US, insisted on bantustanizing Palestinian territories, feverishly expanding Jewish colonies, stubbornly denying any responsibility for the Nakba (1948 catastrophe of dispossession) and along with it the right of Palestinian refugees to return, even refusing to recognize the Gaza strip and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) as occupied territories, as stipulated in international law. What Israel demanded was capitulation. Nothing less. Arafat was not ready to sign on the dotted line, so he was severely punished. He went under with the memorable legacy of refusing to surrender. Thus the outpouring of sincere emotions by the mass of distraught Palestinians biding him farewell. “He preferred to die than to submit,” many lamented.
Any future replacement of Arafat will have far less tolerance from a battered, impoverished and yet determined constituency. By definition, he will lack Arafat’s unique historic clout, will garner less political support and will command far less popular backing; therefore, he will be quite vulnerable to public wrath in case he decides to even match Arafat’s compromises, not to mention offer more concessions to Israel, as required to become “relevant” in the Israel-US club. Who would dare?
After Israel wakes up from its delusional euphoria over Arafat’s death it will realize that it has lost its very last opportunity to impose on the Palestinians its own peace. Rather than accepting any settlement with the hope that their trusted leader will use it as a launching pad to achieve more far-reaching successes, now Palestinians will start recognizing any peace decoupled from justice for what it is: morally reprehensible and politically unacceptable. As a result, it will be pragmatically unwise as well. It may survive for a while, but only after it has been stripped of its essence, becoming a mere stabilization of an oppressive order, or what I call the master-slave peace, where the slave has no power and/or will to resist and therefore submits to the dictates of the master, passively, obediently, without a semblance of human dignity. This last so long as the slave has no power or will to resist. But only until then.
With Arafat’s burial, the two-state solution will bite the dust. No one will dare break this piece of news, as too many have too much to lose if they admit it. But Israel will soon have to reckon with more and more Palestinians calling for a democratic, unitary state where Israeli-Jews and Palestinian-Arabs share equal rights and duties, after doing away with colonial oppression, ethnic supremacy and apartheid, and after the refugees are allowed to return. And if South Africa is any guide, such a struggle may exclude armed resistance, favoring non-violent means instead. How will Israel start to counter such a call on the world stage? Insisting on Jewish ethno-religious exclusivity will further entrench in the world public opinion the image of Israel as an anachronistic, pariah state, a new form of apartheid. Evoking the Holocaust may help Israel deflect any serious consideration of this democratic alternative for a while, but this is bound to crack under pressure from many parties interested in reaching an enduring and just peace in this troubled region.
Palestinians realize that a transient phase of chaos, indecisiveness and perhaps internal strife may descend upon them after Arafat’s departure from the scene, but no birth comes without contractions. Those may well be the first signs of the next era: the struggle towards a democratic, secular state in historic Palestine.
Omar Barghouti is an independent political analyst based in Palestine.