Scott B. MacDonald
a region already filled with political upheaval, the news
that the 75-year old Yasser Arafat is dead does not bode
well. This is not to say that the long-time Palestinian leader
was a man of peace. Rather, the risk is that his legacy is
one of chaos and civil war among the Palestinians, which
has implications well beyond the confines of the Gaza Strip
and West Bank. Arafat is the last of the Nasserites, who
came to age in the aftermath of European dominance. Like
Egypt’s Nasser, Syria’s Assad and Algeria’s
FLN leadership, Arafat’s orientation was Arab nationalism,
socialist economics and alignment with the Soviet Union during
the Cold War. It is important to emphasize that this placed
him in the secular camp, not the radical Islamic camp. Although
he mouthed the Islamic rhetoric, his closest allies are secular
and, perhaps most telling, his wife is Christian (though
officially she converted to Islam but has lived in Paris
with the couple’s daughter for the past three years).
The Arafat legacy cuts two ways. His stubborn nature helped create a Palestinian
nation such as it is. At the same time, his stubbornness also guaranteed that
the experiment in government was dysfunctional and dependent on his personality.
With no clear-cut successor and a weak core of followers within his Fatah party,
his departure from the West Bank for Paris leaves behind a very fluid political
situation. Waiting on the sidelines is Hamas, a well-defined political movement
centered around radical Islam and with a proclivity for terrorist actions.
As the Arafat era appears to be drawing near, the next step is probably going
to be an intense and bloody contest for leadership within the Palestinian community.
This is not a positive for the Palestinians, Israelis or anyone hoping for
stability in the Middle East.